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Desert Star Human running machine Hicham El Guerrouj, world-record holder for the mile and the 1,500, is a towering figure in Morocco and a prohibitive favorite to win the Olympic gold medal

May 08, 2000
May 08, 2000

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May 8, 2000

Desert Star Human running machine Hicham El Guerrouj, world-record holder for the mile and the 1,500, is a towering figure in Morocco and a prohibitive favorite to win the Olympic gold medal

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.

This is an article from the May 8, 2000 issue Original Layout

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, serieux--tres serieux--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."

Though Kada learned to speak English by devouring
English-language sports media--he sometimes sounds like the
unholy offspring of Jack Buck and Jacques Cousteau--he means
focus in its literal sense, not merely as locker room lingo for
concentration. El Guerrouj, who has become a millionaire many
times over, rises every morning in his dormitory suite at the
national team's training center in Rabat, wipes the sleep from
his eyes and focuses them on his dream. Or, rather, on his dream
deferred: a framed, full-page newspaper photograph of himself
sobbing into his hands after finishing dead last in the 1,500
final at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. Says El Guerrouj,
standing before the picture, "I keep it here to remind me."

El Guerrouj was preparing to pass Morceli at the start of the
bell lap that night--he looked likely to seize the gold
medal--when Morceli's heel accidentally clipped El Guerrouj's
knee, causing him to stumble and fall to the track in disbelief.
Within minutes, in a tunnel beneath what is now the Atlanta
Braves' stadium, the 21-year-old runner was handed a cell phone
on which King Hassan II of Morocco was holding for an unlikely
new national hero. "For the Moroccan people, you are the Olympic
champion," the king told El Guerrouj. "Do not feel under
pressure. Forget about this."

Recalls Aziz Daouda, who manages El Guerrouj, "Everybody was
telling him that night that he was very young and it was not a
big deal and he could still be an Olympic champion." But El
Guerrouj was inconsolable.

"We were all distraught," says Kada, recalling rationalizations
of four years ago that would prove to be prophetic, "but we
thought maybe this would be a good thing. If you are an Olympic
champion at 21, maybe you end your career at 21. Maybe there is
nothing left to work for. Maybe...." Kada pauses, searching for
the right phrase in English. "I think," he says at last,
reflecting on the newspaper tableau of El Guerrouj in tears,
"this picture made him a big athlete."

El Guerrouj is now like the Mordecai Richler character who is
"world-famous all over Canada." He's the most famous citizen of
his nation of 30 million people--"You will see," sighs Daouda,
"he cannot walk 10 meters down the street"--but unheard of in
the U.S., where fame is infinitely more exportable. "You have
Michael Jackson," El Guerrouj says by way of illustration, "and
we have Mickey Jackson," a stock character of a middling
Moroccan comedian. El Guerrouj smiles at this irony, and his
mouthful of braces belies an old man's wisdom, especially as
regards the machinery of modern celebrity.

When he traveled to Portland last December to visit his sponsors
at Nike, El Guerrouj went unrecognized. Unless, that is, you
count the canny man in the GNC nutrition store who asked him if
he happened to be a runner. (Why yes, El Guerrouj confessed, he
does enjoy the occasional jog.) He attended a Trail Blazers game
and was flabbergasted by the size and enthusiasm of the crowd.
"There were 19,000 people," says El Guerrouj. "I was surprised,
yes, because it is not like that for track meets in the States."
So the fastest man in history over the classic Western distance
of one mile sat in a suite at the Rose Garden and politely
applauded the middle-range jump shots of Detlef Schrempf.

America, and America's youth, once esteemed the mile. A U.S.
high schooler ran a sub-four-minute mile in each of the four
years from 1964 (Jim Ryun) through '67 (Marty Liquori). Not one
U.S. high schooler has done so in the 33 years since. Even El
Guerrouj, who has never raced in the U.S. save at the Atlanta
Olympics, knows enough to blame the great exterminator of all
Western ambition: "You have the video games." Says Ouaziz,
"Running and soccer are extremely popular in Morocco. Neither
requires much means, so most of us go in that direction."

El Guerrouj is the middle child of seven (four girls and three
boys) in a family from the city of Berkane in an orange-growing
region of eastern Morocco. "It's like Southern California," says
El Guerrouj, if SoCal were 15 miles west of the Algerian border
and 15 miles south of the Mediterranean Sea. His father, Ayachi,
ran a restaurant that the family still operates. During the
Islamic holy month of Ramadan, various El Guerroujes prepare 500
free box dinners each day for the poor. "In Islam," says Hicham,
"we are taught that no one is better than anyone else."

While he receives a minimum $50,000 appearance fee almost every
time he races, plus bonuses for records (such as the kilo of
gold), plus payments from his lucrative contract with Nike, plus
expensive favors from Morocco's royal family (King Hassan II
sent his private jet to fetch the runner for treatment of his
hemorrhoids), El Guerrouj lives 11 months of the year with his
teammates, half of that time in the dormitory in Rabat. Running
shoes air out on every windowsill. Although El Guerrouj's two
rooms are warmly decorated, they contain few possessions: a
stereo, a TV perpetually tuned to the music-video Fun Channel
and that ubiquitous Moroccan status symbol, an intricate rug.
His remaining toys would fit in the cup holder of the average
NBA rookie's Lincoln Navigator.

Much of the time he is not in Rabat, El Guerrouj lives in
smaller quarters in Ifrane, a bucolic little city two hours'
drive into the Atlas Mountains, where the national team does its
altitude training. In Ifrane, where even a wandering shepherd
recognizes him, El Guerrouj can't so much as sit unbothered in a
cafe. In Rabat he ventures beyond the walls of his training
complex on Sunday afternoons. But not always. "For two weeks,"
he says with some sadness, "my parents were staying 300 meters
from here, and I didn't visit them." Training came first.

El Guerrouj built a house for his family to stay in when
visiting Rabat, but as his father, in the city with two other
offspring, recently told Hicham, "Three people don't need a
villa." So family members stay in a small apartment when they
find themselves in the capital, and El Guerrouj will one day use
the house as his own.

To alleviate the loneliness of the middle-distance runner, El
Guerrouj has occasionally ventured into cyberspace. A
computer-savvy friend recently toured several chat rooms with
the runner at his side and sent El Guerrouj's E-mail address out
over the Internet. He received dozens of dispatches from his
countrymen, nearly all of which said, indignantly, "We know you
are not El Guerrouj."

Hicham's youngest brother, 19-year-old Fathi, trains with the
national team as the 12th-best 1,500-meter runner in Morocco.
("It is difficult," says Kada, "because in 1996, when Hicham was
21, he had the world's best time in this event.") But blood ties
aside, El Guerrouj and his teammates seem to be a genuine
family. "He is helpful to everyone, and everyone loves him,"
says Ouaziz. "And not because he's a champion. Other athletes
become famous and become unfriendly. We see it all the time.
When Hicham became a world champion, we told him, 'We love you.
Don't change.' He hasn't."

"If he changed now, it wouldn't go down with the group," says
Kada, who has trained El Guerrouj for 10 years. "He's very
famous in the streets here, you will see, but he maintains
around the people a good...in French, the word is comportement."

El Guerrouj has agreed to go to dinner in the medina, which
contains Rabat's riotous ancient marketplace, after his evening
workout. He's clearly looking forward to this hazardous social
experiment. "It doesn't surprise me that a person who has run a
3:43 mile is living a somewhat monastic existence," says
Masback, "because of what it takes in terms of aerobic
conditioning and sprint conditioning. The mile is at the meeting
point of the marathon and the sprints, and it requires
extraordinary discipline. At his level the discipline required
is super-extraordinary."

"I'm happy with my life here," says El Guerrouj, seated in his
dorm, picking at a breakfast of bread and boiled eggs.
"Athletics are supported by everyone in Morocco, and that is the
source of my motivation: having a whole country behind me."

Resplendent in a butterscotch djellaba, a matching fezlike
taguia (purchased by his father on a pilgrimage to Mecca) and
black, pointy-toed slip-on shoes called belgha, El Guerrouj
looks like an unbottled genie. Which is what he becomes whenever
he leaves the sanctum sanctorum of the training complex and
ventures into Rabat. There are just 359 kilometers on his Honda
CR-V. "I only drive this to and from Ifrane," he says, settling
in behind the wheel. "I am focused only on Sydney; my car is
focused only on Sydney."

But tonight he's driving to an Andalusian restaurant, his head
bobbing to a mix tape of Egyptian, Turkish, Spanish, Moroccan,
Berber and American pop music. When El Guerrouj emerges from his
car in the old, walled portion of the city--the medina resembles
something out of Indiana Jones--bedlam ensues. A small boy
standing in a dark doorway begins screaming for his father to
come quick: "Baba! Baba! Hicham El Guerrouj! Hicham El
Guerrouj!" The runner playfully jabs at the boy but keeps
walking, disappearing ever deeper into the labyrinth of streets
so that when the father finally arrives in the doorway, he
scolds his son for crying wolf.

A group of grown men plays it cooler. Smoking cigarettes against
a shuttered storefront as El Guerrouj approaches, they each
casually say, "Ca va, Hicham?" as if the nation's biggest
celebrity happens by every day. El Guerrouj politely returns
their greetings but keeps walking. When he's 10 yards past, one
of the men shouts something that causes the others to laugh.
They can't see El Guerrouj's face, but he's blushing. "In your
legs," the man had said in Arabic, "are billions of dirham."

It's long after dark, and a crowd is now following El Guerrouj.
He appears literally to have a whole country behind him. "He is
worth 60 million dirham," one man tells another, citing a figure
equivalent to almost $6 million. An old man in a grubby jacket
says, "He leads the life of princes."

Safely inside the restaurant, El Guerrouj poses for pictures
with the waiters. "I don't eat much for breakfast or lunch," he
says, "but I make up for it at dinner." He seems to devour
everything on the menu. His body is a furnace. Everything that
passes through his cake-hole is consumed in the raging inferno
of his hypermetabolism. Just before dinner, at dusk, he ran
2,000 meters five times, with three minutes' rest between runs,
each run conducted at exactly a 4:20 mile pace, with different
partners each time, the rabbits falling away from him like spent
boosters from a rocket ship.

He has always run only because he wanted to. "As a child I ran
to be the fastest in my class," he says over dinner. "Then I ran
to be the fastest in my school. Then the fastest in my region."
At 14 he was the national cross-country champion for his age
group and a promising soccer goalkeeper. At 15 he began to run
with the national team. "When I started, all this was beyond my
dreams," he says. "I was too young to know such a dream was
possible."

Such a dream: A small crowd still stands outside the restaurant
when El Guerrouj departs two hours after entering. An autograph
hound runs alongside with a pen and paper as the Honda drives
off. It's near midnight. At an otherwise deserted red light, El
Guerrouj pulls up next to a teenager on a moped--a Domino's
Pizza delivery boy--and playfully asks for the pie on the back
of the bike. The kid turns his head, sees who the speaker is and
does a double take. He's prepared to surrender the pizza when
the light turns green and El Guerrouj accelerates.

The streets are empty. El Guerrouj stops at a sidewalk
newsstand, gets out of the car and, in this rare foray into the
world at large, spends three minutes amassing a stack of
newspapers and magazines to take back to his dorm room. The
newsagent, a stooped old man, sits on a stool in apparent
ignorance of his customer's identity, but when El Guerrouj goes
to pay for his pile of publications, the old man insists that he
accept them as a gift.

El Guerrouj pays anyway. Inside his wallet, among all the dirham
notes, is a lone $1 bill, given to him six years ago by a friend
returning from the U.S. "For luck," says El Guerrouj, in
English, before letting Kada elaborate. "His friend told Hicham,
'With this one dollar you can become a rich man,'" says the
coach, "and since then, all this has happened." El Guerrouj
returns to his car and drives off into the North African night,
the entire car vibrating to--what else?--Livin' la Vida Loca.

El Guerrouj is alive with a kind of music when he runs, as if
his contracting muscles were firing electrical impulses to his
brain. "The electrical rhythm produced there is a source of
pleasure," Roger Bannister has written of this running high.
"Like that caused by music, it has some interplay with the
rhythms inherent in our nervous systems."

El Guerrouj runs beautifully, his upper body so still that he
resembles a mechanized rabbit at a greyhound track or a man
motionless on a moving sidewalk. As El Guerrouj ran the hills
that surround the national team's complex in Rabat one recent
morning, Kada blurted out of the blue, "He can run 3:40 for the
mile and 3:24 for the 1,500." Later, at lunch, El Guerrouj
looked up from his couscous and said, "I will try to run 3:41
this year." He too spoke unbidden, as if he wanted the figure on
the record, in print, out there and irrevocable.

"One hundred years from now," says Ray Flynn of Ireland, a
former 3:49 miler and now an agent representing runners, "the
mile record will be two or three seconds lower than it is today.
No more." El Guerrouj agrees. "Two or three seconds maximum," he
says in French before repeating in English, "maximum." But, and
here's the thing, he intends to lower it by those two seconds
this summer.

"I think the ego of someone who even conceives of setting the
world record in the mile doesn't allow for a sober look at
things," says Masback. "Given what we know about people having a
certain lung size, improvement would seem limited to five-plus
seconds. But inevitably, with longer legs, stronger muscles, a
larger lung capacity, a better ability to deliver oxygen to the
bloodstream, there may be a 10- to 20-second improvement in the
mile in the next 100 years. The record was roughly 4:12 at the
turn of the last century. So it's improved almost 30 seconds in
the last 100 years."

For the mile record holder, it seems, the handwriting is always
on the wall. This is literally true for El Guerrouj, in whose
dorm room hangs a framed piece of parchment signed by all 16
living mile record setters, from Sydney Wooderson to Morceli,
each of whom appended his record time. The memento was presented
to El Guerrouj by the now-defunct British Athletic Federation,
which asked him to sign an identical souvenir to be given to the
man who breaks his record.

He expects to be that man. El Guerrouj had no intention of
setting the record last summer in Rome, in the first mile of the
outdoor season. But 20-year-old Noah Ngeny of Kenya was running
at a record pace--his 3:43.40 that night is now the
second-fastest mile in history--so El Guerrouj, in running to
beat Ngeny, inadvertently broke the mark before a live
television audience back in Morocco. In doing so he became the
Famous Running Man known to Berber shepherds, if not GNC
salespeople. Seventy-year-old King Hassan II, nursing an acute
lung infection, watched that night in his palace. The man who
consoled El Guerrouj by cell phone when he fell in Atlanta
turned to the president of the Moroccan athletic federation--a
former bodyguard who once took a bullet for the king--and said,
"El Guerrouj a efface Morceli."

"Effacer," says coach Kada, "is French for, how do you say, when
the teacher wipes the blackboard." El Guerrouj had erased
Morceli, favorite son of Morocco's political rival, Algeria, and
the man on whom El Guerrouj had tripped three summers earlier.
Sixteen days after El Guerrouj seized the mile record, King
Hassan II died. If you believe the national mythology, he did so
a contented man.

El Guerrouj doesn't volunteer the story. He's wary of
contributing to his own legend. Effacer, after all, survives in
English as efface, used almost exclusively as the back end of
the hyphenate self-effacing, which accurately describes El
Guerrouj. His favorite sport is tennis, and his favorite player,
Pete Sampras. "Because he is timid," says El Guerrouj, who means
that Sampras calls attention to himself only through his actions
in the athletic arena.

Hassan II's 36-year-old son, Sidi Mohammed, is now the king of
Morocco and El Guerrouj's patron. When the runner retires five
years from now, he'll never have to work. Says Kada, "I think
Hicham will help the poor of this country. He will tell the
children not to smoke, not to take the drugs." And he will run
the New York City Marathon as a tourist. "Slowly," says El
Guerrouj, citing his tortoiselike target time: "2:20 or 2:25."

Sports journalists too often describe great athletes in
superhuman terms, and such is the temptation when taking the
measure of this man, for whom a 2:20 marathon is a leisurely
retirement activity. What makes El Guerrouj interesting,
however, isn't his superhumanness; it's his humanness. A
cheetah, after all, can run thrice as fast as he can. But in
doing so, a cheetah doesn't elevate the rest of us.

The International Olympic Committee, which is trying to effacer
its own image as a cynical kleptocracy, is airing a silent
television commercial in Africa, Asia and Europe to remind
people what the Games are supposed to be about: athletes
performing at the highest level. The spot's tag line is
CELEBRATE HUMANITY. Its last image is of El Guerrouj, in slow
motion, in full stride, exploring new frontiers of human
achievement, a single stand-in for the human race.

So the millionaire athlete, at home in his humble dorm room,
tries to describe why the mile record means so much to him and
why he so desperately wants to win in Sydney. His victories have
made him rich (though he scarcely spends his money), famous
(though he hardly goes out) and exceedingly special (though his
faith forbids him to behave accordingly). Running creates a kind
of music in his brain.

But none of that explains why El Guerrouj craves records. This
does: "They are occasions," he says, "to bring people happiness."

Celebrate, humanity.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY SIMON BRUTY [T of C]COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY SIMON BRUTY PEAK PERFORMER El Guerrouj (decked out in his country's flag) does his altitude training in the arid Atlas Mountains. COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS FULL SPEED AHEAD After winning the 1,500 at the 1997 worlds (left), El Guerrouj set records at that distance, the mile and the 2,000.TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY SIMON BRUTY FAMOUS RUNNING Man El Guerrouj (above, in red taguia) drew a crowd at the Kasbah des Oudaias Mosque in Rabat and left another one outside while he dined (and phoned) at a restaurant in that city. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY SIMON BRUTY STRAITLACED El Guerrouj lives about half of the year in this modest (for a millionaire) dorm room in the national training complex in Rabat.COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES CRUNCH TIME El Guerrouj was about to overtake Morceli (1012) when he went down in the 1996 Olympic 1,500 final.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY SIMON BRUTY Sharp focus El Guerrouj's sights are set strictly on Sydney.
To understand his body's efficiency, imagine a centaur composed
of Secretariat and Don Knotts.
"I'm happy with my life here. The source of my motivation is
having a whole country behind me."
"Hicham is so good and so fast," says Ouaziz, "but he is also
serieux--tres serieux--about training."
"This picture made him a big athlete," Kada says of the
photograph of El Guerrouj sobbing in Atlanta.
"When I started, all this was beyond my dreams. I was too young
to know such a dream was possible."