29 August 2004

El Guerrouj secures his historic double

Two moments of immortality within the hour: 45 minutes after Kelly Holmes the great Hicham El Guerrouj became the first man in 80 years to add the 5,000 metres to the 1500 in the same Olympics. And he did it with the finish of the games, outsprinting Kenenisa Bekele and Eliud Kipchoge to the line.

Fifteen runners in this race and none of the three that mattered had fully committed before the bell for the final lap. The pace had been fair but now the game was on. Kipchoge, who unexpectedly beat both Bekele and El Guerrouj at the World Championships last summer, was the first to cut, followed by the little wonder that is Kipchoge and the greyhound of El Guerrouj on his tail.

Athletics never comes sweeter than this. Three of the greatest runners ever born with a final bend and an Olympic crown ahead of them. Earlier in the week Bekele had won the 10,000 to match El Guerrouj’s epic 1500. He is the world record holder over the 5,000, his Moroccan rival is the fastest-ever over 1500. Could Bekele find strength and speed enough to sap the older man?

Off the turn El Guerrouj was on the outside, Bekele coming up the middle. The pair of them had the legs of Kipchoge but the final business was not done. Fifty yards out you could not call it but then El Guerrouj dug deep into what many believe is the greatest middle-distance machine in history. Treasure the image. El Guerrouj in extremis is the finest sight. His lean frame seemed to stretch his legs as his shoes bit into the red track in front of us. Bekele was fighting. But El Guerrouj had his man.

The only other runner to achieve the 1500/5,000 double was the Flying Finn, Paavo Nurmi, way back in 1924 and he had to run both races within half-an-hour. But this was another place and another time. This was Athens 2004. This was the crowning of the great omission in our athletics story that Hicham El Guerrouj had not won Olympic gold. In 2004 he won two of them. Seeing him take the second was a memory that will never die.

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