In 2004, Athens played host to one of the great 1500-meter finals in Olympic history, with Morocco’s Hicham El Guerrouj battling to the finish line with Bernard Lagat.
From the 1996 Olympics through the end of 2003, El Guerrouj was the world’s dominant middle distance runner. He set the world 1500-meter record of 3:26.00 in 1998 and lost only two 1500-meter races during those years. Remarkably, both defeats came in Olympic finals. El Guerrouj was a stride behind eventual champion Noureddine Morceli at the end of the third lap in the 1996 Olympic final. The Morrocan then stepped on the back of Morceli’s foot and lost his balance, elimating El Guerrouj from competition. In the 2000 Games, El Guerrouj led most of the way but was out-kicked by Kenya’s Noah Ngeny, losing the race by a quarter-second.
Despite his 8-year domination, El Guerrouj seemed vulnerable in 2004. A respiratory illness hampered his training early in the year and led to an eighth-place finish in a 1500-meter race in July. El Guerrouj considred dropping out of the Olympics, but an early-August victory convinced him to continue his quest. Just 18 days before the Olympic final, however, the Morrocan lost another 1500-meter race, finishing second to Lagat in Zurich.
The Kenyan-born Lagat, a three-time NCAA champion while attending Washington State University, broke through internationally by finishing third in the 2000 Olympic final, just a stride behind El Guerrouj. He earned silver medals at the 2001 outdoor World Championships and the 2003 World Indoor Championships, then struck gold in the 3000 meters at the 2004 World Indoors. He became a naturalized American citizen in May 2004, but kept the information secret so he could run in the Olympics for Kenya.
The 2004 Olympics:
El Guerrouj and Lagat were both 29 when the Olympic 1500-meter competition began on Aug. 20. El Guerrouj won his initial heat in 3:37.86, while Lagat ran second to Spain’s Reyes Estevez in a separate heat, finishing in 3:39.80. Lagat also placed second in his semifinal, behind Adil Kaouch of Morocco, in a time of 3:35.84. El Guerrouj won his semi, crossing the line in 3:40.87.
In the final on Aug. 24, Lagat led an early Kenyan charge with El Guerrouj dropping back as far back as sixth. El Guerrouj moved up into the second lane on lap two, alongside the Kenyans and Estevez, with Lagat well-positioned on the inside lane. El Guerrouj then charged to the front at the start of the third lap, with Lagat remaining steady, right behind the Morrocan in the inside lane.
The two top contenders maintained their positions until the final turn of lap four, when Lagat moved outside, behind El Guerrouj’s right shoulder, to position himself for the sprint to the finish. Lagat then pulled even on the final straight and took the lead briefly, but El Guerrouj rallied, moving a stride ahead just before the finish line and holding on to win his long-coveted Olympic gold medal, in 3:34.18. Lagat was second in 3:34.30.
El Guerrouj went on to edge Kenenisa Bekele to complete the 1500-5000 Olympic double, a feat that hadn’t been accomplished by anyone since Paavo Nurmi in 1924. Lagat won both the 1500- and 5000-meter gold medals while running for the United States at the 2007 World Championships.