El Guerrouj is my mirror image, says Bannister

First four-minute mile man backs Moroccan to lower world record again at Crystal Palace tomorrow
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The Independent Online

Two athletes moved down the finishing straight of Oxford's Iffley Road stadium yesterday, separated by two generations but bound together by excellence.

Two athletes moved down the finishing straight of Oxford's Iffley Road stadium yesterday, separated by two generations but bound together by excellence.

The notion of bringing together the world's fastest miler, Hicham El Guerrouj, and the world's most famous miler, Roger Bannister, was conceived in order to publicise the former's attempt to beat his own world record at tomorrow's British Grand Prix at Crystal Palace.

A slip of the tongue from Sir Roger, who wished the Moroccan the best of the weather "at the White City", emphasised the gulf between the two in terms of time, as well as times.

On the damp and windy evening of 6 May, 1954, Bannister, then a 25-year-old medical student, had stopped the clock on this track at 3min 59.4sec to become the first man to break the four-minute mile - an achievement that will stand forever.

Since then, a long succession of others have followed him into that territory, and today the illustrious roll call of world mile record holders - John Landy, Derek Ibbotson, Herb Elliott, Peter Snell, Michel Jazy, Jim Ryun, Filbert Bayi, John Walker, Seb Coe, Steve Ovett, Steve Cram, Noureddine Morceli - ends with the name of the man who lowered the mark to 3:43.13 in Rome last year.

Gallantly, El Guerrouj yesterday ventured the opinion that, considering all the circumstances, 3.59 in 1954 was worth 3.43 now. "Thank you," said Sir Roger with a smile.

Six years ago, on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of his historic achievement, he had spoken in admiring terms of the man who was the undisputed master of the distance, Morceli. Many predicted that the Algerian would dominate until the turn of the century, but within two years a new talent had moved up on Morceli's shoulder...

"I have the feeling of looking at my mirror image," Sir Roger said, looking across at El Guerrouj as both sat in front of a picture of the Englishman crossing the Iffley Road line 46 years earlier. "We are both about 6ft tall, and I've noticed that we both have very long legs." But the list of differences between these athletes of different eras is even longer. El Guerrouj trains twice a day - two and a half hours in the morning, two and a half hours in the afternoon - at a high-altitude camp at Ifrane in Morocco. A day off for him means no afternoon session - "perhaps I might do something different like go to the cinema," he said.

Sir Roger used to cram his training into a half-hour session of circuits - "I did 10 440 yards with two minutes' recovery" - in order to race back to the laboratory to continue with his studies. He accepts with regret that it is no longer possible to study seriously and be a world-class athlete. That regret, however, does not detract even faintly from his obvious admiration of the Moroccan's deeds.

"The main thought I have about Hicham is his economy of movement," Sir Roger said. "The way in which he is able to move his legs without any hint of strain or overstriding. That, of course, is what enables him to run so fast because he is conserving oxygen. So many others run wastefully, as they make excessive arm movements or they don't come back on to their heel as they move through a very fast stride."

Asked how far he would have predicted his record could be improved had he been questioned in 1954, he responded: "In those days, I talked about 3.30 being difficult - because I thought it would take a little time. But I think we can see it because quite obviously runners are training better, they are being more selective in their physique. And I think that if they can withstand the training without breaking down theirimmunological systems it will happen..."

"We haven't stopped yet," he added, turning to El Guerrouj, "but the current record is a magnificent time. I hope perhaps that Hicham will get down to 3.40." A time of 3.42 would do nicely for both El Guerrouj and the British crowd tomorrow in what could turn out to be his last mile before he moves up the distances next season to two miles. He said yesterday he was hoping that if the weather, and the pacemaking, held up, he would seek to reach 880 yards in 1min 49sec, get to 1500m in around 3min 28sec, just over two seconds outside his world record of 3:26.00, which would bring him through the tape inside his current best mark. "I want to go to the Olympics motivated by having completed a very, very fast time," El Guerrouj added, his baby face grave with intent. Fingers crossed the rain holds off.

* The triple jump world record-holder, Jonathan Edwards, denied that his contest with Larry Achike tomorrow will be a shoot-out to decide who is British No 1. Edwards said he is more concerned with hitting top form than beating the man who stood in for him - and won - in last month's European Cup. "Larry's been jumping really well but the only person I'm thinking about is how I jump myself," he said. "I don't think you could call Saturday a shoot-out. Not in the slightest."