Who is Hicham El Guerrouj?
Hicham El Guerrouj is a retired Moroccan middle-distance runner, who was the first man to attain world records in the mile and the 1500-meter races, both indoors and outdoors. A two-time Olympic gold medalist, and four-time world championship gold medalist, he also holds seven of the ten fastest runs in the mile records. He is the first Olympic runner in 80 years since Paavo Nurmi in 1924 to achieve both the 1500-meter and 5000-meter titles in the same Olympics.Inducted into the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) Hall of Fame in November 2014, Hicham was inspired by Said Aouita, a gold medalist in the 5000-meter at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, and began running as a teenager. At the age of 18, he entered the 1992 Junior World Championships in Seoul, and participated in his first Olympic Games in 1996 at Atlanta. At the 2000 Olympic Games, he won the silver medal in the 1500-meter race, and then won the world championships in 2001 and 2003. In a decade long professional sports career, he raced in 86 finals at the 1500-meter and the mile, and won in 83 races. Unfortunately, two of his three losses were at the Olympics. Often referred to as the “King of the Mile”, he retired from competitive racing in 2006.
Childhood & Early Life
Born on September 14, 1974, in Berkane, Morocco, Hicham El Guerrouj was one of the seven children of his parents. His father owned a small restaurant.
His family used to make him run a mile to the bakery to get bread, and run back in just eight minutes before the bread got cold. His brothers and sisters clapped for him and cheered him when he was able to accomplish it.
He played football in school, and was the goalkeeper with the local football team. But when his mother couldn’t wash his muddy clothes everyday due to her many other household chores, he was asked not to play football any more. So to channelize his energy, he started running. When he was 14, he entered a cross-country race, and finished second.
A year later, he won the national cross-country championship in his age group. Soon his talent was recognized, and he left school and joined the National Training Center to be trained as a runner, against his parents’ wishes. Hence, he promised himself that he couldn’t afford to lose as he had to prove to his family that he had taken the right decision.
At 18, he entered the 1992 Junior World Championships in Seoul, and was positioned third in the 5000-meter race, behind Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia and Ismael Kirui of Kenya. In 1993, he came second at the World Junior Cross Country Championships.
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Participating in his first Olympic Games in 1996 at Atlanta, Hicham El Guerrouj ran the 1500-meter final, but unfortunately, with 430 meters to go, he accidentally hit Noureddine Morceli's heel. While Morceli stumbled, Hicham stepped on his heel, lost his balance and fell on the ground.
He finished the race ultimately, but ended up in the last place. When he was weeping uncontrollably in the stadium tunnel, King Hassan II of Morocco called him on the mobile phone, and said, “Do not cry, you are a champion in the eyes of the Moroccan people.” In the same year, at the Grand Prix final in Milan, he defeated Morceli in the1500-meter, and became the first runner to do so in four years.
In the following years, he became the only middle distance runner to win four consecutive world titles in 1997, 1999, 2001, and 2003. At the Sydney Olympics in 2000, he finished second in the 1500-meter, behind Kenyan runner Noah Ngeny. However, he successfully defended his 1500-meter title in the 2001 and 2003 World Championships.
In 2003, Hicham El Guerrouj broke his own records, and set a best of 12:50.24 in the 5000 meters. In the same year, he finished second to Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge in the 5000 meters, and won a silver at the World Track & Field Championships.
The year 2004 started on a poor note for him, but ended with a gold medal. He started the season with a 1500-meter race in Rome, and finished at the eighth position. Next, he entered the 1500-meter and 5000-meter at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece.
The 2000 Olympic bronze medalist Bernard Lagat narrowly defeated him at the Weltklasse Zürich meet in August. In the same month, at the Olympic 1500-meter final, El Guerrouj narrowly beat Lagat by 0.12 seconds, winning the gold medal. He also won the 5000-meter final against Kenenisa Bekele. Hicham retired on May 22, 2006, and did not compete internationally again.
Awards & Achievements
In 1996, he received the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF)award for humanitarian efforts. He set two world indoor records in 1997—a 1500-meter record of 3:31.18 at the Sparkassen Cup, and also set a new indoor best of 3:48.45 in the mile run at the Indoor Flanders meet. In 1998, he broke Morceli's 1500-meter world record (3:27.37) with a time of 3:26.00, in Rome.
In 1999, he broke the world record in the mile set by Morceli, with a time of 3:43.13. Later in the year, he set a new world record over 2000 meter in Berlin at 4:44.79, breaking the mark set by Morceli, by more than three seconds. He also ran the second fastest 3000 meters ever in Brussels.
He was named the IAAF World Athlete of the Year in 2001, 2002, and 2003, and won the IAAF Golden League prizes for being unbeaten in more than 20 races. In fact, he was the first man to win the award in three consecutive years. He was also named the best athlete of the year by the athletics journal ‘Track and Field News’ in 2002. In 2003, he was elected as a member of the IAAF Athletes Committee.
He was the only middle distance athlete to win a share of the jackpot of 50 kilograms (1,608 troy ounces) of gold or US$ 1 million. Till date, he remains the only athlete to have won it three times in a row.
On September 7, 2004, he was honored by King Mohammed VI of Morocco El Guerrouj with the ‘Cordon de Commandeur’. In the same year, he was awarded withthe Prince of Asturias Awards.
He became the first man in 80 years to win both the 1500-meter and 5000-meter titles in the same Olympics, previously won only by Paavo Nurmi in 1924.
Hicham El Guerrouj married Najoua Lahbil, an 18-year-old student at the University Al Akhwaine (ifrane) on September 27, 2003.
He is a simple person. Even at the peak of his career, when he was earning in million dollars, and owned a villa and a spacious apartment, he lived in a one-room apartment at the training center and drove his small Honda SUV.
He is a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador. From 2004 to 2012, he was a member of the International Olympic Committee Athletes' Commission. He is also the Ambassador for Peace and Sport, a Monaco-based international organization, as well as a member of its ‘Champions for Peace’ club, a committee of 54 famous athletes who are committed to spread peace in the world through sport.