Luck deserts el Guerrouj again in 1,500

THE BALTIMORE SUN

SYDNEY, Australia - Does the Olympic charter dictate that only one giant fall per day? Maybe that explains the escape of the American men's basketball team last night, because Hicham el Guerrouj lost the 1,500 meters.

El Guerrouj stands 5 feet 10, weighs 148 pounds and may be the grandest middle-distance talent the world has ever enjoyed. The Moroccan has established preposterous world records in the mile and the 1,500.

For four years he has traveled with a framed photograph of the tumble he took at the bell lap in Atlanta. Now he will have to carry the memory of a loss to Kenya's Noah Ngeny, who caught him with 15 meters to go in the 1,500 last night.

"In Morocco, everybody follows me after my fall in Atlanta," the 26-year-old said. "They all support and watch athletics. It can be difficult to take this pressure."

It's also difficult to hold off a comer like Ngeny on only one good leg. A minor injury that el Guerrouj refused to use as an excuse slowed his resolve to improve his world record here, and dealt him his first defeat since 1997. That was in a Grand Prix mile, his last failure in the 1,500 had been in Atlanta.

A humble young man who has sought the counsel of Sir Roger Bannister, who broke the four-minute barrier in the mile in 1954, el Guerrouj will come to realize what a rare Olympic final he was involved in last night.

Ngeny, who won't turn 22 until November, is not some fluke 1,500 winner like countryman Peter Rono, who won in 1988 as an unheralded Mount St. Mary's student, or Fermin Cacho, who used the home advantage in Spain in '92. Ngeny's lifetime best is barely two seconds off el Guerrouj's world record of 3:26.00.

Last night's medalists were three of the four fastest men ever in the metric mile. The absentee was Noureddine Morceli of Algeria, who pulled up lame in the semifinals. He was the victor in 1996, when a sobbing el Guerrouj was consoled after his spill by a phone call from his country's monarch.

There was no fall last night, just a dawdling second lap that followed a 54.14 opener from el Guerrouj's pacesetter, Youssef Baba. El Guerrouj was unable to shake Ngeny, who pulled even with 80 meters left and lifted into the lead with 15 remaining.

Another Kenyan, Bernard Lagat, nearly caught el Guerrouj and took the bronze. Guerrouj then iced an upper thigh.

"I've had this injury for two days, [but] there is no excuse," el Guerrouj said through moist eyes. "Noah was No. 1 and I was No. 2, and that is that."

The Olympic 1,500 has produced one world record since World War II, courtesy of Australia's Herb Elliott in 1960. Great Britain's Sebastian Coe held off countryman Steve Cram and became the first double gold medallist in a 1984 classic. All three medallists eclipsed his mark last night, Ngeny showing the way in 3:32.07.

"I have not beaten Hicham," Ngeny said, "but I have won the Olympics."

Nick Hysong bested teammate Lawrence Johnson to become the first U.S. winner in the pole vault since 1968. Mostly it was a marvelous night for the Kenyans, who went 1-2-4 in the 3,000 steeplechase.

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