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September 29, 2000
El Guerrouj upset in 1500mThe Rediff Team
This was supposed to be, along with the showdown in the long jump pit, the event of the day. The men's 1500m, to determine the world's fastest man over the metric mile.
The starters were: Hicham El Guerrouj (Morocco), Bernard Lagat (Kenya), Daniel Segeye (Ethiopia), Medhi Baala (France), Juan Carolos Higuero (Spain), Andres Diaz (Spain), John Mayock (Great Britain), Noah Ngeny (Kenya), Kevin Sullivan (Canada), Jason Pyrah (USA), Youssef Baba (Morocco) and Driss Maazouzi (France).
This was some kind of personal crusade for El Guerrouj, world record holder and natural successor to the legendary Noureddine Morceli, who fell by the wayside in the heats. In 1996, in Atlanta, the Moroccan was leading with just one lap to go when he tripped, lost his rhythm, and ended up in last place.
Inconsolable then, he was cheered up by a call from his King. 'There will be other Olympics, you will win again,' he was told.
This was the 'other Olympics' -- and El Guerrouj just had to win. In the interim, he had set the fastest time in history over the distance, 3:26.00, in Rome in 1998. This time round, his King called him last night, to help motivate him before the big one today.
All these years, El Guerrouj has slept with a photograph of his Atlanta heartbreak posted over his bed, to keep himself motivated.
The two Moroccans went into the lead at the outset, with Youssef Baba playing pacemaker, setting a cracking pace right from the start with El Guerrouj running over his right shoulder. The two Kenyans came next, with the rest of the pack following.
El Guerrouj slipped into the lead even as his rabbit, Baba, fell by the wayside (the Moroccan sacrificial lamb finally finished last) as the bell went for the last lap and, on the back straight, stretched out into a sprint -- as it turned out, he had however made his move a few heartbeats too soon.
Ngeny, the master of the late race sprint, charged him down in a swift, brutal, killing move.
The double world champion, world record holder over the distance, beaten only once since Atlanta, had nothing left in him to give as the Kenyan surged past.
Ngeny breasted the tape in a time of 3:32.07 -- breaking the Olympic record set by Sebastian Coe of Great Britain in 1984 (3:32.53).
El Guerrouj came in second, then sank to the track in despair.
Bernard Lagat, Ngeny's team-mate, took the bronze.
As the gold and bronze winners hunted up Kenyan flags to fourish on their victory lap, the focus shifted to the beaten world champion, disconsolate on the track. One by one, the other runners came up to hug him, speak words of solace.
El Guerrouj sat there, looking straight ahead... neither hearing... not seeing... anything other than the end of a four-year-long dream.
Additional reportage from Adrian Warner/Reuters:
Moroccan Hicham El Guerrouj finished the most prestigious distance event in tears instead of cheers for the second consecutive Olympics on Friday but refused to make any excuses for his surprise 1,500 metres defeat at the Sydney Games.
The 26-year-old world record holder and pre-race favourite, who has dominated the 1,500 and mile for the last four years, had to settle for the silver after Kenyan Noah Ngeny outsprinted him in the home straight in the second shock of the men's middle-distance events .
At the 1996 Atlanta Games, El Guerrouj's hopes of a medal were destroyed when he fell just before the bell.
Bruised and spiked, the Moroccan clambered to his feet and completed the race last before bursting into tears in the area underneath the main stand where the athletes talk to the media.
After the end of Friday's race, the Moroccan sat down on the track looking dejected. He was soon crying again. Talking to journalists, he had to wipe away tears when he talked about his family.
After the race the world champion put an ice pack on an injured thigh but he refused to make excuses for the defeat.
"I lost. There are no excuses," he said. "It was a little injury. No excuses. I have been waiting for this medal since Atlanta. But that is sport. There is a winner and a loser."
El Guerrouj took control of the race with 600 metres remaining and looked poised to add the Olympic crown to his two world titles when he came off the final bend at the front of the field after a fast race for a major championship.
But Ngeny, second behind El Guerrouj at last year's world championships, produced a brilliant late kick in the last 20 metres to cross the line first, beating Seb Coe's Olympic record from the 1984 Los Angeles Games with a time of three minutes 32.07 seconds .
El Guerrouj was clearly under pressure because of the expectations of the Moroccan nation.
"Before I came to the stadium I starting crying," he said. "Fortunately, my coach managed to stop me. Every time I telephoned my parents at home I heard everyone was talking about me. But it just wasn't my day and Noah ran a very good race."
Both the men's middle-distance events have seen upsets after Denmark's Kenyan-born Wilson Kipketer, also a pre-race favourite, finished second behind German Nils Schumann.
World record holder Kipketer, who had missed out on a chance of a medal in Atlanta after Kenya refused to give him permission to run for Denmark, was also gracious in defeat despite missing out on cashing in on his long-term dominance of the event.
El Guerrouj said: "Wilson Kipketer didn't win the 800 but he is still Wilson Kipketer. Today I was not on top of my form."
El Guerrouj has now lost any hope of winning the blue riband event of the Games. He said he planned to step up to 5,000 metres for next year's world championships in Canada and hoped to compete in the longer event at the 2004 Athens Olympics.
"I am still young at 26. I can wait four years, " he said before tears came into his eyes again as he talked about wanting to win for his family.
He covered his eyes with the translation headphones.
"I accept defeat. It is still a very nice medal," he said.
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