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Desert Star
Steve Rushin
May 08, 2000
Human running machine Hicham El Guerrouj, world-record holder for the mile and the 1,500, is a towering figure in Morocco and a prohibitive favorite to win the Olympic gold medal
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May 08, 2000

Desert Star

Human running machine Hicham El Guerrouj, world-record holder for the mile and the 1,500, is a towering figure in Morocco and a prohibitive favorite to win the Olympic gold medal

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El Guerrouj built a house for his family to stay in when visiting Rabat, but as his father, in the city with two other offspring, recently told Hicham, "Three people don't need a villa." So family members stay in a small apartment when they find themselves in the capital, and El Guerrouj will one day use the house as his own.

To alleviate the loneliness of the middle-distance runner, El Guerrouj has occasionally ventured into cyberspace. A computer-savvy friend recently toured several chat rooms with the runner at his side and sent El Guerrouj's E-mail address out over the Internet. He received dozens of dispatches from his countrymen, nearly all of which said, indignantly, "We know you are not El Guerrouj."

Hicham's youngest brother, 19-year-old Fathi, trains with the national team as the 12th-best 1,500-meter runner in Morocco. ("It is difficult," says Kada, "because in 1996, when Hicham was 21, he had the world's best time in this event.") But blood ties aside, El Guerrouj and his teammates seem to be a genuine family. "He is helpful to everyone, and everyone loves him," says Ouaziz. "And not because he's a champion. Other athletes become famous and become unfriendly. We see it all the time. When Hicham became a world champion, we told him, 'We love you. Don't change.' He hasn't."

"If he changed now, it wouldn't go down with the group," says Kada, who has trained El Guerrouj for 10 years. "He's very famous in the streets here, you will see, but he maintains around the people a good...in French, the word is comportement."

El Guerrouj has agreed to go to dinner in the medina, which contains Rabat's riotous ancient marketplace, after his evening workout. He's clearly looking forward to this hazardous social experiment. "It doesn't surprise me that a person who has run a 3:43 mile is living a somewhat monastic existence," says Masback, "because of what it takes in terms of aerobic conditioning and sprint conditioning. The mile is at the meeting point of the marathon and the sprints, and it requires extraordinary discipline. At his level the discipline required is super-extraordinary."

"I'm happy with my life here," says El Guerrouj, seated in his dorm, picking at a breakfast of bread and boiled eggs. " Athletics are supported by everyone in Morocco, and that is the source of my motivation: having a whole country behind me."

Resplendent in a butterscotch djellaba, a matching fezlike taguia (purchased by his father on a pilgrimage to Mecca) and black, pointy-toed slip-on shoes called belgha, El Guerrouj looks like an unbottled genie. Which is what he becomes whenever he leaves the sanctum sanctorum of the training complex and ventures into Rabat. There are just 359 kilometers on his Honda CR-V. "I only drive this to and from Ifrane," he says, settling in behind the wheel. "I am focused only on Sydney; my car is focused only on Sydney."

But tonight he's driving to an Andalusian restaurant, his head bobbing to a mix tape of Egyptian, Turkish, Spanish, Moroccan, Berber and American pop music. When El Guerrouj emerges from his car in the old, walled portion of the city—the medina resembles something out of Indiana Jones—bedlam ensues. A small boy standing in a dark doorway begins screaming for his father to come quick: "Baba! Baba! Hicham El Guerrouj!" Hicham El Guerrouj!" The runner playfully jabs at the boy but keeps walking, disappearing ever deeper into the labyrinth of streets so that when the father finally arrives in the doorway, he scolds his son for crying wolf.

A group of grown men plays it cooler. Smoking cigarettes against a shuttered storefront as El Guerrouj approaches, they each casually say, "�a va, Hicham?" as if the nation's biggest celebrity happens by every day. El Guerrouj politely returns their greetings but keeps walking. When he's 10 yards past, one of the men shouts something that causes the others to laugh. They can't see El Guerrouj's face, but he's blushing. "In your legs," the man had said in Arabic, "are billions of dirham."

It's long after dark, and a crowd is now following El Guerrouj. He appears literally to have a whole country behind him. "He is worth 60 million dirham," one man tells another, citing a figure equivalent to almost $6 million. An old man in a grubby jacket says, "He leads the life of princes."

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