3rd time proves golden charm for El Guerrouj

Moroccan's 1,500 frustration finally ends as he hits line .12 of second ahead of Lagat

Track And Field

Athens 2004

August 25, 2004|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

ATHENS -- Gift from God.

Hicham El Guerrouj was likening the meaning of his daughter's name to the precious gold he had earned, but the Moroccan might as well have been describing the last half of the men's 1,500 meters at Olympic Stadium last night.

After he had out-dueled Kenya's Bernard Lagat, El Guerrouj celebrated with a visit to the stands to cradle the aforementioned Hiba, who is 5 months old. That was before he broke into dance while bouzouki music played and after he and Lagat had collapsed on the track and shared an embrace that looked like a Michelangelo sculpture.

El Guerrouj turns 30 next month, and his flirtation with a gold medal has been track and field's greatest story over the past eight years.

In Atlanta, he ran at the shoulder of Nourredine Morceli, the great Algerian, but went sprawling with just over a lap to go and finished last. He sat in a tunnel and cried, but he was only 21, and surely Sydney would bring him happiness.

Four years ago, a Kenyan phenom named Noah Ngeny quashed those plans as El Guerrouj took silver, finishing a quarter of a second back.

"It's true that four years ago I cried tears of sadness," El Guerrouj said. "Today, I cried tears of joy. I was like a 4- or 5-year-old child."

El Guerrouj raced like a man at the height of his powers, which he has not been this year.

His world record of 3 minutes, 26.00 seconds was set in 1998. Lagat, the bronze medalist in Sydney, went 3:26.34 in 2001. The Kenyan recently beat El Guerrouj in Switzerland and was poised to do the same last night.

It was your standard tactical Olympic 1,500, as the pack passed through the 400 in 60 seconds and the 800 in nearly 2:02, the crowd growing restless on a cool night great for running. El Guerrouj finally forced the issue, bolting into the lead, with Lagat in close pursuit.

Lagat, who got degrees at Washington State and trains in Tucson, Ariz., was never more than two meters behind over the next 600 and drew alongside El Guerrouj coming off the final turn. The two began a final charge that had people gasping.

"It was like an avalanche coming at me," El Guerrouj said.

Lagat drew ahead by inches with 35 meters remaining, but El Guerrouj drifted far into Lane 2, denying him a direct path to the finish.

"In the last 50 meters, the first thing I thought about was Sydney, when Ngeny was coming and I didn't have the energy to start up again," El Guerrouj said. "I thank God I had the energy."

El Guerrouj accelerated, moved back into the lead and came through in 3:34.18, .12 of a second ahead of Lagat. It was the closest Olympic 1,500 since 1976, but five seconds faster than Montreal, when an African boycott devalued distance running.

Aware of the heartbreak that El Guerrouj had sustained in the sport's signature event on its biggest stage, Lagat sounded as if he could not have been happier if he had taken the gold.

"Thank you very much," Lagat said to a journalist who, in so many words, asked if he had blown the race. "Today is a great day. I've been thinking about winning gold for my country. I gave 100 percent. I think he gave 101 percent."

El Guerrouj's emotion was relayed by a French interpreter who emoted as if she were on stage.

"I had some really difficult moments in my career, the kind of tests that make great athletes," El Guerrouj said. "I can't express my joy. You might say I'm a very deserving athlete."

In the women's 100 hurdles, Joanna Hayes set an Olympic record of 12.37, becoming the event's first American winner in a non-boycotted Games since Babe Didrikson in 1932.

Olena Krasovska of Ukraine was second and American Melissa Morrison third.

The proceedings didn't end until 1:30 a.m., when a Russian protest of the race was denied.

Canada's Perdita Felicien banged into the first hurdle, then took out Russia's Irina Shevchenko.

M-0

In the decathlon, an injury and a no-height in the pole vault finished Tom Pappas, but American teammate Bryan Clay added 160 points to his personal best and took silver behind the Czech Republic's Roman Sebrle.

Ana Guevara, the world champion in the women's 400, was trying to become Mexico's first Olympic track gold medalist outside race walking, but Tonique Williams-Darling of the Bahamas took the race in 49.41, .15 in front of Guevara.

Guevara spoke of how injury caused her to spend three months of training in the pool, then took a cell phone call from Mexican President Vicente Fox.

"We were all moved," Fox said. "It's as if we were all there with you."

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