For the latest episode of IAAF Inside Athletics, Ato Boldon talks candidly to middle distance legend and 1500m world record holder Hicham El Guerrouj.
Hicham El Guerrouj lined up ahead of the 1500m at the Sydney Olympics as a double world record holder, double world champion, triple world indoor champion and the previous season’s number one ranked athlete.
But something wasn’t right.
“I had fear,” he tells Ato Boldon. “I was scared of not winning so I wanted to do more. And when you do more, in fact you lose; you don’t have to over train, you have to train right. In Sydney I was over trained and that was not good.”
El Guerrouj finished second after being outsprinted by Kenya’s Noah Ngeny. The Moroccan was inconsolable.
“It was extremely hard for me to accept defeat,” he admits. “In fact, in 2001 when I resumed competing, it was difficult to find my motivation. I even thought about retiring.”
The outcomes of El Guerrouj’s Olympic experiences as a 21 and then as a 25-year-old provide lessons that every athlete can learn from.
“I had the experience of Atlanta where I was extremely well prepared physically, scientifically even,” he recalls. “But I didn’t know how to cope with the expectations and the pressure. I didn’t know how to cope with the crowd, with the media. […]
“In Sydney, the exact same thing happened.”
Four years on from that unwelcome silver, in Athens and with two more world titles to his name, it was different. There was pressure – more than ever before. “Athens was intense, too intense,” he says, but crucially, the then 29-year-old also had the experience to handle it.
“In Athens I knew my body and I could control it. I had a connection between my head and my body. I knew and I understood when my body wasn’t well. And that comes with time, with maturity.”
He won; and a further Olympic gold in the 5000m four days later sealed El Guerrouj’s reputation as the greatest of his generation, and a candidate for best of all time. Even now, he says his world record will take some beating, though there is one contemporary athlete he says has the potential.
“It’s a tough record and a tough race. It’s a race that requires a lot of rhythm and a lot of intensity, and [Asbel] Kiprop has what it takes.
“He has the talent, he has the physique, his muscles are really thin, he has fluidity in his race. He is my favourite. I like his style, he is a great athlete!”
Kiprop is indeed a 1500m great: with one Olympic and three World Championship titles that is not up for debate. But he is not the greatest. That accolade remains with El Guerrouj, anointed when he completed his full set of accolades in Athens.
“When I got to Athens I had one and only target on my mind: achieve my goal and change my life. Change my life by becoming an Olympic champion. I deserved it.”
Few could argue with that.
Watch the full interview below.