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."
February 18, 1991
The rest of him is tiny. Morceli stands 5'7¾" 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‚Äö√†√∂‚àö√≤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.
Not everyone was quite so ready to crown Morceli. His own manager, Amar Brahmia, was the soul of caution. "He's an honest guy and will do his best," said Brahmia. "But it's impossible to push a button and run a record. It's better we not think about this record."
Meet director Ray Lumpp reminded Brahmia of the bonus for a world record. "He will be $100,000 richer," Lumpp said.
"No," said Brahmia with a sudden gust of passion. "I know, dollars are very important in America—and in Algeria, too. But it's not our first objective to win the $100,000." Indeed, Morceli later estimated that by choosing to compete in the U.S. this winter rather than in Europe, he had already passed up more than that sum in guaranteed appearance fees. What meant more to him than money, he said, was the chance to become the first Algerian to hold a world track and field record.
The U.S. circuit is fortunate to have him. Perhaps it's the war in the Persian Gulf, or perhaps it's competition from Europe's growing indoor circuit, but whatever the reason, the U.S. indoor circuit continues to slump. Two Grand Prix meets—the Los Angeles Times Indoor Games and the Knights of Columbus meet in Cleveland, both originally scheduled for this weekend—were canceled.
But 10,843 showed up at the Meadow-lands Friday night, an increase over last year's attendance; they were treated not only to Morceli's mile but also to several other outstanding performances. Ten minutes after nipping Greg Foster in the 55-meter hurdles, 6.99 to 7.01, Tony Dees narrowly lost an equally exciting 55-meter dash to his Florida Clippers teammate, Andre Cason, 6.18 to 6.21; Diane Dixon trounced the field in the women's 400, leading from start to finish and clocking 52.58; Istvan Bagyula of Hungary, a 21-year-old junior at George Mason University, cleared 19'¼" in the pole vault, breaking Billy Olson's nine-year-old collegiate record by 2¼"; and Debbie Lawrence of Kenosha, Wis., walked 1,500 meters in 5:54.35, the first time a woman has broken six minutes.
To surpass Coghlan's record, Morceli felt he had to reach the halfway point in 1:54. To help him, Lumpp provided an unusual rabbit—Mike Michno, 28, a first lieutenant in the Air Force who in his spare time has run a creditable 3:40.80 for the 1,500. In December, Michno had written to Lumpp, explaining that he expected to serve a tour of duty in the Persian Gulf soon and would love to run in a major race before he left. Lumpp offered Michno the role of rabbit, and he jumped at it.
The race began well. Michno grabbed the lead from the gun, and Morceli followed him. But after one lap Michno heard Brahmia screaming at him from the infield to slow down. Like a good soldier, he obeyed. It was only when Michno heard 58.5 at the quarter that he realized his own instincts had been right. When he picked up the pace, only Morceli went with him. They ran their second 440 in 56 seconds, opening 20 yards on the field and passing the half in 1:54.5.
With four laps to go, Michno moved outside, leaving Morceli on his own. He passed three quarters in 2:52.7. But whereas Coghlan, in his 1983 world-record effort, had been chased furiously into the last lap by Ray Flynn, Morceli led by 40 yards and showed no sign of distress. A good scare would have helped him immensely. "He's not using the banks at all," Coghlan said later as he watched the race on tape. "You've got to build your momentum in the turns."
Morceli will learn. With the crowd on its feet for the last lap, he hit the finish and squinted up at his 3:50.81 on the arena clock. O'Sullivan was second, in 3:56.75, with Arkansas senior Reuben Reina third, in 3:58.29.
Asked what he thought he could run outdoors, Morceli did not hesitate. "Maybe 3:45, 3:44. [Steve Cram's world record is 3:46.32.] Outdoors, it's more easy," he said, then excused himself. "Thank you very much. I'll be here next year for my second try."
He does not seem like a runner who will burn out. "He has a really sophisticated support system," says TV commentator and former miler Craig Masback, who once competed against both Abderrahmane Morceli and Brahmia. "He has two guys around him who never realized their own potential. Arab athletes weren't accepted in a lot of European meets, never mind in America. They had to do all sorts of things, such as run for no money, just to get into races. Now things have changed, and they arc managing him intelligently."
After Friday night's triumph, even the modest Morceli was moved to repeat a comment that Aouita once made: "Aouita said, 'I was the athlete of the '80s. Morceli will be the athlete of the '90s.' "
Or as O'Sullivan puts it, "At 20, he's got to have it in his mind that he's going to do something outrageous."