Algeria’s Noureddine Morceli dominated middle distances in 1990s with world records | Page 2 | Sunday Observer

Algeria’s Noureddine Morceli dominated middle distances in 1990s with world records

8 May, 2022
1500m in progress at the 1993 World Championships in Stuttgart
1500m in progress at the 1993 World Championships in Stuttgart

Noureddine Morceli is an Algerian middle-distance runner and a gold medalist in the 1500 metres at the Atlanta 1996 Summer Olympic Games. He won three straight gold medals at that distance at the World Championships. He also set world records in the 1500m, mile and the 3000 metres in the 1990s.

Morceli was twice the gold medalist in the mile at the 1994 and 1998 Goodwill Games, the Arab champion in the 1500m in 1988, the Millrose Games champion in the mile in 1992 and 1993, the 1500m winner at the 1994 IAAF World Cup, and the overall champion in the 1994 IAAF Grand Prix series. Besides, he was Algerian national champion in the 1500m in 1989.

In international competitions, middle-distance events include the 800 metres, the 1500 metres and the 3000 metres. In English-speaking countries, until the second half of the 20th century, the 880 yards and the mile were run as the equivalents of the 800 metres and the 1500 metres.

An early favourite among middle-distance races was the mile, which in the first half of the 20th century was run in times exceeding four minutes. Breaking the “four-minute barrier” was considered unlikely.

On May 6, 1954, however, the 25-year Roger Bannister of Great Britain set a record of 3:59.4 in a dual meet at Oxford. With increasingly controlled climatic and surface conditions and increasingly accurate timing devices, however, the record was lowered many times thereafter.

Birth and Career

Born on February 28, 1970 in Tenes, Noureddine Morceli attended Riverside Community College in Riverside, California, throughout his career, in winter, he would return there to enjoy the mild climate and train.

At the age of seven Morceli was inspired by his brother Abderrahmane, a world-class runner who finished fourth in the 1500 metres in the 1977 World Cup and represented Algeria at Moscow 1980 and at Los Angeles 1984Summer Olympic Games. Later, his brother would become Morceli’s coach.

In the early 1980s, Morceli came to idolize Said Aouita, a Moroccan who won the gold in the 5000 metres in the 1984 Summer Olympic Games. By age 17, Morceli had taken second place in the 1500 metres in the World Junior Championships.

Morceli rose to athletic prominence after winning the silver medal in the 1500m at the 1988 World Junior Championships in Sudbury, Canada, clocking 3:46.93. A year later, he enrolled at Riverside Community College in California, renowned for its coaching and track facilities. He spent two years there, at the end of which he had run the world’s fastest 1500 metres for 1990.

At the age of 20, he was ranked first in the world in the 1500 metres. In 1990, he moved up to senior class and set the season’s best mark of 3:37.87 in 1500m. He continued this dominance into 1991, when he broke the world indoor record for 1500m at Seville, Spain on February 28, setting a new mark of 3:34.16. Only nine days later, on the same track, he won the 1500m title at the 1991 World Indoor Championships with a time of 3:41.57.

Throughout the outdoor season 1991, Morceli remained undefeated over 1500m. At several Grand Prix meetings, he ran times around 3:31. At the World Championships in Tokyo, Japan, Morceli was already a clear favourite for the 1500m and he won the gold easily setting a new World Championships record of 3:32.84.

In the beginning of 1992, Morceli ran a new 1000m indoor world record of 2:15.26. There seemed to be no greater certainty for a gold medal at the Olympic Games in Barcelona later that year than Morceli. But prior to the Olympic Games Morceli lost unexpectedly to Gennaro di Napoli in Rome and David Kibet in Oslo. There were signs that he was not in the same shape as the year before.

However, in the Olympic semi-final he looked strong. The Olympic final was run at a woefully slow pace, with the field passing through the 800m mark in a slower time than in the women’s final. That was not the sort of pace to which Morceli had become accustomed, or that he was comfortable with, and when the frantic sprint for home began, he found himself unable to respond, eventually finishing a disappointing seventh clocking 3:41.70.

However, after just three days Morceli set a world season’s best in Monaco and a week later he broke his personal best to win in Zurich in 3:30.76. In September 1992, Morceli set a new 1500m world record of 3:28.86 in Rieti.

In 1993, Morceli narrowly missed his own world record when he won the Mediterranean Games in Narbonne in 3:29.20. By that time Morceli had set himself a new aim: to break Steve Cram’s eight-year-old record over the Mile. In Monaco, he narrowly missed the 3000m world record. There was even talk that he might skip the World Championships in order to concentrate fully on the world-record hunt. However, in the end he decided to take part.

At the 1993 World Championships in Stuttgart, Germany, the final of 1500m started at a relatively slow pace, but Morceli was always in complete control, sprinting away in the last lap to win easily and retain his world title with a time of 3:34.24. In the following weeks, he failed twice to set a new world record over the Mile in Berlin and Brussels. But just two days after the race in Brussels he astonished everyone by crushing the record with a time of 3:44.39.

In 1994, he set the new 3000m world record, clocking 7:25.11. He also experimented successfully with the 5000m. In Zurich, he out-sprinted the rest of the field to take the victory and also won the 5000m in Rieti, Italy. Morceli broke the 2000m world record in the following season, setting a new mark of 4:47.88.

Nine days later Morceli set the last world record of his magnificent career, when he lowered his own 1500m record to 3:27.37 in Nice. Only a few days after this he almost broke the record again when he triumphed in 3:27.52 in Monaco. He easily defended the 1500 m World Champion title in Gothenburg. Shortly after, Morceli tried to improve on his Mile record in Zurich but did not succeed.

World Records

Standing 172 cm and weighing 60 kg, he added the outdoor world record for the 1500 metres in 1992, the mile in 1993, and the 3000 metres in 1994. By the end of 1994, the Algerian track star’s accomplishments had reached even greater proportions. In August, after breaking the outdoor world record for 3,000 metres (7:25.11), he could claim five middle-distance world records, which also included (outdoor) the 1500 metres (3:28.86) and the mile (3:44.39) and (indoor) the 1,000 metres (2:15.26) and the 1500 metres (3:34.16).

Morceli was named Athlete of the Year by Track & Field News in 1993 and 1994 and by the International Athletic Foundation in 1994. In that two-year period, he lost only once, at 800 metres. As he set his sights on more records, most notably the 800-metre, 2000-metre, and 5000-metre events, his driving force was a deeply rooted dedication to bring glory to his country. A devout Muslim, during the sacred holy days of Ramadan he would fast from sunrise to sunset despite the rigours of training.

As Morceli looked forward to the 1995 season, sportswriters unabashedly proclaimed him the greatest runner in the world or even the greatest of all time. Perhaps his spirit was best exemplified by his winning performance in the 1994 Grand Prix. Racked with flu, weakened and hacking, he not only ran but left the field behind at the finish.

Morceli was soon tested by a new challenger, Moroccan Hicham El Guerrouj. Morceli bested El Guerrouj in the 1500 metres at the 1995 outdoor World Championships clocking 3:33.73; however, the 1500metres race at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta the following year was considered one of the most dramatic contests in athletics history.

Morceli and El Guerrouj led the field with 400 metres to go when the young Moroccan tripped on his rival’s heel and fell to the ground, allowing Morceli to capture the gold medal in that event. At the Grand Prix final in Milan later that year, however, Morceli lost the 1500metres event for the first time in years to El Guerrouj. Morceli competed in subsequent events, including the 2000 Games in Sydney 2000 Olympic Games, before his eventual retirement.

Atlanta 1996 Summer Olympics

At the start of the 1996 season, Morceli set a world season’s best of 3:29.50. However, a new and serious opponent suddenly appeared on the scene, when Hicham El Guerrouj won in Hengelo in a time of 3:29.51.

The 1500m at 1996 Olympics was the 23rd appearance of the event and one of 12 athletics events to have been held at every Summer Olympics. All three medalists of the previous edition, Fermín Cacho of Spain, Rachid El Basir of Morocco, and Mohamed Suleiman of Qatar returned, along with seventh-place finisher Noureddine Morceli of Algeria and ninth-place finisher Graham Hood of Canada. Morceli had been favored in Barcelona, and was again a favorite in Atlanta; he had won the last three world championships and broken the world record twice.

Hicham El Guerrouj of Morocco was a rising star expected to challenge Morceli; he had come in second at the 1995 World Championships and would go on to win the next four and break the world record himself. Venuste Niyongabo of Burundi would have been another contender but chose not to enter in order to focus on the 5000 metres.

Burundi, Dominica, the Maldives, the Solomon Islands, and Ukraine each made their first appearance in the event. The United States made its 22nd appearance, most among all nations, having missed only the boycotted 1980 Games.

The competition was again three rounds (used previously in 1952 and since 1964). The “fastest loser” system introduced in 1964 was used for both the first round and semifinals. The 12-man semifinals and finals introduced in 1984 and used again in 1992 were followed.

There were five heats in the first round, each with 11 or 12 runners. The top four runners in each heat, along with the next four fastest overall, advanced to the semifinals. The 24 semifinalists were divided into two semifinals, each with 12 runners. The top five men in each semifinal, plus the next two fastest overall, advanced to the 12-man final.

At the time men’s 1500 metres took place at the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia, the standing world record was 3:27.37, established at Nice, France on July 12, 1995 by Noureddine Morceli. The Summer Olympic Games record belonged to Sebastian Coe of the Great Britain at 3:32.53 established in Los Angeles, United States on August 11, 1984.

There were 57 competitors from 37 nations. The maximum number of athletes per nation had been set at 3 since the 1930 Olympic Congress. The event took place on July 29, 31 and August 3. The event was won by Noureddine Morceli of Algeria. Fermín Cacho of Spain was unable to repeat as gold medalist, but took silver to become the fourth man to win two medals in the event.

At the 1996 Summer Olympic Games, Morceli was under enormous pressure. The final was run at an average pace when his main rival, Hicham El Guerrouj, fell down on the final lap. Morceli accelerated and crossed the line first ahead of the defending Olympic champion, Fermín Cacho.

Morceli had dominated the 1500 metres for five years, holding the world record and winning the previous three world championships. But Hicham El Guerrouj, from neighboring Morocco was the rising star, who had chased Morceli in the most recent world championships. This was expected to be the match race. While Morceli had led the semi-finals in close to Olympic Games record time, the final race was much slower and entirely strategic.

Approaching the bell at the end of the third lap, Morceli had moved into the lead with El Guerrouj sprinting up to his shoulder. Morceli held him off with El Guerrouj having to concede position and move in behind Morceli squeezing in front of defending champion, master tactician Fermin Cacho who was perfectly positioned directly behind Morceli. Two strides later, El Guerrouj tripped and fell.

Morceli took off sprinting at the same moment the rest of the field had to evade El Guerrouj’s body on the track. Cacho was forced to leap over the fallen El Guerrouj, almost stepping on him. Next in line Abdi Bile had to jump off the track to the infield. Morceli opened up 2 metres in the process, which he widened to 5 metres down the backstretch.

Cacho and Bile held that gap onto the final straight. Bile faded while Cacho held on until he could see it was futile to catch Morceli, jogging in for silver. Stephen Kipkorir led two other Kenyan teammates around Bile to take bronze. After quickly staggering to his feet, El Guerrouj chased the field but shocked and disheartened, he was unable to catch anybody.

At the end of 1996, Morceli suffered his first 1500m defeat in four years at the hands of El Guerrouj in Milan. In the 1997 World Championships at Athens, Morceli was fourth in 1500m with a time of 3:37.37 and in 1999 at Seville, he qualified for his fifth straight 1500m final at a World Championships, where he dropped out at the bell while well out of medal contention. Morceli’s last appearance at a major international championship was at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney where he could manage only the 24th position with a time of 4:00.78.

Ambassador of Sport

His Personal Best performances: 800 metres - 1:44.79; 1500 metres - 3:27.37 at Nice, France on July 12, 1995; Mile - 3:44.39 at Rieti, Italy on September 6, 1993; 3000 metres - 7:25.11 at Monte Carlo, Monaco on August 2, 1994; 5000 metres - 13:03.85.

In January 2020, he was appointed Secretary of State for Elite Sport, reporting to the Minister of Youth and Sports in the new government chosen by Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune after the presidential election of December 2019. Morceli has no political affiliation to any party in Algeria and was chosen as an independent member in the first Djerad government.

Currently, Morceli serves as an ambassador of the sport by assisting with the International Olympic Commission, the African Games, as well as assisting the development of young track and field athletes in Algeria.

(The author is an Associate Professor, International Scholar, winner of Presidential Awards and multiple National Accolades for Academic pursuits. He possesses a PhD, MPhil and double MSc. His email is [email protected])