Sportsnight #13: 1996, Athletics, Olympic 1500m final – El Guerrouj Takes A Tumble

by George_East on June 19, 2013

Good evening ladies and gentlemen and welcome to this unlucky 13th edition of Sportsnight.  Tonight’s action takes us to the Centennial Olympic Stadium in Atlanta on the occasion of the hotly anticipated men’s 1500 metre final

Our 13th Sportsnight requires something to be said about the place of bad luck in sport.   In this case horrendously bad luck for the athlete at the centre of what occurred, Morocco’s Hicham El Guerrouj; but also bad luck for the world of athletics, in being deprived of what should have been one of the greatest showdowns in middle distance history.

British interest in middle distance running waned after the golden era of Coe, Ovett and Cram.  By the time of the 1996 Olympics the glories of those years for the UK were long gone.  But the truth is that the mid to late 1990s were the greatest of all years for middle distance running.   The still unsurpassed talent was from North Africa: a tradition that had been started in the 1980s by the great Moroccan, Said Auoita

The undoubted superstar of the early to middle part of the 1990s was Algerian, Noureddin Morcelli.   He had won three world championships in a row in 1991, 1993 and 1995. His technique was blistering speed not tactical caginess.    His great disappointment had been in the Olympic Games in Barcelona 1992.  He had entered those Games as about as a big a favourite as it was possible to be, but a painfully slow final saw him unable to respond to those athletes with more of a kick in the final sprint.

He responded to the crushing failure of his 7th   place in the Barcelona Olympic final, like only a truly world class athlete would.  At a meeting at Rieti in Italy in September 1992, he ran a world record time in an almost unbelievable 3.28.86:  the first athlete to break the 3.29 barrier, and only the third to go under 3.30.

But, of course, times are not everything.  In Athletics the only true measure of a great is Olympic glory.  It is what makes Steve Ovett and Seb Coe immortal, but Steve Cram merely great (even though of the three he had the fastest time over 1500 metres).   The fact that the Olympic Games only comes around once every 4 years makes such glory rare and thereby more precious: athletes do not get many opportunities for gold.

Morcelli was absolutely determined that he would not miss out again when his turn came in Atlanta in 1996.    He was so determined that after that 1992 final, he did not lose another 1500 metres race for an extraordinary 4 years.

What Morcelli had not bargained for though was a Young Turk rival, well a young Moroccan rival.   At the World Championship in Gothenberg in 1995, the 20 year old Hircham El Guerrouj burst onto the world athletics scene by taking the silver medal to Morcelli.    Although El Guerrouj still lost to the master, there were signs that he might be vulnerable.   El Guerrouj was similar in style to Morcelli – he liked to run hard and fast from the beginning.   Coming into the games, they were easily the two fastest men at the distance.

Both men effortlessly made their way through to the final.   Could the heir apparent take the crown from the King?   All eyes were on the race.  It had the potential to be the greatest 1500 metres final of them all.  (For those who insist on seeing these things only through patriotic eyes, the British were represented by the all but forgotten John Mayock, who didn’t figure much in the race).

The shorter Morcelli hit the front from the gun, squeezed between two giant Kenyans as the race made it way around the first bend. The boyish faced El Guerrouj comfortably followed, keeping his position on the outside.  The pace though was slow and as the first lap was completed, there were fears that a repeat of Barcelona could happen.  Would Morcelli be beaten by quick bursts of speed in the final 100 metres?  Would this give an opportunity for El Guerrouj?

At 400 metres it was the three Kenyans who were in the lead, as ever running as much as a team as individuals.  Immediately behind came Morcelli and El Guerrouj.  As they went through 800 metres the race began to become boxed.  Morcelli in the middle of a line of runners across the track, on his shoulder the young Moroccan.    As they came round the bend to the home straight for the penultimate time, Morcelli was where he wanted to be, at the front, pressing the pace.  The Kenyans now falling behind.   What he hadn’t done though was break El Guerrouj – who continued to follow the pace, comfortably positioned on the outside.

As the bell approached and Morcelli tried to pull away, El Guerrouj put on a burst of speed and went with him.  It looked perfectly poised – the King and the Prince – 1 and 2.  400 metres ago.  A question of who had the speed over the last lap.   The world held its breath.

The bell rang, then El Guerrouj fell – clipping Morcelli in front of him.  He tumbled to the ground out of the race (though like a true athlete he did get up, brush himself down and finish the race in last place).   A slight missed placed foot depriving him of his chance for glory.  The catching of two limbs at speed unbalancing him.  It was all over.  Morcelli powered ahead for the gold.   The world was deprived of the climax it wanted to see.   It was no one’s fault. Lady luck just hadn’t smiled.

A couple of months after the Games, El Guerrouj would demonstrate what might have been by becoming the first man to beating Morcelli, over the distance since that final in Barcelona.  Two years later El Guerrouj would take Morcelli’s world record with an extraordinary 3.26.00, over a second and half faster than anyone else had ever run.  If you want to get an idea of how fast that is – it means averaging 55 seconds per lap.     It is still the world record.  It is still 1 and half seconds faster than anyone else has ever run.   Morcelli is still the third fastest 1500 metre runner of all time.  This was a golden age indeed.

El Guerrouj would have to wait until Athens in 2004 before he would enter the pantheons of Olympic glory, but he would do it style that year – becoming the first athlete since the legendary Paavo ‘the Flying Finn’ Noumi in 1924 to win both the 1500m and 5000m golds in one Games.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Charlie_East_West June 19, 2013 at 7:37 pm

A real hero. Unlike Mary Decker – the self styled golden girl of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. She was accidentally tripped by Zola Budd and instead of dusting herself down and getting back into the race (there were enough laps remaining) she rolled around like drama queen footballer and developed ‘the victim’ persona.

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George_East June 19, 2013 at 10:02 pm

Agreed. 20 years old too. Huge occasion and acted like the true sportsman that he is. The most majestic middle distance runner ever.
As for Decker – most of the then best in the world weren’t even there, because of the Eastern Bloc boycott.

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