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28 Aug 2004

El Guerrouj conquers his Olympic demons

Hicham El Guerrouj had every reason to feel nervous as he prepared for Athens. It wasn't that he had any doubts in his own ability; after all he was widely regarded to be the greatest middle-distance runner in the world. However, the Moroccan was haunted by memories of the previous two Olympic Games, when the he had been dogged by misfortune.

In 1996, as the rising star of middle-distance running, El Guerrouj had fallen over following a clash with Algeria’s Noureddine Morceli. Morceli went on to win, while El Guerrouj finished last. Four years later, having come into the 1,500m as favourite, he lost a thrilling race for the line to the unheralded Kenyan Noah Ngeny.

In between those two editions of the Games, though, El Guerrouj had excelled. He won the world championship title four times in a row and set world records in both the 1,500m and the mile. Going into the 2004 Olympic season his record over the previous eight years stood at 84 wins from 87 races. Arguably the main challenge came from inside his own head. Could he exorcise the ghost of his previous Olympic woes?

His greatest rival for 1,500 gold this time around was expected to be the Kenyan Bernard Lagat. Sure enough, it was the two men who were at the front in the closing stages of the final. With 200m to go, they were neck and neck, with El Guerrouj moving slightly ahead, only for Lagat to respond. The Kenyan was in front halfway up the home straight but El Guerrouj then found a final reserve of strength and determination to push himself back into the lead, and he crossed the line a mere 0.12 seconds ahead of the Kenyan. He collapsed to the track in tears, before jumping into the stand to hug his wife and baby daughter. Finally, he had his gold medal.

But he wasn't finished yet. El Guerrouj had also chosen to enter the 5,000m final. And four days after winning the 1,500m, he lined up in his second final against the 10,000m champion Kenenisa Bekele of Ethiopia, another of the world's great distance runners. El Guerrouj spent most of the race in the chasing pack, happy to rely on his strong finish and concentrating on keeping out of trouble or being boxed in. Bekele, after all, had Ethiopian team-mates to help him, while El Guerrouj was the only Moroccan in the field.

With half a lap to go, Bekele made his move at the front; El Guerrouj reacted immediately. He chased down his rival, drew level and then pulled away to win by 0.2 seconds. He was the first runner to win both the 1,500m and the 5,000m at the same Olympics since the legendary Finn Paavo Nurmi in 1924.

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