Hope of the Burundi boy

Norman Fox talks to the young pretender to the Morceli mantle
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The Independent Online
SOONER or later, Noureddine Morceli, the hottest favourite of the championships here, will either cool his enthusiasm for constant travel and the pursuit of world records or move up to the 10,000 metres. Twenty-one-year-old Venuste Niyongabo will not wait for the Algerian's departure from the middle distances before he makes his challenge.

Niyongabo, from Burundi, is the next in line in the Sebastian Coe school of running - light, quick men who can turn the 1,500m or mile into a series of sprints based on "quality" training rather than pounding out mile upon mile of stamina building. He captured the attention internationally last season when he came too close for Morceli's comfort. Since then, Morceli seems to have avoided him.

The young pretender says he has never been better prepared, and draws comfort from his memory of the Barcelona Olympics in 1992 when Morceli made a tactical mess of the 1,500m. Morceli admitted that defeat was down to his own failure to stay with the pace resulting in his finishing seventh. Since then he has been virtually unbeatable. His respect for Niyongabo runs high: "It is not that I have tried to avoid him this season; our racing schedules have been different." Niyongabo sees it differently. "I am always wanting to run against Morceli, but I don't think he likes to see me."

They have been competing against each other as if by correspondence. When Niyongabo tried to break the world 2,000m record on a cold Rome night in June and failed, Morceli went out a few weeks later in Paris and comfortably erased the old mark. When Morceli broke the 1,500m record in Nice, somehow Niyongabo had not been invited to race against him, but at the same meeting ran the second fastest 2,000m of all time.

His ambitions are clearly geared towards next year's Olympic Games. "By then I hope to have more experience and be ready." His readiness will be based on running a variety of distances. He finds all of them come easily and always did. Growing up in a country beset by tribal disputes, he quickly realised that the best way to better himself was to run and beat men in the army who had an altogether more comfortable lifestyle. After a second place in the 1992 World Junior Championships, he was invited by an agent to live in Italy, which he found tough but necessary.

Should he manage a victory over Morceli next weekend he anticipates no further problems from IAAF officials, who last winter told him that his late entry for the World Indoor Championships in Barcelona would not be a problem. When he got there he was stopped by immigration, refused entry and had to fly back to Rome. Having missed the last train to his adopted home in Siena, he slept on the platform. When asked what he felt about the experience later, he said that worse things happened in Burundi.