Morceli banishes ghosts of Barcelona

Picture by Getty

In 1992, Algeria's Noureddine Morceli had entered the men’s 1,500m as the overwhelming favourite, but had finished only seventh.

Inspired by that failure, he promptly won 52 races in a row and came to the 1996 Games as a triple world champion, as well as the world record holder over 1,500m, a mile and 3,000m. The form book suggested he would this time win gold with ease. But he was haunted by his previous failure and he also had to contend with the youthful prowess of Morocco's 21-year-old star Hicham El Guerrouj.

Morceli qualified for the final with a blisteringly fast time, while El Guerrouj comfortably won the other semi-final to set up a fascinating head-to-head between the two North Africans.

In stark contrast to Barcelona four years earlier, where the pace had been slow, Morceli ensured that the Atlanta final was run at a high tempo. He took the lead just after the halfway point and pushed on, dropping everyone in the field except El Guerrouj and the defending champion Fermín Cacho of Spain. With a lap left, El Guerrouj hit his knee against Morceli's heel. Both men stumbled, but while the Algerian regained his balance, the young Moroccan crashed to the track

The other athletes had to run round El Guerrouj, or even hurdle over him. Meanwhile Morceli was sprinting clear. He opened up a 10-metre lead that was never going to be overhauled, and was able to slow down as he reached the line, savouring the moment of victory. A man of great religious conviction, he sank to his knees in thanks and prayer.

It was to prove the highlight of Morceli's career. In the years to come, El Guerrouj would take over as the world's leading middle-distance runner, winning the 1,500m silver medal in Sydney in 2000, and then taking a memorable 1,500m and 5,000m double at Athens 2004.