Athletics: El Guerrouj brings pace to the Palace

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BRITISH ATHLETICS followers will have the chance to see Hicham El Guerrouj, the new mile world record holder, in action next month. The 24-year-old Moroccan, who set a new mark of 3 minutes 43.13 seconds in Rome on Wednesday, will run the same distance at the CGU British Grand Prix at Crystal Palace on 7 August.

El Guerrouj had planned to visit a British track earlier this season, but a knee injury forced him to pull out of the CGU Gateshead Classic on 27 June, when he had hoped to improve on the 2,000 metres time he had set the previous year at the North-east venue. On that occasion he finished in 4min 48.36sec, narrowly missing Noureddine Morceli's world record of 4:47.88.

But now the Moroccan is fully fit and reportedly hoping to trim even more off the time for a distance which has a special place in athletics history.

After El Guerrouj lowered the 1500m world record to 3min 26sec in Rome last year, Steve Cram, Britain's former mile and 1500m world record holder, said he should be capable of running around 3min 41sec for the mile. El Guerrouj took 1.26sec off Morceli's world record in the Stadio Olimpico on Wednesday night, pushed to the line by Kenya's Noah Ngeny, whose time of 3:43.40 made him, at 20, the second fastest miler in history. His time as a senior record holder seems bound to come, but for the moment the middle distance scene is dominated by a baby-faced runner celebrated in his home country as the New Prince of the Dessert.

The reference is to Morocco's former multiple world record holder Said Aouita, who held world marks at five distances. It is El Guerrouj's ambition to match that achievement, although he is also naturally keen to defend his world 1500m title in Seville next month and to secure the ultimate seal of a great runner in the form of an Olympic gold in the year 2000.

The young Moroccan, whose Olympic ambitions foundered three years ago when he tripped at the bell and finished last in the 1500m, has nevertheless arrived in athletics terms as far as his fellow countrymen are concerned. After his exploits in Rome last season, King Hassan awarded him a medal of honour, gifts equivalent to $80,000 (pounds 50,000) and a new house.

It remains to be seen what El Guerrouj's reward will be for his most recent efforts. Whatever they may be, this quiet and intelligent young man is not likely to flaunt them. As a devout Muslim, he prays five times a day and, after sinking to his knees in thanks after his latest run in Rome, he dedicated his efforts to his family.

The sprint finish in Wednesday's mile, which saw Ngeny reach almost to El Guerrouj's shoulder before the Moroccan pulled away once more, put many observers in mind of the great 1500m race between Aouita and Cram in Nice 14 years ago, when the Briton won on a dip finish in a then world record of 3:29.67.

Whereas so many world records are achieved by lone runners pressing on after the pacemakers have fallen away, the genuine element of racing involved made this world record particularly memorable.

Whether anybody will be able to push El Guerrouj as hard down the finishing straight at Crystal Palace remains to be seen. But the Moroccan, whose racing programme before London involves a 2,000m in Nice on 17 July and a 1,500m in Paris on 21 July, should provide a sufficient draw whether he is closely challenged or not.