Now that 2018 has turned into 2019, we are approaching the 20-year anniversary of two achievements which remain among the greatest in the history of middle-distance running.
Two different athletes were responsible for the two accomplishments, which also took place in two different countries. On September 5, Kenyan athlete Noah Ngeny set a new world record in the 1000 metres, completing the race in 2:11.96 at the Rieti Meeting in Italy. Two days later, Hicham El Guerrouj of Morocco became the fastest ever athlete in the 2000 metres at the Internationales Stadionfest in Berlin, crossing the finish line in 4:44.79. Coming up for two decades on, both world records still stand today.
Born in the Uasin Gishu District of Kenya in 1978, Ngeny only took up running at the age of 18 in the mid-1990s. It did not take long for him to prove his natural talent, setting two world records in the 1500 metres and the Mile at junior level. It was in the latter event that he finished second behind El Guerrouj in July 1999, failing to win the race despite recording the second-fastest time in history – 3:43.40, little more than a smidgen behind his competitor’s 3:43.13.
Two months later, though, and Ngeny would be celebrating a historic feat of his own. The legendary Sebastian Coe was the previous holder of the world record in the 1000 metres, having finished a race which is not as common as some of its middle-distance variants in 2:12.18 in 1981. No one had topped that time in 18 years until the Kenyan came along, running it in a stunning 2:11.96 to send shockwaves through the world of athletics. Ngeny’s achievement has hitherto proved unmatchable, with Taoufik Makhloufi the only athlete to have even got within two seconds in the last 20 years.
Ngeny’s success was not completely overshadowed by what El Guerrouj did two days later, but the latter certainly stole some of the limelight away from the former. The Moroccan had to overcome adversity to reach the peak of his powers: he was in an excellent position in the 1500-metre final at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, only to fall and ultimately finish a distant 12th. That was a major blow on the biggest stage of all, but El Guerrouj recovered to set two new world indoor records the following year. He enjoyed another fantastic season in 1999, first breaking the world record for the mile and then also surpassing all previous and future 2000-metre runners by registering a hitherto unbeatable time of 4:44.79.
The pair were rivals throughout their careers, with Ngeny coming closest to breaking El Guerrouj’s dominance of the middle-distance running scene. Each was a phenomenal athlete in his pomp, as evidenced by the fact that no one has been able to set new world records in the 1000 metres or the 2000 metres since September 1999. It would be a major surprise if Ngeny and El Guerrouj were not celebrating the 20th anniversary in a few months’ time with their records still intact.