El Guerrouj finds golden ecstasy after years of agony

When Hicham El Guerrouj fell just before the bell in the Olympic 1500 metres final in Atlanta and wept uncontrollably in the stadium tunnel, someone handed him a mobile phone. King Hassan II was on the line - "You are a champion in the eyes of the Moroccan people," the monarch told him.

After Hicham El Guerrouj had fallen just before the start of the final lap in the Olympic 1500 metres final in Atlanta, as he wept uncontrollably in the stadium tunnel, someone handed him a mobile phone. King Hassan II was on the line. "Do not cry," the monarch. "You are a champion in the eyes of Moroccan people."

Last night on the track in the Athenian Olympic Stadium, the Moroccan king of middle distance finally became Olympic champion in the eyes of the watching world. Eight years on from the tears of Atlanta, when he picked himself up to finish 12th and last, and four years after the agony of Sydney, when he was overhauled 25m from the line by the Kenyan Noah Ngney, El Guerrouj emerged with his treasured crown from of the epic Olympic races of all-time.

Winding up the pace from 800m out, the tall, willowy North African failed to shake off Bernard Lagat, another Kenyan. Into the home straight, Lagat gathered for the kill. Moving wide, he was level, then edged in front with 50m left. For El Guerrouj, it was his worst nightmare revisited.

But, then, he summoned the spirit of a champion supreme. He hauled himself level and then, with the line fast approaching, edged marginally in front.

The time on the track-side clock, 3min 34.18sec, was wholly irrelevant. By a margin of 0.12sec, El Guerrouj had proved himself, at 29, the greatest middle distance runner of all time.

He dropped to the ground and kissed the track, then clasped his hands to his face and wept tears of joy. He kissed Lagat and kissed his coach, Abdelkhader Kader. Then he made for the front row of the stands and plucked his daughter from the crowd. Hiba ­ "gift of God" ­ is three months old. She was smothered in kisses by her delirious father.

The sound of Zorba's Dance blasted over the public address system. El Guerrouj jigged to the quickening balalika beat.

Barely noticed amid the joyous scenes, Rui Silva of Portugal celebrated his bronze medal and Mike East reflected on an excellent sixth place for Britain.

"I am finally complete," El Guerrouj said, still wrapped in his country's flag in the bowels of the stadium. "This is the greatest day of my life. I feel like a baby.

"When Lagat came past, I simply did not want to lose. In Sydney I trained too hard and ran out of gas. This time I had something extra. Now I will go for more glory in the 5000m."

He will do that with the blessing and the thanks of Morocco's King. Before the tearful El Guerrouj could leave the track and get to the stadium tunnel, someone handed him a mobile phone. It was Mohammed VI, calling. "Do not cry," Hassan II's son and successor probably told him. "You are the champion of the Olympic Games."

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