Morceli worried by Moroccan

Mike Rowbottom on the background to an Algerian legend's quest for Olympic glory - and the man standing in his way
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Like Michael Johnson and Haile Gebrselassie, Noureddine Morceli has come to these Games as a pre-eminent talent seeking to confirm his status with a gold medal.

The 26-year-old Algerian's domination of middle-distance running in the last four years is reflected in a prodigious set of statistics. He is the world record holder at 1,000m (4min 47.88sec), 1,500m (3:27.37), 2,000m (4:47.88), 3,000m (7:25.11) and the mile 3:44.39; world indoor record- holder at 1,000m (2:15.26) and 1,500m (3:34.16).

When this phenomenon visited London two years ago to join in the celebrations marking the 40th anniversary of the first four-minute mile, he informed a group of former mile world record-holders including Roger Bannister, Herb Elliott and Peter Snell, that it was his intention to hold every world record from 800 to 10,000 metres.

It was a mark of his status that that ambition was widely regarded as being possible. Morceli has, after all, run the 800m in 1min 44.79sec and the 5,000m in 13min 03.85sec.

Since August 1992, Morceli has only lost one race, and that was at 800 metres. Since then, he has twice retained his 1,500m world title. But the Olympics present him with the one challenge he has yet to overcome.

Four years ago in Barcelona, having lost 45 days of training during his preparations due to a hip injury, he was only able to finish seventh in the 1,500m final after running a poor tactical race. The home runner Fermin Cacho seized the opportunity to delight a crowd that included King Juan Carlos with an unexpected victory. Morceli recovered his true form later in that season, wiping away Said Aouita's long-standing 1,500m record in Rieti.

The frustration of Barcelona, however, has remained with him. Now, as he returns to the Olympic arena with something to prove, someone is waiting for him.

At 21, Hicham El Guerroudj has overtaken the Burundi runner Venuste Niyongabo as the man most likely to end Morceli's domination. When both men take to the track in today's 1,500m final, Morceli is likely to face his most difficult challenge in years.

El Guerroudj, who was born in the Moroccan town of Ait-taghi, is following in the steps of his great fellow countryman Said Aouita, who held records at 1,500m, the mile and 5,000m in the 1980s, taking the Olympic title at the latter event in Los Angeles in 1984.

Both El Guerroudj and Salah Hissou, who won the 10,000m bronze medal behind the world record holder Gebrselassie, are trained at Ifrane, 5,000ft above sea level, by the man who coached Aouita in the early part of his career, Aziz Daouda.

Daouda rates El Guerroudj as an even better prospect than Aouita. "Said was a very early star and there was no one like him," Daouda said. "He was under pressure from the public and media. El Guerroudj is growing up quietly but is maturing fast.

"We have used Morceli as a target and inspiration in training. Of course we will have to wait and see what happens at the Olympics, but I believe El Guerroudj can beat him."

That confidence is underpinned by the evidence of this year's world rankings, where El Guerroudj's 3:29.59 is marginally faster than Morceli's 3:29.50. The two have not met this season - echoes of Seb Coe and Steve Ovett - and Daouda believes the dodging has been done by the Algerian.

Morceli, he maintains, has avoided racing because he did not want El Guerroudj to "puncture his aura of invincibility".

When Aouita won the 5,000m gold in Los Angeles in 1984, King Hassan marked his achievement by renaming the Rabat-Casablanca train in his honour, calling it "The Aouita Express".

If things go according to plan for Aouita's successor today, Moroccans could soon be travelling on the El Guerroudj Express.