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Wednesday, August 25, 2004

The king of the mile

From "Reuters, Agence France-Presse" (Wed, August 25th 2004)

Hicham El Guerrouj claimed the gold medal yesterday that had eluded him in two previous Olympic Games, confirming his status as unquestionably the greatest 1,500 metres runner in history. The 30-year-old Moroccan moved to the front at 800 metres in a bold bid to dictate the race. He was still ahead at the bell, as the field began to accelerate, and held off Kenyan Bernard Lagat in the straight to win in 3 minutes 34.18 seconds. Despite four world titles and world records over both the 1,500 and its imperial equivalent, the mile, a question mark had hung over his ability to perform on the biggest stage of all. El Guerrouj fell just before the bell at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and was beaten in a frenzied sprint finish by Noah Ngeny of Kenya in Sydney four years later.

But all doubts were assuaged yesterday as El Guerrouj crossed the line first. He then embarked on an ecstatic victory lap draped in the Moroccan flag, stopping at one point to dance an impromptu jig as the theme tune from Zorba the Greek thundered through the Olympic Stadium. "I am really happy," El Guerrouj told reporters. "I feel like a baby, a three-month-old baby."

Last Sunday after the semi-finals, he told reporters he was thoroughly confident that Athens would be different from Atlanta and Sydney. "It will be third time lucky for me," he said. "Just wait and see, I'll make you believe me." The world record holder for the metric mile was as good as his word. Nothing was going to stop the man from Berkane. "Hicham had done everything before this competition, world records, world titles, everything except an Olympic gold medal," long-time coach Abdelkader Kada said.

But Kada admitted last night that he was both stunned and delighted that his pupil had finally passed the greatest exam in athletics. "Now, I think he can claim to be the best miler in history. It's what we've been working toward for the past 17 years."

The summer did not get off to a promising start for El Guerrouj, and many feared he was in danger of entering the athletics history books as the greatest middle-distance runner never to win Olympic gold. He pulled out of one race at the start of his planned 2004 racing program and then suffered a surprise defeat in the 1,500 metres at the Rome Golden League meet. El Guerrouj attributed the defeat to bad weather conditions that curtailed preparations at his Atlas Mountains training base. Sources closer to home also said he had suffered sleepless nights after the arrival of his daughter Hiba. Whatever the reason, all was forgotten when he crossed the line yesterday. "He's a great champion," said Lagat, who beat him just more than two weeks ago in Zurich.

Tears flooded down El Guerrouj's face moments after he crossed the line, but they were tears of joy and relief, compared with the ones of frustration that welled up after his two previous Olympics finals. "Only victory can dry the tears of Atlanta and Sydney," he said recently. "Everything I am doing this year is geared toward winning in Athens because I will move up distance soon. There will be younger distance runners coming into this event soon."

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