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Two Aces On A Collision Course

June 23, 1986
June 23, 1986

Table of Contents
June 23, 1986

U.S. Open
Texas Rangers
Milers
Matt Biondi
Rowing
Television

Two Aces On A Collision Course

Middle distance champions Steve Cram and Said Aouita, who represent vastly different cultures, are heading toward a big July showdown

Great milers seem to arise in odd couples, but this is the oddest. Steve Cram, 25, the mile record holder at 3:46.32, is British, cool and loose. Said Aouita, 19 days younger, the 1,500-meter record holder at 3:29.46, is Moroccan, passionate and absolutist.

This is an article from the June 23, 1986 issue Original Layout

Cram is tall, Aouita (pronounced ahooEEta) short. Cram is matter-of-fact, Aouita prideful. Cram is open about his training, or lack of it. Aouita is obsessively secretive.

Cram is Anglican. Aouita is a Muslim who prays five times a day. Cram stands in line to buy tickets to a soccer match. Aouita insists on star prerogatives. Cram enjoys an evening out with friends. Aouita is a loner. Cram is conservative with money. Aouita buys cars and houses like a tennis player.

Cram leans toward the gently routine. Aouita is nomadic. Cram has a sweetheart of a coach. Aouita has only a Machiavellian agent, and he doesn't listen to him much.

And that's just the superficial stuff.

Last year, in a 20-day stretch from July 16 to Aug. 4, Cram broke world records at 1,500 meters (3:29.67), the mile (3:46.32) and 2,000 meters (4:51.39). In the 1,500, at Nice, he beat Aouita by sprinting early in the last lap. Holding on against the African's closing rush, he won by a foot.

Later Aouita went on a tear of his own. In Oslo he became the fastest ever at 5,000 meters (13:00.40), the event he won in the L.A. Olympics. In Berlin, he cut the 1,500 to his 3:29.46. Before they could meet again, both had their seasons ended by hamstring injuries.

They plan a single race at the mile this year, in Oslo on July 5. They are preparing now, each in his own way.

As a boy, Said Aouita sold watermelon seeds in the torrid streets of Fez. He was born the eldest son of a paper-mill worker in Kénitra, Morocco, north of Rabat. When Aouita was about eight, his father lost his job in Kénitra and, with his wife and six children, moved to Fez.

There they lived in two rooms at No. 48 Derb Bouitril, in Fez Djedid. This is New Fez, which dates from the 13th century. To find the house, a visitor is led by eager boys through a dusty maze of narrow, dark, discouraging streets. One sympathizes with a young Aouita's claustrophobia.

"He was already the fastest of us, even then," says a dark-faced man, Abdelrazek Lassri, who is two years older and played with Aouita in these crevasses. "Said's father was often jobless. It was his mother who brought some money home by buying clothes and reselling them on the streets of the Medina, the old Arab city."

Aouita once was punished at Abu Abbas Sebti Junior High School because he came to run without rope-soled sandals. Then his teacher, Abdelazziz Khomssi, realizing the family was too poor to buy any, gave him a pair.

The young Aouita was gentle and withdrawn, yet had churning energy. He was attracted by anything that would get him out, get him up. English might help, so he studied that. "He was bad in history and geography," says Lassri. "In school once, Said was criticized by a teacher because he'd written a mediocre paper. Said answered back, 'What I will not get through the pen, I will get with my legs.' "

At first this meant soccer, but he had a fury that could not be forced into teamwork. Said's brother, Khalid, says, "He does not like to depend on anybody. He wants to decide everything himself."

Aouita began to spend many hours running on the green fields and grounds of two junior high schools just outside Fez's massive city walls. Soon he started to win races, and dream, and talk about his dreams. Says Hamid Hammada, Morocco's steeplechase champion, who trained with him, "He was determined to become a great champion like Kenya's [Henry] Rono. He said running would bring him glory, travel and money."

Bill Cram met his wife, Mia, in West Germany in the '50s, when he was in the Royal Air Force police. Their 28th anniversary was the night last summer that their son Steve broke the world record in the mile in Oslo.

"Three years before Steve was born," says Bill, puttering with his pipe, "I dreamt we were going to have a lad who was to be the best in the world. I mentioned it. That was laughed off."

The Crams are in their parlor at No. 2 Gullane Close, Gateshead, across the coffee-dark River Tyne from Newcastle. "Then one day when he was 9 or 10, he announced: 'I'm going to be the best in the world. At something. I don't know what. But something.' That brought the dream back to me."

At 11, Steve won a 400-meter race, and afterward a sentimental chatterbox of a track coach named Jimmy Hedley introduced himself. He said that Cram looked like a natural miler. Steve felt his life's mission was soccer, but his choice was made for him at the age of 14 when he finished third in the English Schools Junior Cross-Country Championships.

He became a runner's runner, of whom Hedley says, "He is so hard, mentally. I've never seen him give in."

Asked whether there was any sort of turning point in Cram's career, Hedley says, "It wasn't any one thing, but dozens. It was the little cufflinks that he got for being on the winning cross-country team, the badges and ribbons. He loved those as a little lad. It was the interest shown by his parents. You hear about Steven's love of junk food, but Mia Cram put four-star petrol in that body. He's had turned ankles and kidney stones, but I've never seen him with a cold in all his life. It was not being a winner from the first; it was the times we had together, the friends and outings...the simple little daft things, the card games, the putting 10 pence in the box to use the track."

Cram was a good student, bright and self-disciplined. He would go on to graduate from Newcastle Polytechnic in 1983 with a B.A. in sports studies. By 15 he was shooting up into the string bean he would be for years. His stride was long and raking.

"The only thing that troubled me," says his father, "was when he was 16 or 17 and breaking Steve Ovett's junior records, we could get no help from anywhere. Even running for his country was money out of pocket. They give you the bare second-class rail fare, Gateshead to King's Cross, London."

"If I hadn't been working," says his mother, Mia, "we couldn't have kept him in gear and food. In 1978, Adidas refused him shoes, even. Then he ran 3:57, and the man called back. Mind you, I wiped the floor with him."

In 1981, Aouita won the World University Games 1,500 in 3:38.43 and caught the eye of one Enrico Dionisi, of Siena, Italy. Dionisi is a banker, track club manager, and now Aouita's agent. "Talking with Said, I had the impression he was older than he was," says Dionisi. "He reminded me of Sebastian Coe at the same age, so nervous to arrive, so wanting to be someone."

Aouita has been based in Siena since 1983 with his wife, Khadija, a former high jumper. But he travels incessantly between Tyrennia on Italy's west coast, where there is a track he likes, and Fez, where his brother, Khalid, manages his real estate holdings, and Casablanca, where his parents live and where he is rebuilding the villa he received from King Hassan II after the 5,000-meter gold medal in Los Angeles. "He's always moving," says Dionisi with a defensive sigh. "That's the Moroccan tradition."

Aouita arrived with an eye-opening 3:32.54 for 1,500 in 1983. Since then he has demonstrated a prodigious range, from a best 800 of 1:44.38 to his 5,000 record. He may even go longer. "I have found a method which prepares me ideally for all distances from 800 to 10,000," he said not long ago. "It's a method nobody knows." His goals include a 3:45 mile, a 3:27 1,500, a 12:52 5,000 and who knows how much off the 10,000. And he says, "If I weren't flat-footed and didn't have my two annual bouts with Achilles tendinitis that force me to stop for a time, I would already have achieved incredible times."

Aouita's voracity is daunting, especially since almost every race he ran in 1985 became a wild chase after a record. "Said is the only guy I know who gets disappointed when he only breaks three world records in a year," says Britain's Ovett, who had the 1,500 record before Cram and Aouita. "He approaches the sport with an almost religious fervor. He should relax a little more and aim himself like a bullet rather than a machine gun, spraying himself everywhere."

An interesting analogy. "It's funny," Aouita has said. "Every time I see Cram and Coe I want to get inside them, to blow them up, to massacre them. Of course, it's not people I see, but runners I want to dominate...."

Last year Aouita said in an interview, "Everything I do is out of duty for Morocco. When I run abroad before emigrated compatriots, I feel completely like I am in the skin of a Moroccan ambassador. I know that they suffer often abroad, and I hope that because of me they forget their problems for an hour or two. The evening before each meet, I don't tell myself I'm there to set a record, but that I am a Moroccan warrior who has to do battle."

Often, the judgmental severity of desert Islam comes out in Aouita's remarks on competitors. "I think I am the only middle distance runner in the world who doesn't cheat," he says. "I don't ever save myself for the next race. I always give it all. On the other hand, if you see Cram run only 3:57 for the mile, one has to think something is fishy. I don't have that mentality. I always run strongly."

He does, he does. Predictably so. When Cram raced him in the world championship 1,500 in 1983, he noticed that in the qualifying rounds Aouita always blasted into the lead with 500 meters to go. In the final, Cram made a point of reacting as well, and easily out-kicked him.

Aouita, shocked, sagged for a moment and lost second to Steve Scott. That night he made a vow to himself. He might be beaten, but he would never yield, never relent.

Cram is a determinedly regular guy, as resistant to the pressures of world-class racing as any miler ever. This is due to a long, taxing apprenticeship. At 19, he made the final of the Moscow Olympic 1,500. Were he from any other nation, such precocious achievement would have been loudly trumpeted. But he was British, and only the third man. The other two were Ovett and Coe.

Now, at the head of the class and blessed with positivism, Cram is able to work miracles on impossibly short training. In 1983 he missed 10 weeks of the spring and early summer with groin, foot and calf injuries. Yet in early August he won that world championship at 1,500 meters in Helsinki.

In January 1984 he weathered tendinitis in both knees. Then calf pain stopped him for three weeks in June and July and persisted until the L.A. Olympics. He won the silver, in 3:33.40, behind Coe's Olympic-record 3:32.53. Then he appeared in the press tent wearing a hat with wings, which he happily flapped by means of strings down his sleeves.

"Being second may have been the best thing for me," says Cram. "Afterward I had a good winter's training, my best ever. And in one or two races since then I've run, if you like, with gay abandon."

"All of Africa has wanted a man like him," says Senegalese 800-meter runner Moussa Fall of Aouita. Fall moved to Siena to be Aouita's disciple. "At first he wasn't too friendly," he says. "Then I understood. As a world-record holder, he couldn't go around with a 1:50 guy, so I had to get better. [Fall's best is 1:44.68.] It is difficult to be his friend. You have to adopt his way. He knows the path of his life and he knows it very well."

Last July, Aouita and Fall roomed together in Nice. "That 1,500 race," Aouita has said. "What a miserable souvenir." When Cram made his move on the last lap, Aouita ggot hung up behind Spain's Jose-Luis Gonzalez. By the time he was free, Cram had it won, or seemed to. "I knew I was faster than Cram was," Aouita has said. "And even being 10 meters down, I could beat him. But on the backstretch this unfurling of bad luck discouraged me. It was like a bucket of water in my face. But I'd promised not to submit to defeat. I reflected for a fraction of a second and realized I was being a fool. So I accelerated, not to win, but to cut down the gap. It wasn't until 20 meters from the finish, when I saw Cram's legs stagger, that I realized he was at his wit's end, but it was already too late...."

Cram had sensed danger only in those last yards. "But I know when I'm dragging everything out, and I wasn't," he said. "I had something left. I also know why Aouita wept afterward."

Aouita had gone under the previous world-record time but lost the race. "Said didn't sleep that night," says Fall. "If they had another race at midnight, he'd have beaten Cram by 300 meters."

Agreed. By then Cram was on top of a table with a bottle of champagne.

Aldo Morbidi is Aouita's Siena doctor. "I spent 40 days with him in Mexico," he says. "The euphoria and the depression are interesting. He is always concentrated in training, never looks right or left. But when he goes to the track and there are many athletes there, he will not train. He changes his timetable to run alone. That's the fragility of his character."

A friend, Polish steeplechaser Boguslaw Maminski, marvels at Aouita's braggadocio. "If I say I will do a world record," says Maminski, "and [U.S. steeplechase record holder] Henry Marsh sees the words, he will say, 'Ah, a liar.' So I don't talk. But Aouita does, always saying what he can do." Maminski guesses this gets back to Aouita's faith, both in his God and in himself, a faith so strong that friends can kid him about it. "I tell him he can't drink, but he can marry four women. It balances out."

Further, Maminski reports that Aouita once took a sip of champagne. "Allah is right," he said. "This stuff is terrible."

Jimmy Hedley is not dogmatic about a runner's training: "Cram would simply fold up running the 100 miles a week that everyone seems to sing about. He finds that 70 makes him tired, so it's a case of 50 or 60 and his track sessions." These can be intense, however. "I've seen him lie down on the track exhausted after hard, hard, quality 300s. When he got up, he'd left a wet silhouette on the red track, like the shadows of Hiroshima."

Cram's secret is rationality.

And that being the case, he is notably free of airs. "It's not him to be going out with crowds of people," says Hedley. "He's stayed with his own friends." And with his best girl. Karen Waters, now a teacher, met Steve when they were kids. They were married in 1983. "He will not ask for tickets to get his family into races," she says. "I used to stand in a queue with his dad waiting to watch him run for England, because he won't ask. He takes after his dad in that."

Once Cram and his friend Dave Roberts traveled to London to watch an England-Denmark soccer match. Denmark won. They found themselves in a pub afterward surrounded by very large, very loud Danes, all discussing how unfit they felt the English players were, how unfit the English people were.

"Now hang on there," said Roberts, as he stirred things up. "My mate here is English, and he can probably beat the best of you...."

The result was an impromptu race of maybe 500 yards in Regent's Park. "I'd drunk so much that I don't know how I ran," Cram says. Of course he won, defending the nation's honor with style.

These days, Cram's prerace serenity has led others to urge more emotion from him. "Dave Roberts before Oslo was funny," he says. "Saying, with clenched teeth, 'Get in there.'

" 'What do you want me to do?' I said to him. 'Bite people?' Aggression hasn't anything to do with the act of running middle distance races. And there is no pressure apart from what you put on yourself."

Steve Cram knows he will be good because he has been good before, and it makes sense to hope for the best. "In the end," he has said, "you are your own confidence."

Said Aouita knows he will be good because he will die before accepting anything else.

These combatants appear to represent fundamentally different ways. Cram is the exponent of running hard and tactically well for its own sake. Aouita embodies sport less out of love than for conquest. A win by one will not scatter the camp of the other. If anything, the achievements of Aouita and Cram are testimony that both ways are valid.

PHOTOGRAHAM FINLAYSONCram (above) runs along the river Tyne near his home in England; Aouita (left) favors the pastoral landscape around Siena in Italy.PHOTOFABIO PONZIO[See caption above.]PHOTOTONY DUFFY/ALL-SPORTIn the '83 worlds, Cram (left) outkicked Aouita.PHOTOBOB THOMASSteve and his wife, Karen, were childhood sweethearts who got married 2½ years ago.PHOTOGRAHAM FINLAYSONCram is an approachable fellow for kids who want autographs.PHOTOFABIO PONZIOSaid clocks in with a kiss for Khadija.PHOTOROCHARD/PRESSE-SPORTSNo, Aouita isn't a waiter—just an occasional cutup.