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Track and Field
Brian Cazeneuve
June 17, 2002
Season of Change?Summer is set to sizzle, with plenty of hot-button issues heading into the nationals
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June 17, 2002

Track And Field

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IAAF Rules for El Guerrouj
Chance of a Lifetime

Ayachi El Guerrouj, a 65-year-old restaurateur from Berkane, Morocco, walked into an eatery in Eugene, Ore., last month, clad in sweatpants and a T-shirt. When he spotted his son Hicham, 27, fidgeting over a salad, he clenched his fists, struck a he-man pose and watched him dissolve into laughter. "It is easy to make him think," said the elder El Guerrouj, "but I know how to bring him to saada [joy]."

These days Hicham, the world-record holder in the 1,500 meters (3:26.00) and the mile (3:43.13), says he's again running with saada, thanks to news that the IAAF, the sport's international governing body, had adjusted its race schedule at the 2003 world championships in Paris and the 2004 Olympics in Athens to accommodate him. Not since Finland's Paavo Nurmi in 1924 has an athlete won the 1,500 and 5,000 in the same Olympics. Beginning with the 1980 Games in Moscow, the two races have been contested on the same day. But after El Guerrouj, the three-time world champion in the 1,500, announced his intention to run the 5,000 in Athens, the IAAF made sure the two events would be held on different days. A similar adjustment in '96 made it possible for Michael Johnson to double in the 200 and 400 in Atlanta.

"Before I learned [of the IAAF decision], I had to make a choice," says El Guerrouj. "I thought my career would have an emptiness no matter which race I chose not to run. Either I would miss a chance for a new challenge, or I would be unfulfilled. Now I will make history doing both."

El Guerrouj won the mile at the Prefontaine in 3:50.89. It was his 62nd victory in 65 races dating to 1996, but two of the losses came in the Olympics. In Atlanta he fell and placed seventh, and in Sydney he broke late from a trailing pack and had to settle for silver behind Noah Ngeny of Kenya. Afterward sympathy rained on El Guerrouj, whom two-time Olympic 1,500-meter champ Sebastian Coe calls "undoubtedly history's greatest miler." Morocco's King Hassan II gave him an SUV. Roger Bannister sent him a sheet inscribed with the signatures of 16 world-record holders in the mile.

When El Guerrouj announced last year that he would start focusing on the 5,000, the reaction in the track world was akin to that in the NBA when Michael Jordan took up baseball. "I'm honored to have run with him even if I could never beat him," Kenya's Bernard Lagat, the Sydney bronze medalist in the 1,500, said last year, "but it is a big loss for the event." El Guerrouj says he will likely wait until next season to start racing in the 5,000. And thanks to the IAAF, perhaps in Paris or Athens he'll get a double dose of saada.

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