He expects to be that man. El Guerrouj had no intention of setting the record last summer in Rome, in the first mile of the outdoor season. But 20-year-old Noah Ngeny of Kenya was running at a record pace—his 3:43.40 that night is now the second-fastest mile in history—so El Guerrouj, in running to beat Ngeny, inadvertently broke the mark before a live television audience back in Morocco. In doing so he became the Famous Running Man known to Berber shepherds, if not GNC salespeople. Seventy-year-old King Hassan II, nursing an acute lung infection, watched that night in his palace. The man who consoled El Guerrouj by cell phone when he fell in Atlanta turned to the president of the Moroccan athletic federation—a former bodyguard who once took a bullet for the king—and said, " El Guerrouj a efface Morceli."
"Effacer? says coach Kada, "is French for, how do you say, when the teacher wipes the blackboard." El Guerrouj had erased Morceli, favorite son of Morocco's political rival, Algeria, and the man on whom El Guerrouj had tripped three summers earlier. Sixteen days after El Guerrouj seized the mile record, King Hassan II died. If you believe the national mythology, he did so a contented man.
El Guerrouj doesn't volunteer the story. He's wary of contributing to his own legend. Effacer, after all, survives in English as efface, used almost exclusively as the back end of the hyphenate self-effacing, which accurately describes El Guerrouj. His favorite sport is tennis, and his favorite player, Pete Sampras. "Because he is timid," says El Guerrouj, who means that Sampras calls attention to himself only through his actions in the athletic arena.
Hassan II's 36-year-old son, Sidi Mohammed, is now the king of Morocco and El Guerrouj's patron. When the runner retires five years from now, he'll never have to work. Says Kada, "I think Hicham will help the poor of this country. He will tell the children not to smoke, not to take the drugs." And he will run the New York City Marathon as a tourist. "Slowly," says El Guerrouj, citing his tortoiselike target time: "2:20 or 2:25."
Sports journalists too often describe great athletes in superhuman terms, and such is the temptation when taking the measure of this man, for whom a 2:20 marathon is a leisurely retirement activity. What makes El Guerrouj interesting, however, isn't his superhumanness; it's his humanness. A cheetah, after all, can run thrice as fast as he can. But in doing so, a cheetah doesn't elevate the rest of us.
The International Olympic Committee, which is trying to effacer its own image as a cynical kleptocracy, is airing a silent television commercial in Africa, Asia and Europe to remind people what the Games are supposed to be about: athletes performing at the highest level. The spot's tag line is CELEBRATE HUMANITY. Its last image is of El Guerrouj, in slow motion, in full stride, exploring new frontiers of human achievement, a single stand-in for the human race.
So the millionaire athlete, at home in his humble dorm room, tries to describe why the mile record means so much to him and why he so desperately wants to win in Sydney. His victories have made him rich (though he scarcely spends his money), famous (though he hardly goes out) and exceedingly special (though his faith forbids him to behave accordingly). Running creates a kind of music in his brain.
But none of that explains why El Guerrouj craves records. This does: "They are occasions," he says, "to bring people happiness."