On the eve of his 40th birthday, Kenya’s Noah Ngeny can still stand proudly as someone who managed the rare feat of both an Olympic gold and a world record.
And yet, it could have been so much better. The 21-year-old shocked everyone at Sydney 2000 when he beat a certain world record holder Hicham El Guerrouj to 1500m Olympic gold.
“This is the biggest upset I’ve ever seen!” claimed the commentator as Ngeny hunted down and then pipped the overwhelming favourite from Morocco, to become the champion. The winning time of 3:32.07 was also an Olympic record that stands to this day.
It seemed like everything was in place for the man who the IAAF described as a “Kenyan prodigy”, who has also run a 1000m world record of 2:11.96 and proved he could come out on top against the very best in his discipline.
However, Sydney would prove to be his last Olympic race ever, as a very unfortunate turn of events meant that he was never the same again, forcing him to retire in 2006 despite only being 28-years-old.
The slump for Ngeny began almost from the get-go, with Kenya’s athletics team denying him a place in the team for the 2001 World Championships due to him continuing to train in Britain. The Olympic champion therefore had to watch on from the sidelines as El Guerrouj re-took his place at the top of the pile, winning 1500m gold in Edmonton.
However, what Ngeny didn’t know was that later in the same year, a hugely damaging incident would happen that meant he’d never challenge for the top again. In an ironic twist, it happened while he was back in Kenya as he was involved in a damaging and unfortunate car crash that severely injured his back and pelvis.
While it didn’t rule him out from ever competing again, it was a blow from which he struggled to recover.
2002 came and went for Ngeny, who spent much of it trying to rebuild his previous athletics prowess he had before the injury. At the end of the year, he sat 15th in the world rankings, which was certainly not demoralising and gave him something to build on.
However, 2003 saw the Olympic champion then miss out altogether on the worlds, being physically unable to even compete at the Kenyan trials due to the affects of his injuries.
The years after his car crash where therefore “frustrating” for the recovering record holder. Sometimes there were still signs of the old spark being there, with Ngeny still managing to run well on occasion. But the spark would often fizzle out, with his road back to the top halted when the injury began to kick in again.
“I have spent more time on the physiotherapy table than in my spikes!” joked Ngeny at the time, as it became very apparent that he was fighting a losing battle to return to the forefront of the 1500m.
By the time he retired in 2006, the man he shocked and humbled six years earlier was now a two-time Olympic champion at 1500m and 5000m, a four-time world champion and the 1500m world record holder.
While Ngeny retains a record of his own in the 1000m, his career in athletics is definitely one of unrealised potential.
Had he not been injured could he have set up one of the sport’s biggest ever rivalries with El Guerrouj? Would he have still been overwhelmed by the sheer speed of the Moroccan? Would he have even surpassed El Guerrouj as the king of the 1500m?
All of these questions are drowned in hindsight and speculation. Merely a reflection of how unforgiving athletics can really be.
Few can deny that in his era, Hicham El Guerrouj was untouchable. But on that night in Sydney, it certainly seemed as though the 21-year-old from Kenya would give him something to think about.