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Volume 39, Number 6November/December 1988

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Big Hearts at Seoul

Written by Brian Clark and John Lawton
Additional photographs by Brian Clark and Gilles Montgermont

Morocco's two track-and-field medals at the Seoul Olympic Games were both a disappointment and a revelation.

Veteran Said Aouita, one of the finest middle-distance runners in the world, won only a single bronze medal instead of the three golds he had aimed for. But his young countryman and protégé, unheralded Moulay Brahim Boutaib, ran away with a gold medal of his own in the 10,000-meter race.

"They've found another Aouita," cried a British television commentator excitedly as Boutaib set a new Olympic record of 27:21.46 in the event. In fact, had he not slowed to a jog in the last 30 meters of the race, Boutaib would have come far closer to Portugal's Fernando Mamede's world record of 27:13.81.

And for 21-year-old Boutaib, "that world record cannot be too far distant," wrote the athletics correspondent of The Times of London.

After the 10,000 meters, Boutaib admitted that he had been nervous at the start of the race. But he seemed to get stronger as it progressed, keeping pace as first Italy's Salvatore Antibo and then Kenya's Kip Kimeli broke from the pack. At 7000 meters Boutaib, revealing the same raking stride as Aouita, surged smoothly ahead to beat Antibo and Kimeli by at least 30 meters. Just before the finish line, he twisted around to look for the rest of the runners.

"I could not believe I was so far ahead at the finish," said Boutaib at his quarters in the Olympic Village. "I trained very hard for this race, and it paid off for me."

There was no such pay-off for Aouita. Most commentators agreed that he had raced too much since winning a gold medal in the 5000 meters at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics (See Aramco World, September-October 1984). A glutton for titles - he holds world records at the 1500-, 2000-, and 5000-meter distances as well as at two miles - Aouita has run more than 100 races in the past five years, and has lost only four of them.

But those hundreds of kilometers of hard competition have begun to take their toll, and Aouita entered the Seoul Olympics complaining of a twinge in his hamstring and an injured thigh, as well as stomach problems. And though he was able to take the bronze in the 800-meter competition, he was forced to withdraw from the 1500 because of his thigh.

Seoul was the toughest track-and-field competition the world had seen for many years; an athletics medal was harder to win here than m any competition since the Munich Olympics in 1972.

Those Games were the last before a series of boycotts drastically reduced the turnout of athletes and devalued subsequent medal victories. Many African nations shunned Montreal in 1976; some Western and Middle Eastern countries stayed away from Moscow in 1980; and the Eastern bloc shunned the Los Angeles Games in1984.

Between Munich and Seoul, all the world's athletes had come face to face at the World Championships, but with that competition still in its infancy, the Olympics remained the harshest test, even for Aouita. Seoul attracted a record 161 nations and some 9500 competitors.

The slight, 28-year-old Moroccan came in first in his preliminary 800-meter heat, but limped off the track; as the finals began his right thigh and left hamstring were both conspicuously taped. And in the end Aouita's much-vaunted kick was no match for that of the 20-year-old Kenyan Paul Ereng, who loped to an easy victory at 1:43.45, in front of world record holder Joaquim Cruz of Brazil - and in front of Aouita's 1:44.06. It was Aouita's first middle-distance loss in three years.

Though he skipped the press conference after the race, Aouita did speak to an Aramco World reporter. "Sure, I'd like to do it over - but I can't," he said. "All I can say now is that I am happy that a fellow-African won the gold medal. I'm pleased with my bronze." He made no mention of his injuries.

But by the quarter-finals of the 1500 meters Aouita looked very uncomfortable, finishing fourth and clutching his thigh. He did not put in another appearance, withdrawing from the 1500 and failing to defend his title in the 5000.

"It was just not meant to be," he said philosophically of his boast, made a few days earlier, that he planned to run the 800-, 1500- and 5000-meter races and take a gold in each. "I will take some time off for my leg to heal and will prepare for my next meets. I am not done by any means: You can bet I will compete in Barcelona."

Aouita seems to thrive on adversity.

The man whom newspapers today refer to as "Morocco's godfather of running" and "the prince of the desert," the man who, last March in Rome, was the first to break 13 minutes in the 5000 meters, the first man in 45 years to hold both the 1500-and 5000-meter records simultaneously - that man, as a boy in Kenitra on Morocco's northwest coast, was the butt of his playmates' jokes because he always lost their running games. "This gave me the ambition to win," he told an interviewer.

His first run arose from a wager with a friend who said he could not beat him in a school cross-country event. Aouita came in third - and was violently sick afterward because, he says, he had had no training. Inadequate training also contributed to his poor showing in one of his first international events, the 1978 World Junior Cross-Country Championships in Glasgow: He came in 34th.

""I was very unhappy because I wanted to win, and I said to myself I will never run as badly again," Aouita recalled in the British television documentary "Arabian Knight." To keep his promise, he began a real training program.

His progress was slow but steady. In 1979 he was ninth in the African Games 1500 meters. Three years later, at the same championships, he won a silver medal in the 1500 and a bronze in the 800. In 1981, he scored his first success in a truly international track event, winning the University Games 1500-meters title. He remained virtually unknown, however, until 1983, when he came from behind to take the bronze medal in the 1500 at the first World Athletics Championships.

Then Aouita won the 1984 Los Angeles 5000 meters in a canter, and set a new Olympic record of 13:05.59. King Hassan II of Morocco made him a Knight of the Order of the Alawite Throne, an honor previously reserved for heads of state. Casablanca gave him the keys to the city. Morocco's fastest train was renamed "The Aouita Express" in his honor.

Now, Morocco has a second hero - "the next Said Aouita," Boutaib is being called - and Aouita has a rival who is also his protege. Boutaib looks enough like Aouita to be his brother; both men are 178 centimeters tall (5'10") with disproportionately long legs, and weigh 62 kilograms (136 lbs.).

Boutaib, the son of a farmer from Khemisset, near Meknes, was coached by Aouita for 18 months prior to the Olympics, and calls the 10,000-meter win the greatest achievement of his career. "It felt very good," he told reporters. "Now, like Aouita, I have a gold medal. He's the best in his events, and I'm the best in mine."

Yet, with the gold medal hanging around his neck, Boutaib added that he was looking forward to running 5000-meter races in the future. No one missed the implication that he would then be going head-to-head with his mentor, and a journalist asked him who would win such a match-up. Boutaib smiled and said gracefully, "That would depend on many things. He is the greatest in that event. But I like challenges and would do my best against him."

Aouita, probably the best athlete the Arab world has ever produced, was also graceful. "This is a good trend for Morocco and the Arab track world," he said. "I'm very pleased to see my countryman Boutaib make such a strong showing. I hope we can build on this, and I know we will."

Aouita is doing his best to fulfill this hope: Two years ago he set up a running school in Casablanca. Since then hundreds of African and Arab athletes have attended its workshops and training camps, and Aouita has traveled to other countries - including Saudi Arabia earlier this year - to talk to promising competitors. He is especially pleased with the new wave of runners from North Africa. "I hope people will think of runners when they hear the name 'Morocco,'" he said.

His system of training, he said, "needs young athletes who can train hard and learn easily. Many people would like to know my secret, but I have no secret. I train hard, hard, hard: That is my secret."

'We train hard so we can run like the wind," says Fatima Aouam, an Aouita pupil who competed in the women's 1500 meters in Seoul. "The middle-distance events are perfect for us because we are small and light and have the right physical makeup. But most important, we have big hearts, so we can give it all - and then some more."

Aouita smiled at Aouam's explanation. "I want to train athletes for the future for Morocco," he said. "If these athletes apply my system they will be the best in the world. People say I boast a lot, but I don't. They said it was impossible to run 5000 meters in 13 minutes, but I did."

And despite Aouita's failure to win the triple gold he had hoped for, his bronze medal in the 800 and Boutaib's gold in the 10,000 strengthen Morocco's claim to be a middle-distance power-house and a force to be reckoned with in the future. They also show that Moroccan running is no longer a one-man show: Boutaib's 10,000-meters was the fourth fastest ever.

"At first there was just Said," said Fatima Aouam. "But now you will see more of us, like Brahim Boutaib."

"I'm glad I have been able to be a role model," Aouita responded, "and an example of what you can do if you train hard and correctly. I'm also happy that my school in Morocco is producing more top runners."

"Every young Moroccan runner wants to be like Aouita," said Kenneth Kadmiri, a sports writer for Le Matin du Sahara of Casablanca. "And it will be the same with Boutaib. Aouita's influence generally, and his school specifically, are beginning to bear fruit. I think it will get even better in the years to come - and in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, just watch!"

Brian Clark, who also covered the Olympics in Sarajevo and Los Angeles for Aramco World, is a correspondent for the Sacramento Bee and contributes sports articles to the San Jose Mercury and other Northern-California newspapers.

John Lawton is a contributing editor of Aramco World, based in London.

This article appeared on pages 2-5 of the November/December 1988 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for November/December 1988 images.