Great milers have often arrived in the spotlight suddenly, stepping into the glare with their powers already startlingly complete. Roger Bannister, Peter Snell, John Walker, Steve Ovett and Sebastian Coe all leaped straight into the world rankings at No. 1. To that distinguished list, add the name Noureddine Morceli.
In last Friday night's Meadowlands Invitational in East Rutherford, N.J., Morceli ran the mile in 3:50.81. Never mind that in his runaway win, he just missed breaking Eamonn Coghlan's eight-year-old world indoor record of 3:49.78. This was still the third-fastest indoor mile ever run, marking the 20-year-old Algerian as the most precocious middle-distance talent to come along in years, certainly since Steve Cram 10 years ago, and perhaps since Jim Ryun in the mid-'60s.
As recently as two weeks ago, no one was quite sure what to expect from Morceli when he competed in the Wanamaker Mile at the Millrose Games. Though he was ranked first in the world last year at 1,500 meters, the Wanamaker was Morceli's first race since September, and only his fourth ever on a board track. Morceli's biggest test came as he was leading down the penultimate backstretch, when Marcus O'Sullivan, the winner of the last three Wanamaker Miles, tried furiously to sprint past him. O'Sullivan pulled even, but that was as far as he got. It took Morceli all of three strides to shrug him off. He opened 10 yards in the next 100 and hit the tape in 3:53.50, the second-fastest mile to be run on Madison Square Garden's tight, 11-laps-to-the-mile track. "It's not my shape exactly," said Morceli afterward, meaning, ominously, that he had not yet peaked.
"He has tremendous power in his legs," said O'Sullivan. "His legs are just enormous for a miler."
The rest of him is tiny. Morceli stands 5'7�" and weighs 137 pounds. Three days after the Millrose he turned up for a press luncheon in New York in a baggy sweater that threatened to swallow him whole. Sweet and shy, he answered questions patiently, arching his eyebrows and opening his eyes wide.
He grew up in the town of Sidi Akacha, on Algeria's Mediterranean coast. The sixth of 10 children, he attended a school 15 miles from his home. "If I missed the bus, I had to run to school," Morceli recalled. "I missed the bus a lot." Tardiness had its rewards. By the time he was 16, Morceli had clocked 3:50 for the 1,500 meters, the equivalent of a 4:08 mile.
Morceli found his inspiration close to home. Though Sa�d Aouita of Morocco holds the world outdoor record for the 1,500, and Morceli is often compared with him, Morceli seems to most revere one of his own older brothers, Abderrahmane, 34, who finished fourth in the 1977 World Cup 1,500. When Noureddine was nine, he began tagging along behind Abderrahmane whenever he went to the track, jogging and stretching with him.
In 1988 the Kenyan steeplechaser Julius Kariuki suggested to Morceli that he get in touch with Ted Banks, the track coach at Riverside ( Calif.) Community College, where Kariuki had been a student. Three months later Morceli was on campus. He no longer competes for Riverside, but he does plan to return there each fall until he finishes his degree in physical education.
At the press luncheon in New York, the one thing Morceli would not discuss in detail was his training. He revealed only that he had spent the three weeks leading up to the Millrose training near Mexico City, where he occasionally crossed paths with Aouita. "It made me very tough," he said of his first experiment with altitude training.
"Here's to one more week as world-record holder," cracked Coghlan at the same affair.