Athletics: Nurmi legend relived by El Guerrouj

By Eugene Bingham

By EUGENE BINGHAM

The world needs sporting heroes. They provide inspiration, a person whose feats others can seek to emulate.

It has always been this way, everywhere.

Twenty years ago, in a small village in Morocco with a magnificent view, a small boy heard stories told to him by his grandfather and looked far into the future.

By age 14, the boy had decided that if he ever got the chance, he wanted to repeat the achievements of the great man of whom his grandfather spoke.

And yesterday, at the Olympic Stadium in Athens, the boy seized his chance to follow in the footsteps of the champion.

For eight years, Hicham El Guerrouj ran a tearful pursuit for an Olympic gold medal. Five days ago in Athens, he finally won his first, sealing the 1500m with a dramatic last-ditch effort on the line.

He lined up in the 5000m yesterday thinking of his grandfather's stories of Paavo Nurmi, the Finnish runner who in 1924 was the last man to win the 1500m-5000m double.

By the time he finished the race, the Moroccan had achieved the goal set for him by his grandfather all those years ago.

For this historic moment, there was a lack of drama until El Guerrouj won and thrust his two fingers out signalling his twin victories.

In sharp contrast to the heartbreaking, bloody, and tearful efforts he had been through to finally clinch gold in the 1500m, his victory at 5000m on his first attempt was elementary for a man of his running style.

The race had been set up as the chance for another great athlete to achieve a double. Kenenisa Bekele, of Ethiopia, is the world recordholder over the 5000m and 10,000m. Last week, the 22-year-old won the 10,000m with such dominance it was expected he would collect gold in the shorter event too.

El Guerrouj gave the young former cross-country runner a lesson in track running. In typically low-key yet eloquent fashion, El Guerrouj happily told Bekele after the race what he had done wrong.

"When I saw what Bekele and others were doing [in the race], I told myself, 'Now you are going to win because they have made a big mistake'."

Instead of trying to blast El Guerrouj out of contention by running a fast race, the Ethiopian and his countrymen trudged along, then hoped Bekele could outsprint the middle-distance speedster.

"Their strength is rhythm, my strength is the finish and I believe they made a serious mistake and they will have to wait four years for another [Olympic] race," El Guerrouj said.

In the home straight, El Guerrouj easily passed Bekele and Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge, the world champion.

El Guerrouj's winning time was 13m 14.39s, Bekele was second in 13m 14.59s and Kipchoge third in 13m 15.10s.

Kipchoge said everyone waited for somebody else to take the pace.

Bekele said he was tired after the 10,000m, but realised after the race he should have kicked 400m from home - a tactic he used to success in winning the longer race, with a devastating 53s last lap.

Asked about what had inspired him before the race, El Guerrouj said it was the thought of Nurmi, a nine-time gold medallist. "He is a great athlete who really marked history."

El Guerrouj's quest for Olympic gold in the 1500m was a story which gripped our generation. His achievements at the Olympic Stadium have ensured that his story will be told for generations to come. They may even inspire another great one day.

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