The Olympic Series: A glance back at history of London 2012
August 24, 2004: There was a giant monkey in the Athens Olympic Stadium. You couldn’t see it, but you knew it was there. The beast sat on the shoulders of the world record holder, the four-time world champion, and arguably the greatest never to win Olympic gold, the popular, genial Moroccan Hicham El Guerrouj.
This thing weighing El Guerrouj down had grown over a period of eight years. It had nothing to do with the expectations of the 30 million Moroccans that followed his every move. Nor was it the weight of Morocco’s past performances at the Games. Rhadi Ben Abdesselam was a beaten favourite in the Marathon in 1960, defeated by the bare-footed Ethiopian Abebe Bikila. But that defeat had been erased with Said Aouita’s 5000m gold in Los Angeles 1984, and back-to-back 10000m gold in Seoul and Barcelona to Brahim Boutayeb and Khalid Skah.
The beast that sat on El Guerrouj’s shoulders came from his own tortured Olympic journey. In 1992, as an 18-year-old hailing from the small city of Berkan, situated where the Mediterranean Sea meets the Moroccan-Algerian border, El Guerrouj first announced himself on the international stage winning bronze in the 5000m at the World Junior Championships in Seoul. The gold medallist in that race was a young Ethiopian beginning his own international career, Haile Gebrselassie.
Aged 19, El Guerrouj was a part of Morocco’s World Champion Road Relay team that set a new world record in 1994.
A year later he won gold at the World Indoor Championships in Barcelona, and was second at the world outdoors in Gothenburg to two-time defending champion, and the fastest of all-time, Algerian Noureddine Morceli.
The scene was set for a fascinating Olympic final in Atlanta 1996. It was a physical, tactical battle straight from the gun. El Guerrouj settled seventh, two wide from the inside, after 100 metres. He was then shuffled as far back as ninth and as far forward as fifth through the next two-and-a-half laps, all the while jostling with opponents around him. Morceli, the shortest man in the field, took control with 450 metres to run and El Guerrouj pulled up to his shoulder. But the Moroccan was to be dealt the cruellest of blows. Morceli, at the precise moment the bell rang, got his own feet tangled. The Algerian’s trail leg clipped the calf of his plant leg, his next stride veered into the path of El Guerrouj, who clipped Morceli’s right heel and fell. The Moroccan, the only man to fall as others hurdled and sidestepped him, had gone from second to last in an instant. Morceli had an unassailable lead, created by the carnage behind him, which ensured he would claim gold. El Guerrouj finished 12th, almost in tears trying to reconcile his misfortune.
One could argue Morceli deserved his crown. With three world titles and a world record to his name, the Algerian had not been beaten over 1500m in four years. El Guerrouj, however, had been unjustly denied the chance by the fall.
A month later the Moroccan beat Morceli in a Grand Prix final in Milan. Over the next four years, El Guerrouj would attempt to erase the bitter memories of Atlanta by erasing Morceli’s name from every record book ever written. He would win the next two world titles in 1997 and 1999, on his way to claiming four in a row. In 1997 he broke the indoor world records for both the 1500m and the mile. In 1998 he smashed Morceli’s outdoor 1500m record in Rome, running 3:26.00, 1.37 seconds quicker than the Algerian’s mark. By 1999 he had smashed Morceli’s mile record, his 2000m record, and was the second fastest all-time over 3000m. Sydney, 2000, beckoned as the only conquest left for El Guerrouj before he could truly be judged the greatest of all-time.
But the 1500m is one of the toughest Olympic races to win. The quality of the fields, and the lack of pace making in Olympic finals, makes it one of the most unpredictable spectacles on the track. No Olympic final had been won in under 3:32.00. So the advantage the being a sub-3:30 runner amounts to little without a sacrificial pacemaker to bury the hopes of the slower competitors through first 1000m.
Owning the world record on the start line of an Olympic 1500m final has been far more a poisoned chalice than a guarantor of gold. American Abel Kiviat broke the world record three times in 1912, only to be beaten by Britain’s Arnold Jackson in the Stockholm Olympic final that year. Swede Lennart Strand set a new world mark in Malmo, 1947, a record that would stand for five years, but was second across the line at the 1948 Games in London to countryman Henry Eriksson. American Wes Santee, Australian John Landy, Hungarians Sandor Iharos, Lazslo Tabori, and Istvan Rozsavolgyi, and Denmark’s Gunnar Nielson each lowered the world record in a 25-month stretch between 1954 and the 1956 Games, yet Irishman Ron Delany won gold in Melbourne, with Landy the best of the aforementioned in third. Steve Ovett and Sebastian Coe went to Moscow in 1980 as the world recold holder’s in the 1500m and 800m respectively; they each walked away with gold in the other event. Only two world record holders had ever started an Olympic final and won it, Australia’s Herb Elliot in 1960, and Morceli in Atlanta. Unsurprisingly they were two of the most dominant metric milers in history.
El Guerrouj had been equally dominant when he lined up in Sydney. His major threats would come in the form of two Kenyans. One, a man who had paced and shadowed him through the past four years, Noah Ngeny, the other a youngster who would become one of his greatest foes, Bernard Lagat.
Whenever El Guerrouj raced he always looked relaxed. He ran with a magnificent elegance. Long, languid strides, matched by rhythmical, rolling shoulders, he never looked strained or under pressure. Through the first 1400m of this final he looked like the Hicham El Guerrouj we all knew would win. He got to the front early, upped the pace to sort the men from the boys, and looked the winner as they went through the bell. But Ngeny and Lagat were tracking him and El Guerrouj’s insistence to get to the front and avoid another catastrophe saw him expend too much energy. El Guerrouj faded late. Ngeny pulled up alongside with 50m to run and was never headed. Ngeny celebrated after winning in a new Olympic record. El Guerrouj looked non-plussed, in complete denial of what had just occurred. He sat down quietly, without emotion, and untied his shoelaces. His conqueror, his opponents, all came to shake his hand and commiserate with him. But he scarcely blinked, almost in a catatonic state. He walked through a throng of reporters, sat down in the tunnel, and wept uncontrollably. El Guerrouj had a photo of his despair post-race in Atlanta, which he had carried with him for four years. It had spurred him, driven him to replace it with another of triumph in Sydney. But it was Ngeny who would retire this night an Olympic gold medallist, El Guerrouj had to stare at that photo for another four years.
In 2001, the beast grew bigger. El Guerrouj won an indoor world title over 3000m in March, a third outdoor 1500m World Championship in Edmonton in August, and he went within 12-one hundredths of breaking his own world record in Brussels. It grew larger again by the close of 2003. He won another world title in Paris and claimed silver in the 5000m. He also completed an unprecedented treble, winning the IAAF Golden League prize three years running. He had gone three seasons unbeaten. No athlete in any discipline had matched that feat in the Golden League era.
But 2004 seemed perhaps a bridge too far for the Moroccan. He endured an indifferent start to the season in his 30th year. He ran eighth in a 1500m race at the Golden League event in Rome. Then twenty days out from the Athens Olympic Games, El Guerrouj was narrowly beaten by Lagat in the fastest race of the season in Zurich.
Three weeks shy of his 30th birthday El Guerrouj was looked as nervous as ever on the start line in Athens. The guerrilla on his back was weighing a tonne. Lagat looked calm, but equally nervous next to him.
They started and would finish together, but through 700m they were as far apart as could be. Lagat was on the front, El Guerrouj four wide near the rear before he shifted gear and blew the race open. The Moroccan, as he had done in Sydney ran a 53-second split between the 800m-mark and the 1200m-mark, but again you wondered if he had expended too much energy. Lagat tracked him the whole way. Ukrainian Ivan Heshko strained every sinew to hang onto the Kenyan’s heals. Portugal’s Rui Silva was flying up with a rush. But with 100m to go it was a carbon copy of Sydney, El Guerrouj in front, Lagat, like Ngeny had, pulled up to his shoulder and edged ahead with 50m to run. You feared the worst. Not again. It surely could not happen again. But Lagat slowed, El Guerrouj edged back in front and finally won the title he had coveted for eight long years.
There were tears again. Tears of pure joy, relief, and elation. El Guerrouj slumped to his knees; Lagat knelt down to embrace him, for even the vanquished Kenyan knew what the moment meant to the Moroccan.
Four days later, El Guerrouj won the Olympic 5000m. He became the first man since Finland’s Parvo Nurmi in 1924 to win the 1500m-5000m double at an Olympic Games. The heartbreak of Atlanta and Sydney dissipated in four momentous days in Athens.
He retired a champion. He had gone from the greatest never, to the best of all-time.