Practice English Speaking&Listening with: The fastest mile ever run deserves a deep rewind | Hicham El Guerrouj's 1999 World Record

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- It's July 7th, 1999.

(suspenseful throbbing music) We're in Rome, Italy,

for the Golden Gala Track and Field Championships.

This is the final stretch of the final lap

of the one mile race.

And it has the potential to make history.

If he finishes strong, Hicham El Guerrouj of Morocco

could break the world record for fastest mile ever run,

solidifying his place

as one of the greatest middle-distance runners ever.

But before El Guerrouj crosses the finish line,

we need to know how he got to this point.

What this guy is doing here,

and the history of not only this record,

but this whole race.

We need to rewind.

(gentle music)

If you, like me, mostly watched track and field

when it's in the Olympics, you might be surprised

to see pro athletes running exactly one mile.

Basically all major competitions use the metric system,

and offer the 1500 meter event

as a near equivalent to the mile.

But the International Association of Athletics Federations

maintains the mile in competition and record-keeping

for reasons at least partially nostalgic.

The English mile, 5,280 feet,

has been used officially since the 16th century.

In the centuries following, it became a go-to distance

for the increasingly popular amateur sport of foot racing.

Enough so, that pros joined amateurs in racing a mile,

and enough that after the IAAF formed in 1912,

they recognized exactly one non-metric world record.

A mile time of just over four minutes and 14 seconds,

set by American track star John Paul Jones

at the 1913 IC4A Championships.

(soft electronic music)

Jones, I should mention,

was an Olympian in the 1500 meter event,

as are many of the best mile runners.

It makes sense.

Anyway, the world record crept lower and lower

through the 1940s, as two Swedes took turns breaking it.

But these guys never crossed the round-numbered barrier

of four minutes.

Gunder Hagg's record of 4:01.4 held for nearly a decade,

despite numerous attempts at a sub-four-minute mile.

Finally, on May 6th, 1954,

Englishman Rodger Bannister did the impossible.

Three minutes, 59 and four tenths of a second.

And that breakthrough kind of reopened the floodgates,

with several new world records each ensuing decade.

Two Australians, a Brit, and a New Zealander,

followed Bannister in pushing the record.

A Frenchman got it below 3:54 for the first time.

A future US Congressman set,

then broke, his own record in the '60s.

And it stood for quite a while until a Tanzanian edged it,

then a New Zealander destroyed it.

The early 1980s gave us another back and forth battle

between two Brits, Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett,

only for Steve Cram to carry the record out of the '80s

with a legendary 1985 run against Coe in Oslo.

And the current record,

the record we're gunning for right now, is 3:44.39.

That was set in 1993, by Algerian Noureddine Morceli,

the undisputed king of middle-distance to start this decade.

This record hasn't been touched in six years,

but it looks like El Guerrouj is on pace to break it now,

which would be far from the first time his story

has intertwined with Morceli's.

El Guerrouj hails from Berkane, Morocco.

He reached prominence in the lead-up

to the Atlanta Olympics, nipping at Morceli's heels

with a silver medal finish in the 1500

at the 1995 World Championships.

But in the '96 Olympic event,

he literally nipped Morceli's heel,

falling as he tried to take the lead with 400 meters to go.

That disastrous 12th place finish in Atlanta

was a low point.

But El Guerrouj received a phone call of consolation

from the King of Morocco, and he rallied.

Over the next couple years, El Guerrouj grabbed three

of the middle-distance world records of note,

the indoor 1500, indoor mile.

Oh, hey, just wanna pause for one second.

It's me, Seth again.

I just wanted to point out

that exactly three minutes and 44 seconds

have elapsed in this video, so that just gives you

a sense of the record we're trying to beat.

All right, back to the video.

And finally, the outdoor 1500 record,

held previously by Morceli.

So here in 1999, El Guerrouj is gunning

to complete his set of middle-distance records

by running mankind's best outdoor mile.

But the circumstances of this final lap

are somewhat unusual.

I wanna rewind real quick to that 1500 meter event,

here in Rome last year.

As El Guerrouj blazes to the finish line

in a record-setting three minutes

and 26 seconds, he's alone.

Well, except for our old friend Steve Cram,

popping in at a very weird time to give a track-side report.

El Guerrouj being alone at the end is typical.

If you're trying to set a record,

you'll usually go for it in a race

where no one has a chance of catching you,

so you won't be distracted from beating the clock.

But rewind a bit further to the end of the third lap

of that 1500, and you'll see El Guerrouj trailing.

This is also normal.

This guy right here is the rabbit, or a pacesetter.

Ever since Roger Bannister employed them

to break four minutes in 1954, rabbits have become

a key feature of any record-setting attempt.

Rabbits enter the race with no intention of winning

or even finishing, they're just there to help.

They run a few laps at exactly the split times

that the record-chaser needs to hit,

serving as a sort of human benchmark.

Then, they drop out because they're so tired

from running part of a world record time.

The reason I draw your attention to this particular rabbit

is because this guy, who is helping El Guerrouj in 1998,

here, in 1999,

he's right here.

This is Noah Ngeny of Kenya, and this time, he's no rabbit.

Ngeny is 20, four years younger than El Guerrouj,

and he's just coming onto the track scene.

This race did have pacesetters,

two of Ngeny's fellow Kenyans, running laps

of around 55 seconds for El Guerrouj's benefit.

When pacesetter William Tanui dropped out,

entering the last lap,

El Guerrouj expected to be alone,

not distracted by a fellow competitor chasing him,

but here we are.

And while Ngeny doesn't look like

he'll overtake El Guerrouj,

the current pace suggests he too has the chance

to beat Noureddine Morceli's time of 3:44.39.

And what an incredible finish that would be.

This race is kind of superfluous in modern track,

but it persists because of its historic significance.

Its world record has progressed in fits and starts

over the last century, thanks to head-to-head rivalries

and individual breakthroughs

in both performance and tactics.

The leader of this run quite literally stumbled

in his first attempt to become the star of his sport.

But now he's trying to own

all of its major world records at once.

And a young runner who helped him set

one of those world records is surprisingly hot on his heels.

Okay, let's see if Hisham El Guerrouj

breaks the mile world record of 3:44.39,

and if Noah Ngeny can bring in the second-fastest mile ever,

right behind him.

Welcome to a moment in history.

- [Announcer] Hisram El Guerrouj is going to hang on.

He's got a world record.

3:43.12, as a matter of fact, both El Guerrouj

and Ngeny went under the former world record time.

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