As hard as it is to imagine a man running a mile in 3:43.13, the shock in Rome's Stadio Olimpico last week was not that 24-year-old Hicham El Guerrouj of Morocco set a world record at that storied distance. Nor was it the fact that Noah Ngeny, who is only 20 years old and had never broken 3:50, also smashed Noureddine Morceli's six-year-old mark of 3:44-39 by almost a full second, finishing in 3:43-40. No, what stood out on that warm, still night was this: The mind-boggling record came in a real race, one that was not decided until the final strides.
The last race in which two men broke the mile record was in 1958, when Herb Elliott and Merv Lincoln ran 3:54.5 and 3:55-9, respectively, to better Derek Ibbotson's mark of 3:57.2. For some years now, world records have been pursued with a kind of sterile thoroughness. Record attempts have become less true races than lucrative time trials in which one runner chooses his rabbits, names his pace and then tucks in behind them while they do his bidding. The usual result is the spectacle of a solitary man straining against the clock over the final lap.
Last week's race began like other recent world-record attempts, with El Guerrouj following two Kenyan pacemakers through 440 splits of 55.07, 1:51-58 and 2:47.91. When El Guerrouj pulled four yards clear of Ngeny, another Kenyan, down the final backstretch, it seemed that his only remaining opponent was the clock. But as he turned into the homestretch, he glanced at the huge video screen at the end of the stadium and saw, to his horror, that Ngeny had clawed back onto his shoulder. He had to dig hard to hold off this upstart and become the first man to own the full set of four "mile" records: in the 1,500 meters and the mile, indoors and out.
Surely there is a lesson in this race for a sport desperate to reclaim its old popularity. Rarely does a would-be record setter permit anyone in the race who might beat him. That is the deal a meet director must make with the devil-otherwise known as the athlete's agent—to guarantee the presence of a star. El Guerrouj, having established the 1,500 record of 3:26.00 at this Rome meet last year, probably could have kept Ngeny out of this mile. It cannot have hurt that Ngeny was one of El Guerrouj's rabbits on three occasions last year, including the record-setting 1,500.
At 5'9" and 126 pounds, El Guerrouj is also the lightest runner to hold the mile record—and, perhaps as a result, the smoothest, with a gorgeous light stride that betrays no effort. He was born in Berkane, a small city in a citrus-growing region near Morocco's border with Algeria. Like Said Aouita, whom El Guerrouj calls the "hero of every Moroccan runner," El Guerrouj first fell in love with soccer. He might still be struggling to become the world's best short goalkeeper but for his mother's insistence that he find a cleaner sport. Encouraged by a teacher, El Guerrouj began running at 15 and eventually was invited to his country's training center in Rabat.
It took a tremendous disappointment to galvanize El Guerrouj's will. That came at the Atlanta Olympics, where many people gave him a good chance of upsetting Morceli in the 1,500. As the field bunched with over a lap to go, El Guerrouj caught Morceli's heel with his spikes and crashed to the track. He finished dead last. "It was the black point of my life," says El Guerrouj, who was hiding under the stadium, weeping uncontrollably, when a call came from King Hassan. The monarch told him not to despair, because he was young and would have more opportunities.
"After the call by His Majesty, it was another El Guerrouj who was born," the runner says. "There is no similarity to the El Guerrouj before that call and El Guerrouj now."
As an avid student of his event, he knows how classy a club he has joined with this record, including as it does the knighted onetime head of an Oxford college ( Roger Bannister), a U.S. congressman ( Jim Ryun) and a former British member of Parliament ( Sebastian Coe). Indeed, moments after crossing the finish line El Guerrouj beheld Steve Cram, who owned the record before Morceli and was in the infield doing interviews for the BBC. The Moroccan's eyes lit up, and he opened his arms wide to greet Cram. "My favorite mile race," El Guerrouj had said earlier, "was when Cram beat Coe in Oslo [in 1985]-That was a great race."
Now El Guerrouj and Ngeny have given us another.