World Athletics Championships: Compelling drama of El Guerrouj's glory run

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The Independent Online
IT WAS a curious thing. All this week at the World Athletics Championships in Seville the British press corps has sweltered in its seats. With temperatures in the Estadio Olimpico dropping from 40 degrees, and humidity rising to 50 per cent, there have been persuasive arguments for remaining sedentary.

Around 8.15pm on Tuesday night, however, the British press rose almost as one, instinctively, to watch the conclusion of a 1500 metres final which has since been described by observers and the principal participant, Hicham El Guerrouj, as one of the races of the century.

Why were we standing? The image of the race flickered in front of our faces on television screens. Besides, there was no British interest - John Mayock's blameless tumble in the first semi-final had seen to that. The truth is that the excitement of something real had us in its grip. We had all tested positive for enthusiasm. Without that precious commodity, everything falls apart.

The conviction held by some within the sport that what we witness on the track is no more than the mercenary struggle of pharmacologically- modified circus performers is, I believe, wrong. Athletics is struggling with the Catch 22 situation that besets all sports which (can be bothered to) seek out doping abuses: if you catch people, you are seen to be unclean; if you don't, you are assumed to be unclean.

While the steady trickle of cases emerging into public view attests to the fact that there is a problem within the sport, periodic assertions of that problem's extent - a medical expert reckons 70 per cent of athletes are on the juice, a disaffected ex-journalist vouchsafes that 90 per cent are cheating - are merely wild sideswipes.

El Guerrouj's peerless victory in a dramatically fluctuating race involving the four fastest 1500m runners of all time reminded all who witnessed it of the reason why people ever bother to watch such things.

The distance itself has an intrinsically compelling quality. While outstanding performances here in the shorter distances - Maurice Greene running the second fastest 100m of all time, Michael Johnson destroying the 11-year- old 400m record - have produced a sudden shock of recognition, middle- distance events bring a greater range of possibilities into play.

At their best, great 1500m races provide spectators with a thrilling narrative and denouement. On Tuesday night, the presence of three Spaniards in the race guaranteed a full house in the 60,000-seater stadium and a volume of noise that assailed the ears. Within that context, the struggle taking place on the track - the brief groupings of national interest, and the timing of individual decisions to break free of those obligations - took on an extra intensity.

El Guerrouj shelters behind a Moroccan team-mate who leads the race out for him, moving the national treasure clear of jostling elbows and flailing spikes. Noah Ngeny, the precocious 20-year-old Kenyan, tracks El Guerrouj. And as the field approaches the final bell, Spain's former Olympic champion, Fermin Cacho, gives way to his younger compatriot Reyes Estevez, who moves past him, brushes Ngeny aside and sets out in pursuit of the leader to a redoubled chauvinistic roar. Ngeny overtakes Estevez again around the final bend, but already the Moroccan is stretching out gazelle-like legs to claim a second world title, legs which subsequently drum on the track like a child's as he capers in delight.

The 1999 World Championship 1500m will be remembered as a contest to set alongside other defining races over the same distance. It ranks with the 1974 Commonwealth Games in Christchurch, when Filbert Bayi of Tanzania led from the gun, established a 30 metre lead, and became an increasingly flagging hare chased by a pack of straining Kenyans and New Zealanders before reaching the haven of the line in a world record of 3min 32.16sec.

That race marked the arrival of John Walker as a runner who would dominate the distance for the next couple of years, before the emergence of two Britons who took the event to new levels, Steve Ovett and Sebastian Coe.

The 1500m at the inaugural 1983 World Championships in Helsinki provided the event with another seismic spectacle, marking the effective end of Ovett's presence as a force and introducing two new huge talents to the scene, Said Aouita of Morocco and Steve Cram. The Briton ran a tactically perfect race as he responded to Aouita's expected surge 500m from home, passed him with 200m remaining and held off the race favourite, Steve Scott of the United States, to cross the line first with fists clenched in triumph. These are not just races; they are short stories.