The coming man in middle-distance running finally arrived last night, defeating the great Noureddine Morceli over 1500 metres to claim the world championship a year and three days after his trip at the bell had put him out of contention in the Olympic final.
As the 22-year-old Moroccan crossed the line in 3min 35.83sec, his smile of gathering delight gave way to a look of awe as he put his hands to his face and then sank on to his knees to kiss the ground. Swiftly, his supporters arrived to drape him in the national flag and conduct him on his lap of honour. It was a routine Morceli has come to know well over the record-breaking years.
But after last night's final he was just another solitary runner mooching towards the tunnel with his hands on his hips.
The meeting between El Guerrouj and the 27-year-old Algerian over the metric mile was anticipated as keenly the metric milers of the past, the 1997 version of Ovett versus Coe, or Keino versus Ryun.
After his calamity of last year, El Guerrouj made certain he was clear to run at the bell, and his surge turned the bunched field into a stretched one. Only Morceli, and Spain's 1992 Olympic champion Fermin Cacho, attempted to stay with him. The contest was over by the time the Moroccan reached the finishing straight, and while Cacho took silver in 3:36.63, Morceli drifted out of the medals in the final 10 metres, being caught by Cacho's compatriot Reyes Estevez. It felt like the changing of the guard.
Morceli, who holds the world records for 1500m, 2,000m and the mile, has had a torrid year. He arrived here for his opening heat after attending the funeral back home of his 23-year-old brother, Abdul Kader, who died on 26 July, having been hit by a car.
His fortunes on the track have also been troubled. After pulling up in his $1.5m two-mile challenge against Haile Gebrselassie in Hengelo on May 31, he subsequently discovered that he was suffering from anaemia. The after-effects, he claimed, had undermined his fitness, and El Guerrouj beat him over 1500m in Paris last month.
Even his appearance in yesterday's final was fraught, as he became involved in a dispute over displaying sponsor's logos.
For El Guerrouj, however, the moment had been seized. As his national anthem played, tears rolled down both his cheeks.
Haile Gebrselassie, who had dropped out of these championships and back into them at least twice in the previous two months, retained his 10,000 metres title with an unanswerable burst of speed 600 metres from home.
Covering the distance in around 83 seconds, the tiny Ethiopian put a distance of 20 metres between himself and his nearest challengers, Paul Tergat of Kenya and Morocco's Salah Hissou, recording 27min 24.58sec.
Gebrselassie, who had been very unwilling to run on a track which he considered too hard, ran in shoes last night, but that did not appear to compromise his tippy-toe style drastically.
Hissou, from whom Gebrselassie recovered the world 10,000m record last month, was unable to remain in contention once the Ethiopian made his move. He must have wished the International Amateur Athletic Federation had not put such pressure on Gebrselassie to make an appearance.
Wilson Kipketer, seeking a $100,000 bonus here for breaking Seb Coe's 16-year-old 800m record, reached tomorrow's final with an ease which drew murmurs of admiration. At the bell, he cruised past the field on the outside like a Ferrari overtaking before slowing to win his semi-final in 1.46.14. The IAAF's sponsors might as well get the money ready now.
A quarter of an hour later, Wilson Kipketer also won the 3,000m steeplechase title, outsprinting his fellow Kenyan, the defending champion Moses Kiptanui, to win in 8min 5.54sec.
Phenomenal as the 800m man is, he has not taken up the steeplechase yet - this was Wilson Boit Kipketer, no relation, and making his first appearance in the World Championships.
Results, photograph page 23Reuse content