For 30 million Moroccans, he is the best thing since couscous. "We are a country of Lilliputians," says one of them, Brahim Boulami, a 3,000-m steeplechaser. "Hicham for us is like nasa and Boeing are for the U.S. It is good to be first in the world at something." The Gulliver he is talking about is Hicham El Guerrouj, the man who is first in the world at one of the toughest of all human challenges: running the mile and its Olympic counterpart, the 1,500 m.
The Moroccans' view of their world-record holder over both distances may be suffused with national pride, but the outstanding middle-distance athletes who have gone before El Guerrouj don't dispute the praise. "He's the best I've seen by a long way," says Sebastian Coe, now Lord Coe, who along with fellow Britons Steve Ovett and Steve Cram traded the mile record between 1979 and 1985. Their reign fell to Africa in 1993, when Algeria's Noureddine Morceli sheared almost 2 sec. from Cram's eight-year-old record.
Then in Rome last year El Guerrouj made that staggering run pale when he peeled the mythical mark down to 3 min. 43.13 sec., almost one and a half seconds faster than Morceli's time. El Guerrouj would have finished roughly 110 m ahead of Roger Bannister, had the first man to break the 4-min.-mile barrier been time-transported to Rome from chilly 1954 England.
It's not so much what he does to the clock that defines El Guerrouj. It is the apparent ease with which he turbines energy down through his heart, lungs and legs onto the track. Like a Menuhin or a Matisse, El Guerrouj is the consummate artist who makes the end product look as simple as a tune-up or a rough draft. That was certainly the impression he left with those of us lucky enough to see him run the 1,500 m at the world championships in Seville last year. He crossed the line slowing down to a 3:27.65 clocking, blowing kisses to the packed stadium after what Coe described as "a definitive performance"; Coe's Olympic record of 3:32.53 seems doomed. And once again El Guerrouj had defeated the only man who can push him to change gears, the brilliant young Kenyan Noah Ngeny.
Another man who should know said of El Guerrouj last month, "The main thought I have about Hicham is his economy of movement, the way in which he is able to move his legs without any hint of strain or overstriding." The expert in question is Bannister, now 71. A meeting with him was one of the enticements for El Guerrouj to run at a meet in London. (Yes, of course he won. He hasn't been beaten over the 1,500 m or the mile since the end of 1997.)
The self-effacing young MoroccanŚhe turns 26 the day before the Games startŚsaid he was honored to meet "Monsieur Bannister" and said Bannister's 3:59.4 time on a cinder track in 1954 was the equivalent of about 3:42 today, or a meter or so ahead of his own Rome record. Sir Roger chuckled and thanked him.
Apart from cinder tracks turning synthetic, training has changed a little since Sir Roger's day. While he packed his into half-hour sessions of 440-yd. repetitions, El Guerrouj reels out a total of 5 hr. a day at a high-altitude camp at Ifrane, in Morocco's Atlas Mountains, wearing to exhaustion a series of rabbits that try to keep up with him. His coach, Abdelkader Kada, has said, "He needs a coach to tell him he is doing too much, not too little."
Since Atlanta in 1996, only two clouds have loomed between El Guerrouj and 1,500-m gold. The first is that he might repeat Atlanta. There, just as he was planning to pass the great Morceli on the last lap, the Algerian's heel and his own knee met. El Guerrouj crashed to the track, and then staggered home last. He beat Morceli in Milan only a month later, but "l'accident" is a ghost that he must exorcise in Sydney. "Hicham needs that medal," says a member of the Moroccan track federation. "He can't miss this. Psychologically, it would be the end of his career."
The late King Hassan II was on the track-side cell phone to console El Guerrouj in Atlanta. Hassan also helped him out on a more delicate matter. El Guerrouj's Achilles' heel, so to speak, is hemorrhoids. The King recommended a doctor and sent his private jet to take El Guerrouj to him. Of course, he could have afforded to get there himself. His lungs and legs earn him about $2 million a year. But when a mere mortal is up there with nasa or Boeing, well, you roll out the royal red carpet.