Though Kada learned to speak English by devouring English-language sports media—he sometimes sounds like the unholy offspring of Jack Buck and Jacques Cousteau—he means focus in its literal sense, not merely as locker room lingo for concentration. El Guerrouj, who has become a millionaire many times over, rises every morning in his dormitory suite at the national team's training center in Rabat, wipes the sleep from his eyes and focuses them on his dream. Or, rather, on his dream deferred: a framed, full-page newspaper photograph of himself sobbing into his hands after finishing dead last in the 1,500 final at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. Says El Guerrouj, standing before the picture, "I keep it here to remind me."
El Guerrouj was preparing to pass Morceli at the start of the bell lap that night—he looked likely to seize the gold medal—when Morceli's heel accidentally clipped El Guerrouj's knee, causing him to stumble and fall to the track in disbelief. Within minutes, in a tunnel beneath what is now the Atlanta Braves' stadium, the 21-year-old runner was handed a cell phone on which King Hassan II of Morocco was holding for an unlikely new national hero. "For the Moroccan people, you are the Olympic champion," the king told El Guerrouj. "Do not feel under pressure. Forget about this."
Recalls Aziz Daouda, who manages El Guerrouj, "Everybody was telling him that night that he was very young and it was not a big deal and he could still be an Olympic champion." But El Guerrouj was inconsolable.
"We were all distraught," says Kada, recalling rationalizations of four years ago that would prove to be prophetic, "but we thought maybe this would be a good thing. If you are an Olympic champion at 21, maybe you end your career at 21. Maybe there is nothing left to work for. Maybe...." Kada pauses, searching for the right phrase in English. "I think," he says at last, reflecting on the newspaper tableau of El Guerrouj in tears, "this picture made him a big athlete."
El Guerrouj is now like the Mordecai Richler character who is "world-famous all over Canada." He's the most famous citizen of his nation of 30 million people—"You will see," sighs Daouda, "he cannot walk 10 meters down the street"—but unheard of in the U.S., where fame is infinitely more exportable. "You have Michael Jackson," El Guerrouj says by way of illustration, "and we have Mickey Jackson," a stock character of a middling Moroccan comedian. El Guerrouj smiles at this irony, and his mouthful of braces belies an old man's wisdom, especially as regards the machinery of modern celebrity.
When he traveled to Portland last December to visit his sponsors at Nike, El Guerrouj went unrecognized. Unless, that is, you count the canny man in the GNC nutrition store who asked him if he happened to be a runner. (Why yes, El Guerrouj confessed, he does enjoy the occasional jog.) He attended a Trail Blazers game and was flabbergasted by the size and enthusiasm of the crowd. "There were 19,000 people," says El Guerrouj. "I was surprised, yes, because it is not like that for track meets in the States." So the fastest man in history over the classic Western distance of one mile sat in a suite at the Rose Garden and politely applauded the middle-range jump shots of Detlef Schrempf.
America, and America's youth, once esteemed the mile. A U.S. high schooler ran a sub-four-minute mile in each of the four years from 1964 ( Jim Ryun) through '67 ( Marty Liquori). Not one U.S. high schooler has done so in the 33 years since. Even El Guerrouj, who has never raced in the U.S. save at the Atlanta Olympics, knows enough to blame the great exterminator of all Western ambition: "You have the video games." Says Ouaziz, "Running and soccer are extremely popular in Morocco. Neither requires much means, so most of us go in that direction."
El Guerrouj is the middle child of seven (four girls and three boys) in a family from the city of Berkane in an orange-growing region of eastern Morocco. "It's like Southern California," says El Guerrouj, if SoCal were 15 miles west of the Algerian border and 15 miles south of the Mediterranean Sea. His father, Ayachi, ran a restaurant that the family still operates. During the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, various El Guerroujes prepare 500 free box dinners each day for the poor. "In Islam," says Hicham, "we are taught that no one is better than anyone else."
While he receives a minimum $50,000 appearance fee almost every time he races, plus bonuses for records (such as the kilo of gold), plus payments from his lucrative contract with Nike, plus expensive favors from Morocco's royal family ( King Hassan II sent his private jet to fetch the runner for treatment of his hemorrhoids), El Guerrouj lives 11 months of the year with his teammates, half of that time in the dormitory in Rabat. Running shoes air out on every windowsill. Although El Guerrouj's two rooms are warmly decorated, they contain few possessions: a stereo, a TV perpetually tuned to the music-video Fun Channel and that ubiquitous Moroccan status symbol, an intricate rug. His remaining toys would fit in the cup holder of the average NBA rookie's Lincoln Navigator.
Much of the time he is not in Rabat, El Guerrouj lives in smaller quarters in Ifrane, a bucolic little city two hours' drive into the Atlas Mountains, where the national team does its altitude training. In Ifrane, where even a wandering shepherd recognizes him, El Guerrouj can't so much as sit unbothered in a caf�. In Rabat he ventures beyond the walls of his training complex on Sunday afternoons. But not always. "For two weeks," he says with some sadness, "my parents were staying 300 meters from here, and I didn't visit them." Training came first.