Hicham El Guerrouj believes his character was defined by his Olympic experiences, after he overcame crushing lows to realise his long-held dream of making his mark on Moroccan history by becoming a double Olympic champion.
El Guerrouj is the subject of an Olympic Channel episode of Legends Live On, which also features double Olympic gymnastics champion Svetlana Khorkina; Pieter van den Hoogenband, who won three titles in the pool; six-time fencing champion Valentina Vezzali; and Uschi Disl, winner of nine biathlon medals over five Olympic Winter Games.
Born in 1974 in Berkane, a small town in north-east Morocco, El Guerrouj made his Olympic debut at Atlanta 1996, where he dreamed of beating Noureddine Morceli, the Algerian triple world 1,500m champion. However, after accelerating at the bell, the 21-year-old collided with Morceli and fell.
He vowed to get better and went on to dominate the event between 1996 and 2000, setting a world record of 3 minutes, 26.00 seconds in 1998 – a record that still stands today. El Guerrouj arrived at the Sydney 2000 Games unbeaten since the Atlanta final, but pressure had taken its toll physically and mentally. He was overtaken on the final straight by Noah Ngeny and had to settle for silver.
However, his morale and desire returned, and he was single-minded in his training and determination to finally get gold at Athens in 2004. He took charge with 800m to go, only for Kenya’s Bernard Lagat to move onto his shoulder and then edge past with 40m left. El Guerrouj, however, was inspired by thoughts of his family and pushed on again to finally take that gold medal.
“When I crossed the finish line I felt incredible, incredible relief,” he said. “All these images of my athletics life were before me. My fall in Atlanta, defeat in Sydney.” There were tears on the podium, and four days later he added the 5,000m title to become the first man since Paavo Nurmi in 1924 to achieve that particular double.
El Guerrouj never competed internationally again and officially retired in 2006. He was an IOC Member from 2004 to 2012 and serves as an ambassador for Peace and Sport, an organisation that is committed to using sport and its values as tools for peace.
He has also organised annual half-marathons and 10km races in his hometown of Berkane and believes in the power of sport to engender social mobility, as this was what helped shape him. “Thanks to the Olympics, I’ve become what I am today.”