Athletics: El Guerrouj's victory dance

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The Independent Online
HICHAM EL GUERROUJ yesterday presented the watching world with a demonstration of what international athletics should be all about. A tumultuous full-house of 60,000 spectators, bellowing through the humid mass of air which sat inertly in the huge bowl of the Estadio Olimpico, saw the 24-year-old Moroccan defend his world 1500m title in a race which made sense of the sport.

He explained his ecstatic behaviour at the finish quite simply - "I was very, very happy, because this was one of the best races of the century." Not many will disagree with that assessment.

After holding off the challenge of the rising young Kenyan, Noah Ngeny, and the three-strong Spanish presence of the former Olympic champion Fermin Cacho, Andes Diaz and Reyes Estevez - deafeningly supported by a crowd which had seen the long jumper Niurka Montalvo pick up Spain's first gold of the championships in the previous night's long jump - El Guerrouj had time to scatter kisses to the crowd as if he were blowing petals before winning in 3min 27.65sec. It was the fifth fastest time ever in a race which involved the four fastest 1500m runners in history - El Guerrouj, Cacho, Ngeny and Algeria's Noureddine Morceli, who paid the price for his efforts by failing to finish.

Ngeny, who followed El Guerrouj closely home when the Moroccan broke the world mile record in Rome earlier this season, tracked the favourite as he began a long run for home with 600 metres to go.

At the bell, however, the 20-year-old Kenyan found himself brushed aside by the powerful, bleached-blond figure of Estevez, who accelerated to within a couple of strides of El Guerrouj in a move that caused a deep roar of approbation from every quarter.

But as El Guerrouj approached the final bend, Estevez's legs - depicted on shoe company banners around the city as being filled with lightning - lost their power as El Guerrouj's graceful stride lengthened to the bounds of possibility.

As the Spaniard faded, Ngeny - the third fastest of all time at this distance - came past him again to take silver in a national record of 3:28.73. Estevez had to settle for bronze in 3:30.57.

Since tripping in the 1996 Olympic final, El Guerrouj has enjoyed three seasons of success, taking the world title in 1997, lowering the world 1500m record to 3:26.00 last season, and, this year, setting a new mile mark. But he has never looked as overjoyed as he did last night as he capered in delight before leaning against the trackside clock, frozen at the moment of his triumph, bearing a gold-tasselled flag around his shoulders and a grin that looked in danger of splitting his face.

"My hope is still to break every world record from 1500m to 5,000m, and to be Olympic champion," El Guerrouj said. "I hope my God will serve me and help me to do this." All this - and God is on his side.

"It was a definitive performance," said Britain's double 1500m champion, Seb Coe, working here as a commentator for the Australian Channel 7 television station. "That was as good a race in a championship as I have ever seen. It was just a demolition job. I'm sure El Guerrouj could have broken the world record. But there was nobody out there who was taking him anywhere near the edge of his limits.

"He's 24, he's right at the peak of his powers. I don't see anybody getting near him for at least a couple of seasons."

The women's 800m, won by Ludmila Formanova of the Czech Republic in 1:56.68, contained almost as much drama, but there was far less uncertainty in the men's 10,000m final, where a killing final lap saw Ethiopia's Haile Gebrselassie earn his fourth world title in 27:57.27. Kenya's former world record holder Paul Tergat took the silver.