We set out photojournalist Simon Bruty and I, in search of a specter: the Last Unspoiled Athlete on Earth. Part Woodward and Bernstein, part Stanley and Livingstone, we pursued rumors in much the same manner—and in the same sorts of settings—as one might Noah's Ark or the Holy Grail or the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Which is how we arrived here, on a rocky plain one mile high in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, to see Hicham El Guerrouj stretch his hamstrings before a 40-minute training run. To see El Guerrouj stretch, we were told, is to watch Beethoven crack his knuckles or to hear Caruso clear his throat: The mundane gesture portends an imminent act of human perfection.
A passing shepherd, staff in hand, has halted his bleating flock to contemplate the sight. He speaks only Berber, but El Guerrouj's coach—a gruff man named Abel Kada—also speaks that fading tongue, and he asks this anachronism, this Biblical figure untouched by schools or TV or much in the way of human companionship, "Do you know who he is?"
The shepherd regards El Guerrouj as if regarding an apparition. "I have heard of him on the radio," he says at last. "He is the famous running man."
On a warm night in Rome last July, Hicham El Guerrouj (pronounced HISH-um el guh-ROOSH) ran a mile faster than any other man had. His time of 3:43.13 broke, by more than a second, the six-year-old record of Algeria's Noureddine Morceli. Upon witnessing that feat, the usually impassive coach Kada bolted from the infield and wrapped El Guerrouj in his nation's flag, as if putting out a man on fire. Which is, in essence, what El Guerrouj has become.
At 25 he holds the indoor and outdoor world records in both the mile and its metric equivalent, the 1,500, which he ran in 3:26 flat in Rome in 1998. Last September, in Berlin, El Guerrouj set a world record in the 2,000 meters—by an astounding three seconds—for which sponsors of the meet tastefully awarded him a kilo of gold. Four days earlier, in Brussels, El Guerrouj had run the 3,000 meters for the first time as an adult. His 7:23.09 was the second-fastest time in history. Ten days before that, at a formal coronation in Seville, he had won the world championship in the 1,500, an event he is prohibitively favored to win next September at the Olympics in Sydney.
In short, everything El Guerrouj touched last year turned to a kilo of gold, even though hemorrhoids sat him down—if that's the proper phrase—for a full month in the middle of the outdoor season. Pity, because El Guerrouj had intended to further lower the limbo bar in various events last summer. "For Hicham to prove that he is the biggest athlete in history," says Kada, "he has to break world records." El Guerrouj concurs, and in doing so he confirms the scope of his ambition. "Eventually," he says in French, "I want to have them all, from 1,500 to 5,000."
That El Guerrouj can aspire to such a standard—the biggest athlete in history—owes something to his gifts, which amount to a kind of physical genius. "The recent world-record breakers in middle-distance running—Morceli, but El Guerrouj in particular—have had defining characteristics of very long strides and extremely light carriages, or upper bodies," says Craig Masback, the CEO of USA Track & Field and a former 3:52 miler. "To some extent, we are talking about a machine: El Guerrouj has the cardiovascular system of a man 6'6", the legs of a man 6'2" and the upper body of a man 5'2"."
El Guerrouj is in fact 5'9" (and 126 pounds) but implausibly high-waisted, like an old man in Florida who wears his pants so high that he has to unzip his fly to blow his nose. To understand the blessed efficiency of his body, imagine a centaur composed of Secretariat and Don Knotts. Yet ask El Guerrouj's physiotherapist, Hakim Aomar, what El Guerrouj's unique gifts are, and Aomar, another French-speaking Moroccan, responds in one word: "Dee-scee-pleen!"
"Hicham is so good and so fast, of course, especially at the end of races," says his teammate Zahra Ouaziz, silver medalist in the women's 5,000 at last year's world championships, "but more than that, he is, in French, s�rieux—tr�s s�rieux—about training."
"Hicham is very strong in his mind," concedes Kada, who throws around compliments as if they were 16-pound shots. "I could not know when he was 14 that he would be world champion. But he became a professional: He goes on holiday for one month every year; the other 11 months—they are to focus on his dream."