The eye couldn't help but fasten on Noureddine Morceli and Hassiba Boulmerka as they ran their respective 1,500-meter finals at the world championships in Tokyo last summer. They stood out in their Algerian green, the green of mallards and meadows, the green of Islam. Morceli, the indoor-record holder, was the favorite in the men's race, but Boulmerka was virtually unknown in the women's.
Morceli followed a strong, even pace and kicked early, with a full 400 meters to go. He blasted into the lead so hard, burning 100 meters in a maniacal 12.8 seconds, that he seemed certain to be exhausted well before the homestretch.
Boulmerka didn't claw out of the pack and into the lead until late in the last turn. Behind her was world and Olympic 3,000-meter champion Tatyana Samolenko Dorovskikh of the U.S.S.R., famed for her kick and just beginning to open up.
Morceli covered the second 100 of his last lap in another extraordinary 12.8. His third 100 was yet another 12.8. He had just run the fastest finishing 300 in the history of championship 1,500s, but he still had 100 meters to go and Kenya's Wilfred Kirochi was only five meters back.
Boulmerka, in her homestretch, labored to hold on. She told herself that now was the moment to believe. She had been strong all season. She would be strong once more. And so she was. Dorovskikh could sprint no closer.
Morceli, far from tightening, gained an astounding 10 meters in his last 100. He relaxed across the line in a meet record of 3:32.84. Barely 10 meters past the finish, he sank to his knees and placed his palms and forehead upon the track. There he prayed, motionless, a slender brown man in green, abruptly transformed from conqueror to supplicant.
As Boulmerka won her race by three meters in 4:02.21, she screamed. Slowing, she seized her hair with both hands and kept on screaming, as if her passion were so great that it might burst her brain. "I screamed for joy and for shock, and for much more," she said when at last she was able to explain. "I was screaming for Algeria's pride and Algeria's history, and still more." Boulmerka was the first female world champion from her country, which is divided over the very idea of female athletes. "I screamed finally for every Algerian woman," she went on, "every Arabic woman."
Morceli's performance capped an undefeated season that revealed him to be, at 21, the most talented miler who has yet lived. He was humbled. "My prayer was just to God," he said, "to thank him for giving me the power for the victory."
No nation had ever before produced both the men's and women's world or Olympic 1,500-meter champions, and Algeria duly went wild. "At the airport," said Boulmerka, "it took the National Service to control the crowds. They threw mountains of bouquets." Boulmerka, overwhelmed, was borne through Algiers in an open limousine. "From the balconies the women threw out candies and wheat seeds. We do it at weddings. The wheat is symbolic of sweet life, basic life."
Boulmerka (pronounced bull-MERK-uh) and Morceli (MORE-sell-ee) were awarded the Medal of Merit, one of Algeria's highest honors. President Chadli Bendjedid was so moved at the ceremony that he kissed Boulmerka on the forehead. There were pledges of money and houses. "And," Boulmerka says, "several leaders of political parties told me, 'You did what we haven't been able to do for years. You brought us together.' "