Morocco, Land of Football


01 August 2016

As the world’s gaze turns to Rio this August, Morocco will be among the 206 nations competing at the 31st Summer Olympics. The Kingdom is sending 49 athletes to Brazil who will complete in disciplines as varied as golf, Judo, cycling and equestrian.

The bulk of the team is made up by runners, with twenty athletes qualifying over various distances. Historically this is where Morocco has been most successful, especially over the middle and longer distances. In fact, Morocco’s very first Olympic medallist was a runner…

Abdeslam Radi was born in 1929 in Taounate, a town in the Rif Mountains. He soon showed a talent for distance running, and was chosen to represent his newly independent country in the 1960 Rome Olympics alongside 46 of his countrymen. Radi was the only one who made it to the podium, coming second in the marathon to Ethiopia’s Abebe Bikila who set an Olympic record with his time (running barefoot!).

Radi had also run the 10,000 metres a few days beforehand, and his coach pointed to this being the difference between the two athletes. Whatever the result, Radi returned to Morocco a hero – the winner of his country’s first ever Olympic medal.

The 1984 Games in Los Angeles are remembered for many things – Budd and Decker, the Soviet boycott, Carl Lewis’s four golds and a dramatic 1500m between Coe, Cram and Ovett amongst others. For Moroccans, and much of the Muslim world, they are remembered for Nawal El Moutawakel and Saïd Aouita.

El Moutawakel won the inaugural women’s 400 metres hurdles event becoming the first female Muslim born in Africa to become an Olympic champion. She was also the first    

Moroccan gold medallist. Such was her achievement that she received a phone call from King Hassan II, who congratulated her and declared that every girl born that day should be named after her. In 2007, she was named the Minister of Sports, and she is also the current Vice-President of the International Olympic Committee.

At the same games Saïd Aouita demonstrated Morocco’s talent in the middle distances by winning the 5,000 metres and setting an Olympic record. In 1985 he set world records for both the 1,500 and 5,000 (a record that was only beaten in 2008 by current holder Bekele of Ethiopia). He went to Seoul in 1988 to defend his title, but hampered by a hamstring injury he only managed a bronze in the 800 metres. Still, with two medals he became Morocco’s most successful Olympian until…

… Hicham El Gerrouj. Hero of Morocco and scourge of middle distance runners around the turn of the millennium. A dominant career started inauspiciously in Atlanta where a fall in the final of the 1,500m while challenging for the lead cost him the race. In the next four years he set world records for fun, claiming the 1,500m and mile (indoors and outdoors), and the 2,000m. He also became the second fastest over 3,000m. The stage was set for Sydney, but he came second in his chosen event, the 1,500m.

Another dominant four years followed, but El Gerrouj knew that Athens was realistically his last chance to achieve his dream. On August the 24th he took a dramatic gold in the 1,500m, defeating Bernard Lagat by just 0.12 seconds with the lead changing hands three times in the final straight. Four days later he became only the second man in history to win the 1,500m and 5,000m, beating Bekele into second. Having finally achieved his goal he retired from international competition. He is now an ambassador for Peace and Sport, an international organisation serving peace through sport

So what of the future? Morocco still have a strong presence in the middle distance – Abdalaati Iguider will be looking to improve on the bronze he won at London 2012 – but there are chances elsewhere. A strong boxing team is headed by Mohammed Rabii, the number one ranked welterweight in the World Series of Boxing with seven consecutive victories, and there are young athletes competing in other disciplines. Whether Morocco’s total of 22 Olympic medals will have increased by the time the Olympic flame is extinguished is impossible to tell, but what is certain is that Morocco will be taking part in the greatest show on earth… in the true Olympic spirit.