The record collector; profile; Noureddine Morceli

Norman Fox charts the rise of a remarkable runner who distances himself from his rivals
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The Independent Online
POUNDING their way through endless miles of training, wondering if the streets will ever be paved with gold, the world's best middle-distance runners also concern themselves with such hypothetical matters as the possibility of being the best in the 800 metres as well as the 1500m. Noureddine Morceli is different. His aim is half a dozen world records - all, he predicts, to be held at the same time. While others just dream, he has a long-term plan that none of his regularly defeated rivals dares to suggest is impossible.

His intention is to hold every world athletics record from 800 to 10,000 metres with a few old yards, feet and inches events added for good measure. And he is serious. The only record that he reckons might require a little more effort is the 10,000, which he has yet to try in serious competition but which, in any case, he considers an old man's event ("for the over- 28s") while he is still only 25.

In athletics there are exceptional records like Sebastian Coe's 800m in 1min 41.73sec; good ones, which he has ticked off one by one; and rarely attempted marks like the 2,000m, which was the latest to fall to the Algerian's mercurial finish when he ran 4min 47.88 in Paris last Monday, cropping nearly three seconds off the mark set by his hero, Said Aouita, eight years earlier. That was Morceli's fourth world record.

On Wednesday in Nice he gets back to serious work when he attempts to improve his own 1500m world best of 3min 28.86sec set not long after the disappointment of failure at the 1992 Olympic Games and again taken away from Aouita. After that he becomes even more determined when Coe's daunting 14-year-old 800m record comes into his sights.

The versatility of Morceli sets him apart. As well as the 2,000m, he at present holds world records at 1500m, the mile (which since 1979 had been the preserve of Britons) and 3,000m. He has run the 5,000m in a time only a little over eight seconds slower than the remarkable mark set by Moses Kiptanui in June (12min 55.3sec) and that was without much preparation. Only when he collects the full set will he package the memories and his fortune, tie everything up with the tape from some future world record- breaking 10,000m and go back to Algeria to a family that but for athletics would still be on the poverty line.

As an example of the man's standards, when he broke the 3,000m record in Monte Carlo last summer he all but ran two sub-four minute miles in succession. He dismissed the last lap in 55sec and had left the rest of the field struggling against each other, which is never something that bothers him. Always a loner, he is never afraid to start his kick for home while the rest are still kicking their heels.. He remains quiet until challenged either on the track or verbally. Anyone coming to his shoulder towards the end of a race is usually blown away by his acceleration over 10 metres.

In cold print his boasts about what he intends doing over the next five years appear presumptuous. Heard first-hand they soften and come over as confident, achievable goals. His mention of wanting to dominate all of the middle distances including the mile, then perhaps even the 10,000, came at last year's Bannister Mile anniversary dinner, causing a few to question his diplomacy though not his ability. He has dominated the metric mile (1500m) since first breaking the record back in September 1992. Having followed the Coe-Ovett-Cram era, he studied all three on television, but the last person to be so singularly dominant was the Australian Herb Elliott who won 43 races over 1500m and the mile between 1957 and 1963.

Morceli is enormously self- assured but not lacking in humility. For instance, Steve Cram was asked how he managed a 53sec last lap when he broke the mile record in 1985. Cram recalls that his answer was honest but hardly helpful: "I had someone up my backside." In the 1991 season Morceli rarely had that experience, having been unbeaten and winning the world title at 1500m, a feat he repeated in 1993. His dominating form in 1991 made it all the more surprising that he finished only seventh in the '92 Olympic Games in Barcelona. A hip injury had contributed, but it was a demoralising performance that was so badly received in Algeria he had to grovel at a press conference, explaining that sometimes the best-laid plans go wrong.

The Olympic failure made him feel closer athletically to Sebastian Coe, whose experience in the 800m at the Moscow Olympics was similar. His style is much more Coe than Ovett - light and quick - but he also has Ovett's competitive nature. Because Coe managed to stay at the top until his early thirties, Morceli regards him as a role model - longevity in such demanding events is something he seeks more than wealth and almost as much as records.

During his development, he admired Coe nearly as much as his manager, Amar Brahmia, who was the first Algerian to run the 1500m in under 3min 40sec, and Aouita, the Moroccan who established the credentials of north African athletes and who once remarked that if he had been the athlete of the Eighties, Morceli would be the outstanding runner of the Nineties.

Morceli constantly refers to his ambition to stay at the top for anything up to 15 years, but more specifically to win a gold medal at next year's Olympics in Atlanta to make up for his own and his family's disappointment in Spain. His determination and self-discipline are daunting. He respects the demands of Ramadan, 30 days of not eating between sunrise and sunset, despite the fact that each year it falls just before the track season begins.

His steadfastness was the cause of a career-changing row with the Algerian federation early in his career. He had been encouraged into athletics by his older brother, Abderahmane, a former national 1500m record-holder and bronze-medal winner in the World Student Games in 1977 who remains his travelling adviser and companion (Morceli says: "I don't have a coach"). Abderahmane may not have commanded a fraction of the pounds 50,000 a race that his younger brother now receives in Europe, but he made enough to improve the lot of his parents and seven brothers and two sisters who lived together in an inadequate fishing village house that was without electricity.

What most impressed Noureddine as an eight-year-old was that when Abderahmane was elected best Algerian athlete he asked whether as a gesture of the government's thanks they might also provide the family home with electricity. The government did better, moving them all to a new well- illuminated house. That, Noureddine recalls, was the highlight of his young life, but somehow it failed to make his main motivation the pursuit of wealth. He would rather be a legend in his sport than rich, but he was working on being both.

Morceli was about 12 when he decided to try to emulate his brother's achievements. Every day he ran on the beaches and in the hills around Tenes until in 1988 at 18 he took ninth place at the world cross-country championships in Auckland. He had started to win a reputation and some money of his own and after taking a silver medal in the world junior championships in Canada he expected to be chosen for the Algerian Olympic team for the Seoul Olympics. But he was considered too inexperienced.

No financial assistance was forthcoming from the Algerian federation, so he uprooted and went to the Riverside College in California where life was a struggle. "The biggest problem was that I spoke Algerian and French and only a little English." The college system meant that everything was based on the team rather than the individual and, as he said: "I had to refuse to run some races. That sometimes made me unpopular." But it also hardened him and, though for a short time he returned to Algeria, he realised that the only way to promote his career was to base himself in the United States and then take on the European circuit, which he has achieved with distinction.

Physically (1.72m, 62kg), he could hardly be more suited to the middle distances. Dr Malcolm Brown, who looks after the British team, said Morceli may well hold all the records he wants by the year 2000. "He's an almost perfect model of mechanical efficiency. In every physical respect he's miles ahead of the opposition." Miles? A sore point as British middle- distance running labours and Morceli's encouragement extends only to saying: "You may catch up again in 10 or 15 years."