Moroccan athletics searches soul after Guerrouj

IFRANE, Morocco, May xx (Reuters) - They tried for almost a decade but no one has run a mile faster than Hicham El Guerrouj.

Moroccan Olympic athlete Ali Ramsi exercises during a training session at a sport complex in Ifrane May 7, 2008. When he retired in 2006, runner Hicham El Guerrouj had earned two Olympic and four world championship gold medals. But with his departure came a realisation that all was not well in Moroccan athletics. Running clubs, the roots of the system, are unable to pay for members' shoes, shirts or bus trips to competitions. Tracks have fallen into disrepair, broken training equipment has not been replaced. REUTERS/Rafael Marchante

When he retired in 2006, Morocco’s middle-distance hero left a void his rivals will try hard to fill in Beijing this summer.

In a career that earned him two Olympic and four World Championship gold medals, “The King of the Mile” dazzled his compatriots.

But with his departure came a realization that all was not well behind the scenes.

Not enough youngsters have emerged to replace the current generation of world-class athletes and maintain Morocco’s status as a world leader in track athletics.

Running clubs -- the roots of the system -- are in poverty, unable to pay for members’ shoes, shirts or bus journeys to competitions. Tracks have fallen into disrepair, broken training equipment has not been replaced.

“I know many young people forced to abandon training to get paid work or leave the country to support their families,” said 1,500-metre specialist Yassine Bensghir during a break at Morocco’s international high-altitude training camp in Ifrane.

The malaise was confirmed when a series of top level athletes including marathon runner Khalid Khannouchi and middle-distance specialist Rashid Ramzi jumped ship, abandoning their country to run for wealthier nations.

In Morocco, money was spent on a small number of top-flight athletes for big international competitions but regional athletics was left to its own devices, said Mustapha Auchar, Morocco’s national athletics technical director since 2007.

“In the 1980s I remember clubs had their own means, their own clothing,” he said. “These days I see athletes dressing any old how, with no funds to organize competitions.”

It might be too early to make a difference at this summer’s Beijing Olympics but change is coming, he says.

Up to 60 million euros ($94.56 million) is being spent on a new national strategy for athletics. Twenty-one synthetic tracks are being laid across the country. Clubs will get more rewards for producing strong athletes who win competitions.

A national athletics centre able to house 150 to 200 athletes is in the works, while new regional training centers will open from 2009 focus on spotting and developing promising youngsters.

Construction of a preparation centre is under way in Ifrane, a mock Swiss village 1,600 meters up in the Middle Atlas mountains where the air pressure is weaker, forcing the lungs to work harder and boosting the body’s ability to absorb oxygen.

Hundreds of sport managers are being taught how to prospect, detect and enhance athletic talent.

Sport officials are also leading a push beyond the traditionally strong areas of middle and long distance running towards field events.

“National records in field events are falling like dominoes,” said Auchar. “When I got here we had three shot putters. Today we have 25.”

Some who left the national team are coming home, others who were training in European clubs are back training in Morocco. “The tide is turning,” said Auchar.

In a country blighted by mass poverty, running vies with football as a dream ticket to a better life.

“The quality of the Moroccan athlete is his temerity -- he suffers a lot,” said Auchar. “At the end of their training in Ifrane they aren’t a pretty sight.”

Groups of young and old jog through the cool morning air in the capital Rabat, the men in tracksuits, the women often covered up in djellaba robes and headscarves. Lone athletes can be seen running along polluted city streets and busy motorways.

“Our motivation is to win the respect of the Moroccan people, to get a name in the rich history of Moroccan athletics and ensure our future,” said Bensghir.

Athletics has become a symbol of modernity for Moroccan women in a conservative society where baring your legs can draw the approbrium of Islamists.

Hurdler Nezha Bidouane, Morocco’s first female world athletics champion, became a crucial role model when she won two gold medals in 1997 and 2001.

She followed in the footsteps of Nawal El Moutawakel, the first Muslim and African female Olympic gold medal winner in 1984 and now Morocco’s sports minister.

A Casablanca women’s road race Moutawakel organizes every year now attracts up to 30,000 participants.

“I think by 2012 we’ll have plenty of women able to climb the Olympic podium in London or at least reach the finals,” Morocco’s 800-meter Beijing hopeful Hasna Benhassi told Reuters.

A few of Morocco’s Beijing hopes:

* Hasna Benhassi, 29, 800 Meters: 800 meter silver medal in World Championships in Osaka, August 2007, clocking 1:56.99.

* Jaouad Gharib, 36, Marathon: Gold medal at the 2003 and 2005 world athletics championships. Best time: 2:07:02.

* Abderrahim Goumri, 32, Marathon: Achieved a Moroccan national record in London in April, with a time of 2.05.30.

* Amine Laalou, 26, 800 Metres: “He’s a bear who thinks he’s an ant,” said Auchar. “But when he’s on top he’s no different from the best in the world.”

* Mariem Alaoui Selsouli, 23, 5,000 Metres: Bronze medal in 3,000 metres at world indoor championships, Valencia, March 2008.

Writing by Tom Pfeiffer