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ATHENS 2004

Happy Day for 1,500 Winner

August 25, 2004|Helene Elliott | Times Staff Writer

ATHENS — In the last moment of solitude he would have before he'd be mobbed and hailed as the Olympic champion at long last, Hicham El Guerrouj knelt on the track and touched his head to the synthetic surface in grateful prayer.

Vilified by his Moroccan countrymen at Sydney four years ago for allowing Noah Ngeny to overtake him in the final 20 meters of a 1,500-meter race, and disappointed eight years ago when he was the favorite at Atlanta but tripped and finished last, the four-time world champion and world-record holder Tuesday earned the gold medal he had chased so persistently.

"It is finally complete," El Guerrouj said after holding off a late challenge from Kenyan Bernard Lagat to cross the finish line in 3 minutes 34.19 seconds.

He shared the joy with his family, hurtling into the crowd to kiss his 3-month-old daughter, Hiba, and drape a Moroccan flag around his shoulders. While the crowd roared and "Zorba the Greek" blared from the loudspeakers at the Olympic Stadium, he did a dance of pure relief and joy.

"I am very happy for my friends, for my family and the king," said El Guerrouj, who also plans to run the 5,000. "I thank the Moroccan and Arabic people for their support. I thank God and my wife for my newborn girl. I'm so happy."

Even Lagat, who couldn't match El Guerrouj's sub-40-second dash over the last 300 meters, did not begrudge El Guerrouj the title.

"He has now achieved it all. This gold medal was the only thing missing," said Lagat, who edged Rui Silva of Portugal for silver, 3:34.30 to 3:34.68. "He deserves it. He's a great athlete, on and off the track, and also a very good friend of mine."

El Guerrouj took the lead at 800 meters, but Lagat was never far behind. Lagat passed El Guerrouj with about 30 meters to go, but El Guerrouj came back for the victory.

"The race was very difficult," he said. "I started powerfully."

And finished a gold medalist.

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Yelena Isinbayeva of Russia set a women's pole vault world record for the fourth time in two months, clearing 16 feet 1 1/4 inches and edging compatriot Svetlana Feofanova and Anna Rogowska of Poland for the gold medal.

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Winning the 100-meter dash has put a target on Justin Gatlin's back and a lot of spotlights in his eyes. But he appears to be comfortable with his new fame and easily advanced out of the heats of the men's 200 with a time of 20.03 seconds. He had run a 20.51 in the first round, motivated by a desire to become the first man to win the 100 and 200 since Carl Lewis in 1984.

"I just wrapped my gold medal up in my suitcase and I haven't looked at it since," he said. "My focus is on the 200 now. I'm a new person."

Shawn Crawford, who finished fourth in the 100, ran a blazing 19.95 in the second round despite easing up over the last few strides. "I was trying to be conservative," said Crawford, who trains with Gatlin in Raleigh, N.C. "Usually I'm out there trying to be Superman, but I can play these games."

Bernard Williams of the U.S. won his heat in 20.40 and also advanced. However, 18-year-old Jamaican sensation Usain Bolt, who suffered a leg injury before the Games, was eliminated in the first round after running fifth in his heat, in 21.05.

Misfortune also befell Sydney 400-meter hurdles gold medalist Angelo Taylor of Decatur, Ga. He stumbled at the next-to-last hurdle and lost his rhythm, finishing fourth in his heat in 48.72.

"I messed up," he said. "I had it and I messed up."

Terrence Trammell of Atlanta, the 2000 silver medalist in the 110-meter hurdles, barely escaped the first round of his event after finishing fifth in his heat. Americans Duane Ross (13.39) and 1996 gold medalist Allen Johnson (13.45) also advanced.

Ezekiel Kemboi led a Kenyan sweep of the 3,000-meter steeplechase with a season-best time of 8:05.81. Brimin Kipruto was second (8:06.11) and Paul Kipsiele Koech was third (8:06.64). Daniel Lincoln, the only U.S. entrant, was 11th in 8:16.86.

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