News15 Nov 2004

El Guerrouj: the greatest of all time


Hicham El Guerrouj takes his second Olympic gold in Athens (© Getty Images)

The only title that was missing from the great Hicham El Guerrouj's resume prior to the Athens Games was an Olympic gold medal. In the space on nine days in the heat of the Greek capital, El Guerrouj not only won one but two gold medals. By Doug Gillon.

With his championship career at 1500 metres almost certainly consigned to history, Hicham El Guerrouj is looking for new realms to conquer. When he cloaked himself in the gold-tasselled flag of his country, the Moroccan sheikh of the metric mile looked cocooned in a personal paradise. His joy and emotion in Athens was transparent.

Neither four World titles in seven years, nor a catalogue of World records, could adequately define a man who had wept when his two previous Olympic 1500m final appearances had resulted in defeat.

When he fell in 1996, the late King Hassan had phoned and told him, "Don't cry my son. One day you will win the Olympic title. You are a champion in the eyes of the Moroccan people."

In Athens, the royal decree was doubly fulfilled, and so, at last was El Guerrouj. A phone call from the late king's heir, was seal of approval. Now, having achieved Olympic 1500m and 5000m victories, unique in the history of modern athletics, could any man wish for more? Wealth? Respect? The grace and affection of Allah, king, and country? A devoted wife? A family?

El Guerrouj already enjoys all of these.

Yet while he savoured arrival at this blissful oasis, like the most restless nomad of Arabia he was already planning, Inshallah, to move on. His sense of tranquillity seems a mirage. Within a week of his triumphal homecoming, his coach acknowledged he was already surveying fresh horizons.

"Hicham is looking for new challenges, new objectives," confirmed Abdelkader Kada, finally relaxing on a beach. "Hicham wants to explore his limits."

Where might they be? Having at last claimed his destiny, exorcising the 1500m ghosts of Atlanta and Sydney, El Guerrouj's 5000m triumph laid down a more indelible marker. For in this he beat Ethiopia's formidable World record holder, Kenenisa Bekele, and the Kenyan World champion, Eliud Kipchoge.

This, after all, completed an Olympic double only ever achieved once (in 1924) by the Finn, Paavo Nurmi, from the first golden age of endurance running. Only two other runners have ever managed to gain medals in both races: Willie Slijkhuis (Holland, bronze in both 1500m and 5000m) 1948; and Kip Keino (Kenya, gold and silver) 1968.

Five athletes had succeeded six times in what Bekele was attempting at 5000 and 10000m, and 10 further men had won two medals at the same Olympics. This then, was an "easier" double, having been achieved by Hannes Kolehmainen (1912), Emil Zatopek (1952), Vladimir Kuts (1956), Lasse Viren (1972 and 1976), and Miruts Yifter (1980).

Additionally, no less than 10 athletes on 12 occasions had collected two medals in these events: Joseph Guillemot (1920), Vilho Ritola and Edvin Wide (1924); Nurmi, Ritola and Wide (1928), Lauri Virtanen (1932), Alain Mimoun (1952), Hans Grodotski (1960), Naftali Temu and Mohamed Gamoudi (1968), and Kaarlo Maninka (1980).

So much for historical statistics, but here is just one more. Only Nurmi ever won Olympic gold at 1500m, and went on to win again at 10,000m. That's where El Guerrouj is looking now - after Bekele's World 5000 metres record, and the World title at that distance next year in Helsinki.

With the fear of being the greatest athlete never to win Olympic gold laid to rest, neither complacency nor success will blunt the edge of future ambitions.

"All this year, it was my objective to win both titles," said El Guerrouj, "but the 1500 metres gold was the most important. Only 20% of my training was for the 5000. I wasn't thinking about breaking the World record. The next stage will be to do that, next year, to establish a new World record for 5000 metres. Next year I will concentrate on the 5000, and I think I will be able to run the 10,000 metres in Beijing."

Although he had suggested that he might defend his world 1500m title in Helsinki, Kada now discounts this. "I think he may do a few more 1500s, but not championships", said Kada.

"Maybe some domestic races. He really wants to break Bekele's 5000m record. If he does that, and sees how his body copes with the longer distance, I think he will try the 10,000m in Beijing.

"Now that he has run with Bekele, and sees that he is taller, has a longer stride, he wants to explore his own capacity.

"He will run a few races indoors, perhaps 3000 metres, to prepare for fast 5000s outdoors next summer.

"I don't think you should doubt his motivation. After Sydney, it was his intention to move to 5000. Then again in 2001, after Edmonton, but his motivation to prove he was the best in the world, that he could be champion, was very strong. Now it is every bit as strong to break the 5000m World record."

Western journalists who visited his spartan training base 5000 feet up in the Atlas Mountains last spring found snow on the peaks, and El Guerrouj wearing tights and gloves in temperatures just a couple of degrees above freezing. It was far from their presumption of a warm, benign climate.

His 11-mile (18km) morning runs through the cedars of the Curcuil Royale Forest were unsurprising, apart from monkeys and the occasional wild boar, but few imagined sessions of 20x300m in 45 seconds, concluded in twilight drizzle, or even more gruelling repetition runs at 6600 feet on the Hebrie plateau.

For three weeks at a time, for four to five months over the past winter, El Guerrouj retreated to his Ifrane training base. His 19-year-old wife Najoua Lahbil, granddaughter of the head of the first Moroccan cabinet appointed following independence, saw him only at weekends. She is studying business at the University of Akhaouayene, and lives on campus.

"For the two months before the Olympics, they did not see one another at all", says Kada.

El Guerrouj first spotted her on the street, and asked his parents to arrange the marriage. He says he had never spoken to her. It was a week before she agreed. Now she has given him a daughter, Hiba: "Gift of God".

Yet soon after her birth, Hicham surrendered his 29-race unbeaten record since Sydney. It was a near-humiliation as he finished eighth in the Rome Golden League.

A series of allergies (even one triggered by the cedars where he trained) had cost him 25 days' training. He wondered if he had a heart condition, and thought he might die.

"I was waking in the middle of the night, and having to open the window to breathe," he said.

New medication, and the ministrations of Kada and his training partner, Houcine Benzriginet finally prevailed. Benzriginet, whom El Guerrouj says does his job "like a robot", yet never races, has been rewarded with a gift of an apartment in Rabat. Kada says that he and Benzriginet tried to motivate him.

"Though he finished eighth in Rome, I still believed in him," said Kada. "I think the problems were psychological, and they caused the allergies. This can happen when you have stress. It was a big problem. Hicham had allergy problems five or six years ago, but nothing as severe as this. All the time he was thinking about the 1500m in Athens".

El Guerrouj himself hinted at stress before, admitting to a French newspaper after Sydney that he couldn't handle pressure and that he hadn't wanted to race. Kada says he over-trained, which El Guerrouj now acknowledges.

"I was training like a crazy person. There was a lack of self-confidence and a lack of maturity".

Not even Kada was able to make him throttle back, but now they have learned. It was the key to his change in fortunes. If one message in particular sustained El Guerrouj it was from Hassan, a friend in Toulouse.

"He told me, 'In 1997, Athens discovered a prince. Now Athens is going to pay homage to a king'. I was very inspired by this message."

So, a little over a month after he was unsure whether even to go to Greece, his life came full circle: Athens to Athens. The 1997 scene of his first World triumph now welcomed his greatest, celebrated with Zorba's Dance to the plucked chords of the bazouki.

"Best athlete in History" blazed the headlines as Hicham returned home. The phone call from King Muhammad VI, received on the track after the 1500m, was just the start. Following the 5000m there was a dinner at the Moroccan embassy in Athens. The king sent a letter of congratulations.

When he touched down in Rabat there was an airport delegation headed by the sports minister, members of the Olympic committee and Athletics Federation. The cavalcade went directly to the football stadium where Morocco was playing Tunisia. A crowd of 70,000 welcomed him. Najoua was already back at university.

El Guerrouj was certainly aware of his destiny on the Sunday night he completed the double.

"When I came to the stadium, I was thinking of Paavo Nurmi," he said. "He is a great legend, and he has marked history at his point in time. By winning two gold medals like he did, I have marked history at my moment in time."

The lexicon of superlatives for El Guerrouj has been severely tested, but the heirs to his titles, looking back in 2084, will assuredly still talk of the Moroccan legend.

Published in IAAF Magazine Issue 3 - 2004

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