Rabat will become the first African city to stage a Diamond League meeting on Sunday (May 22). We unearth the Moroccan capital’s 40-year association with world-class athletics.
In March 1975 Rabat played host to the third IAAF World Cross Country Championships. Staged at the Souissi Racecourse, a quick check of the results reveals a fascinating snapshot of the world of endurance athletics back in the mid-seventies. Kenya and Ethiopia are nowhere to be seen, and the top African in the men’s race – which was won by Scotsman Ian Stewart just seven days after he had landed the European indoor 3000m crown – finished 12th.
New Zealand took the men’s team title from England, with Belgium in bronze. American Judy Brown won the senior women’s crown to help her nation take the team title, while her compatriot Billy Thomas took the junior men’s title. Spain’s future world champs 1500m silver medallist Jose Luis Gonzalez finished second, third was Ireland’s John Treacy, who would go on to take the senior cross country crown on two occasions as well as Olympic marathon silver in 1984.
The Moroccan capital also hosted the 1984 African Championships, which unearthed an impressive cast of champions. Leading the way were Moroccan greats Said Aouita, who captured the men’s 1500m title, and Nawal El Moutawakel, who won a 400m hurdles and 200m double. Just a few weeks later Aouita won Olympic gold at the Los Angeles Games in the men’s 5000m, while El Moutawakel won the women’s 400m hurdles title.
Other noteworthy champions in Rabat that year included men’s 200m victor Nigeria’s Innocent Egbunike, who three years later won world champs 400m silver; Senegal’s Amadou Dia Ba, who would take Olympic 400m hurdles silver in Seoul 1988; and Gabriel Tiacoh of the Ivory Coast, who went on win Olympic 400m silver in Los Angeles.
More recently the city has hosted the high-class Mohammed VI d’Athletisme de Rabat World Challenge meet, which has taken place annually since 2008 (with the exception of 2014, when the event took place in Marrakech). The eight editions attracted top class performers such as double Olympic champ Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, four-time Olympic gold medallist Allyson Felix and 2012 Olympic champ Kirani James.
The rising quality of the meet has been reflected by a number of outstanding performances at the Complexe Prince Moulay Abdellah. Arguably the best display in Rabat came last year, when Almaz Ayana set an African allcomers record and Ethiopian outdoor record of 8:22.22 for the 3000m.
Almaz Ayana set an Ethiopian 3000m record in Rabat in June 2015. Two months later she went on to win the 5000m world title.
Rabat’s most famous athletic daughter is Nezha Bidouane, who for a five-year period around the turn of the millennium was among the best female 400m hurdlers in the world. At the 1997 Athens World Championships the then-27-year-old caused a major surprise to come from fourth at the penultimate hurdle to pip Olympic champion Deon Hemmings for gold by in a PB 52.97.
Two years later at the Seville World Championships Bidouane conceded her title, edged into silver by an agonising 0.01 to Cuban Daimi Pernia. The Moroccan reclaimed her title at the 2001 Edmonton edition, not before she had won Olympic bronze at Sydney 2000.
Rabat has not only staged world-class cross country and track meets. It is also home to a pioneering annual women’s only 8km road race – the Victoire a Rabat. First staged in 2008 and organised by the aforementioned Bidouane, the president of the Women’s Achievement and Values Association, the race was one of the first gatherings of its kind in the country and the Arab-Muslim world. It has rapidly developed and last year for the first time attracted more than 30,000 runners.
The Diamond League meet will be staged in the Complexe Prince Moulay Abdellah stadium. Built in 1983, it will be a worthy addition to the many splendid stadiums on the Diamond League circuit. It boasts a capacity of 52,000 and has been the regular home of the World Challenge meet. The stadium is regularly used to host football and held two-quarter finals at the 2014 FIFA Club World Cup. It is also the home stadium of 12-time Moroccan First Division champions AS FAR.
But this weekend it’s all about running, jumping and throwing. With it comes a new chapter in Rabat’s eventful track and field history.