At first glance the 1500 appears to be a race that will be permanently etched in the Olympic "what could have been" category. A favorable Monday-Thursday-Saturday schedule yielded exceptionally fast rounds. In the heats, Kenyan Laban Rotich sped a 3:35.88, the fastest first round ever, and a time that would have won five of the last six Olympic finals.
In the semis, Morceli upped the ante with an relaxed 3:32.88, the fastest non-final 1500 in history. In Morceli's wake, Frenchman Abdelkader Chekhemani finished 8th in 3:34.84 and earned the distinction of being the fastest non-qualifier ever.
The final promised to be a showdown between world record holder Noureddine Morceli , '92 Olympic champ Fermin Cacho, and Hicham El Guerroudj the 21 year old phenom who in the last year has earned the tag of the 'next greatest thing.'
Unfortunately, slow pacing and a mid-race melee obscured a magnificent performance as Morceli romped the final 800 in 1:48.8 and emphatically nailed down the only missing link in his legacy as the world's greatest miler.
Any chance for a fast time was lost in the first 200 as the field bunched up and crawled through 61.03 and 2:01. splits.
Reminiscent of '92, Morceli was often boxed in a pack where hands seemed more active than legs. Slipping to the outside at 800, Morceli accelerated and seized the pole with 600m to go.
Morceli increased the tempo around the turn and the stage was set for a titanic last lap as Cacho and El Guerroudj moved into position. The first precursor of trouble occurred at the head of the straight as El Guerroudj swung past Cacho and pulled up on Morceli's shoulder instigating brief contact as the Algerian quickened his gait and held his position. El Guerroudj moved out a bit and was running on the outside of lane one when disaster struck 25m from the bell.
Closely scrutinizing several video replays reveals an infinitesimal contact between Morceli's heel and El Guerroudj's knee a stride before the mishap. This was enough to disrupt Morceli's next stride as his right foot hit his left calf and ricocheted about a foot to the right and into the young Moroccan's path. El Guerroudj's spikes caught Morceli's heel and he crashed to the Mondo leaving 83,000 mouths agape in Olympic Stadium. Blasting the curve in 12.84 the Algerian world record holder opened up 5 meters on Cacho and clocked 25.9 for the penultimate 200. The lead stretched to 10 meters before Morceli coasted in as he realized the elusive Olympic gold medal was finally in his grasp.
While we will never know what might have transpired over the last 400 meters, Morceli's easing-up last lap of 53.5 gave every indication that he would have been extremely hard to beat.
Morceli admitted that the win was his only concern,"I wanted to run a tactical race, to save energy and finish with a very strong last lap. If I was challenged that final 200 would have been 25 instead of 27. I was ready to run 1:46 off that pace."
After hurdling El Guerroudj , Cacho regained form remarkably well and nearly matched Morceli closing in 53.7. "I was in good position when El Guerroudj fell. I had to jump over him and Morceli got a 5 meter lead. After that it was impossible to catch him."
Twenty meters back, the rejuvenated Abdi Bile battled with the Kenyan trio of Stephen Kipkorir, Laban Rotich and William Tanui. Bile moved ahead on the backstretch, but Kipkorir prevailed on the runin. "I just tried to be close to Morceli," the 24 year old Kenyan noted, "but it wasn't enough today."
El Guerroudj was thoroughly devastated after the race and was unable to offer a post-race assessment of the catastrophe. Morceli who also had a forgettable first Olympics said "I feel sorry for him, Hachim is a great athlete with a great future."
Splits from start FAT 61.03 2:01.63 (60.6) 2:55.12 (54.49) 3:35. 78 (40.66) from finish 27.6 25.9 (53.5) 26.9 28.3 (1:48.8)
Morceli Feature Story
Meeting with Noureddine Morceli the day after he won the Olympic 1500, a look of immense satisfaction was immediately apparent.
"It was a very special moment in my life" claimed the man who holds four world records. "In the Olympics you just get a chance every four years. If you lose that opportunity, you lose four years of your life. In 1992 I had sciatic nerve problems that restricted my training. My speed was not very good, and my race was very bad. These 1996 Olympics were a big dream for me. Right after the '92 race I made my plans to win an Olympic title. In my career I have won three world championships and set many records, but what I was missing is an Olympic gold medal. I've worked very hard this year and now I have it."
Asked about his tactics for the 1500 final, Morceli replied "Yesterday I showed that I can run any type of race, slow or fast. I was ready to go with any move. If it was slow, I was ready to kick. If it was necessary to run 3:28, I would. I was not concerned about time, only the win. It was very stressful, as the world record holder everyone is eyeing you. In a tactical race [like the final] there is much pushing and accidents can happen. I was very fortunate not to fall with El Guerroudj. I was starting to accelerate in a powerful stride [at the time of the fall] otherwise I may have gone down.
After the Olympics, Morceli heads to his European training base in Switzerland where he will prepare for at least two late season record attempts over 1500 and the mile. "I can still improve in the 1500. I feel that the WR should be 3:25. I can run that time if I get a lot of help." Somewhat lost in Morceli's dominance of the mile for the past seven years is the fact that he is just 26 years old. His six consecutive number 1 rankings, two AOY honors, and remarkable durability comprises one of the most formidable careers in the sport, yet at 26 he still has a great future ahead of him. "When I feel that I've lost my speed, I'll move to the 5K. That may be in 2-3 years. I've already run some tests over 3000 [7:25.11 a test?] and 5000 meters and I am confident of my abilities. Training for those distances is totally different requiring more endurance workouts, while also maintaining speed. I look forward to the competition in the 5k, 12:44 is something very special."
After the European season, Morceli will return to Algeria, resting and partaking in his favorite pastime - underwater harpoon fishing. "My parents live just 1000 meters from the sea, and I've enjoyed harpooning since I was young." While this may be a great environment for Morceli to sharpen predatory skills required of a miler, I can only imagine researchers looking into the cardiovascular benefits of prolonged adolescent submersions.
- END -Special thanks to Sean Hartnett, correspondent for Track and Field News.