The Neglected Legacy of El Mabrouk
The story of North Africa’s first World-class middle-distance runner
The most familiar image of Patrick El Mabrouk is of him charging along in a group of athletes into the final home straight of the Olympic 1500 metres of 1952. Josy Barthel, of Luxemburg, and Bob McMillen, of the USA, were the surprising gold-medallist and silver-medallist respectively that day, ahead of the joint World record-holder, Werner Lueg, of Germany. Missing out on a place on the rostrum were Britain’s Roger Bannister, 4th, and El Mabrouk, 5th, though both set national records of 3:46.0 (actually 3:46.30 and 3:46.35).
El Mabrouk really ought to have received much greater recognition than he has ever been accorded for that performance and for others during his career. He had been born in Tegla, Algiers, on 10 October 1928, but his entire international athletics experience was gathered while wearing the colours of France. Algeria had been colonised by the French since 1830, though the first violent outbreaks in what came to be known as the Algerian War would start in 1954 and eventually lead to independence eight years later. El Mabrouk, whose original first name was Mohamed, had left Algeria for France in 1948, and he would become the first athlete of North African origin to reach an Olympic 1500 metres final – and no other would do so for a further 32 years until Omer Khalifa, of Sudan, qualified in 1984.
|France v Finland, 1950. El Mabrouk leads the 1,500.
Prior to El Mabrouk’s arrival in France – which was when he changed his first name, just as his famed fellow-countryman, Alain Mimoun, had done before him – the fastest 1500 metres by any other North African would seem to have been 4:02.2 by Tahar Ben Smaïn, of Morocco, in 1937. From 1912 onwards numerous North Africans had run for France in the International Cross-country Championships, including, of course, Mimoun, but none had made an impression at 1500 metres. El Mabrouk died at the age of 64 on 3 February 1993, and the previous September a fellow-Algerian, Noureddine Morceli, had set a World record of 3:28.86. El Mabrouk’s lifetime thus truly spanned a revolution in middle-distance running.
Surprisingly, none of the informed and cultured French athletics writers of that era from the 1940s onwards – Antoine Blondin, Gaston Meyer, Robert Parienté – seem to have made any great issue out of El Mabrouk’s unique achievements. But then distance-runners from Algeria and Morocco had been readily assimilated into French national teams for the previous 30 years or so, and it was maybe for that reason that El Mabrouk’s ethnic significance was overlooked.
In a concise history of athletics which he wrote in 1962, Meyer merely described El Mabrouk as being “of very great class but fallible in character and inconsistent”, but then Meyer, who was to be a future editor of the influential daily sports newspaper, “L’Equipe”, was coach to El Mabrouk’s predecessor as the No.1 French middle-distance runner, Marcel Hansenne, and so there may have been an element of bias, conscious or otherwise, in his judgment. What is more difficult to explain is that El Mabrouk is equally paid only passing heed in the comprehensive historical analyses of middle-distance running published in more recent years.
The closest followers of athletics in Britain would have soon been alerted to El Mabrouk’s talents because the authoritative London-based monthly magazine, “World Sports”, had reported excitedly in its December 1948 issue that “the greatest stir in French athletics, and perhaps in French amateur sport in general, has been caused by the Algerian middle-distance runner, El Mabrouk, who has a style like the former World record-holder, Jules Ladoumègue”. Most notably El Mabrouk had finished 2nd to Marcel Hansenne in a 1500 metres race in Paris on 2 October in which the times were 3:49.8 and 3:51.1. Hansenne held the French record at 3:47.9 from 1947 and had been the bronze-medallist in the Wembley Olympic 800 metres. Had El Mabrouk, who was then still only 19 years old, moved to France a few months earlier he would surely have been selected for the 1500 metres at those Games – in which 3:51.2 was fast enough for 4th place in the final. He had competed for the post-office sports association, ASPTT, in Algiers from 1945 onwards, though no note of any performances in his native land survives, and he joined the leading French club, Stade Francais, in Paris.
Interestingly, one contemporary French athletics correspondent has said that El Mabrouk was already installed in France in 1947 and travelled with Stade Francais colleagues to Athens for a match against the Greek national team. Loys van Lée, an athletics and rugby-union writer for “L’Equipe”, even relates a tale in his rather fanciful memoirs, published in 1965, that Queen Frederika of Greece singled out El Mabrouk for a special toast at the pre-meeting banquet, and having been wished good health by such a personage the young French Algerian, somewhat flustered, eventually summoned up the courage to rise to his feet with a glass in his hand and respond enthusiastically, “Et vous aussi, votre majesté!”
Another keen observer of El Mabrouk’s athletics promise was the supremo of British athletics, Jack Crump, who combined in an autocratic manner the duties of managing the sport in Britain with writing prolifically about it in the press. Commenting in his monthly column in the “World Sports” issue of February 1949 on recent international cross-country races, he noted, “I’m inclined to regard the Algerian’s success as the most significant”. El Mabrouk had beaten the immensely experienced Belgian, Marcel van de Wattyne, by nine seconds in the annual 7.5-kilometre race organised by an Algiers newspaper, though winter appearances were to remain a rare occurrence for El Mabrouk in the years to come. On the track he would become a very familiar figure to his British rivals and to British fans as he would compete five times in the France-v-Great Britain match which was such an important fixture in those days.
Watched every step of the way by the old champion
In France El Mabrouk was placed in the odd situation of having virtually his every move watched over and reported on in detail by his chief rival. Marcel Hansenne combined amateur athletics competition with his employment as a sports journalist perfectly legitimately, nurtured in his media career by Gaston Meyer, just as he had been coached by him on the track. Thus Hansenne frequently reported on his own races and those of all the other leading French athletes. From the outset in his weekly column in “But Club – Le Miroir des Sports”, a widely read weekly illustrated sports magazine, he lavished praise on El Mabrouk, hailing him as “my successor”, though perhaps the transition came a little too quickly for Hansenne’s comfort. When on 2 October 1949, exactly a year to the day after first making his mark, El Mabrouk ran 3:47.2 for 1500 metres, finishing only four-tenths behind the joint World record-holder, Lennart Strand, of Sweden, Hansenne’s report omitted any mention of the fact that it was his own national record that had been beaten. Maybe he was just being modest.
By the end of 1949 France had three men in the top 10 in the World at the distance – El Mabrouk 5th at 3:47.2, Hansenne 6th at 3:47.4 and Jean Vernier 10th at 3:48.6. Four of the others apart from Strand were Swedish, though the leader was Willy Slykhuis, of Holland, with the World’s 3rd fastest ever time of 3:43.8. Just outside the best 20 for the year was Jean Vernier’s twin brother, Jacques, at 3:53.0.
One of El Mabrouk’s least successful outings was in the match against Great Britain at the White City Stadium, in London, on 1 August when he finished an untimed last in the mile, but as Jean Vernier won from Bill Nankeville and Dick Morris it did not matter too much so far as the points score was concerned. “World Sports”, again up to date with international news, gleefully reported that elements of the French press had claimed that their team had lost the match (82pts to 65) because El Mabrouk and some others were “under-nourished … the French are used to more and better food than they could get in England”.
Presumably better prepared gastronomically the next year when France and GB met at Stade Jean Bouin, in Paris, El Mabrouk won at 1500 metres from Nankeville by three metres with an electrifying finishing sprint, and it was Jean Vernier’s turn to be a distant last – even so, GB took the match again 106-99. Harold Abrahams, the old Olympic champion who was now a prolific athletics correspondent, said of El Mabrouk that he “is probably the best 1500 metres man after Slykhuis in the World”. The lap times, incidentally, were of the customary tempo for that era – 59.2, 2:01.2; 3:07.2.
At the 1950 European Championships in Brussels El Mabrouk was an excellent 2nd to the Flying Dutchman, Slykhuis, at 1500 metres, 3:47.2 to 3:47.8, with Nankeville 3rd in a British record 3:48.0. Four days later Hansenne was 2nd in the 800 metres final, sandwiched between the British duo of John Parlett and Roger Bannister. Maybe the Championships had come just a shade too late for El Mabrouk because he had beaten Slykhuis convincingly at the end of July by 1.6sec. El Mabrouk and Alain Mimoun, who was 2nd to Emil Zátopek at 5000 and 10,000 metres, were able to compete in these Championships because they both lived in France and Algeria was still a French possession.
In the World rankings for the year El Mabrouk was again 5th at 1500 metres, at 3:47.8, with Hansenne 8th and Jean Vernier 15th. There was just the occasional suggestion in the French media that maybe El Mabrouk did not train as hard as he should, and one early season report indicated that he was over-weight for a 3000 metres race in which he was not surprisingly beaten by Gaston Reiff, who was Belgium’s World record-holder at the event and Olympic champion at 5000 metres. At the beginning of 1950 ”But Club” magazine had commented darkly in an editorial that El Mabrouk was “capable of approaching the times of Strand and Hägg, provided he trains”. The two Swedes held the 1500 metres record at 3:43.0. In his prime, El Mabrouk was pencil-slim, weighing 143lb (65kg) for a height of 5ft 10in (1.78m).
He started the 1951 season spectacularly. A mile race was set up at an international meeting at Stade Jean Bouin, in Paris, on 27 May, and El Mabrouk won in 4:08.6, with John Parlett a close 2nd in 4:09.2. El Mabrouk thus beat by 0.6sec the national record of Jules Ladoumègue, which had stood since 1931 and had been a World record when it was set. The objective had certainly been much more ambitious, but the designated pacemaker had reached halfway in 2:06 instead of the intended two minutes flat. Only Bannister, with a best of 4:07.8, ran a faster mile anywhere in the World that year, but El Mabrouk didn’t show the same form against British opposition later in the season.
Returning to the White City in August 1951 France lost again, 115-89, and El Mabrouk was 3rd in the mile to Nankeville and Parlett. Otherwise, though, 1951 was a vintage year for the Franco-Algerian because he had best times of 1:50.1 for 800 metres (compared with 1:52.9 the year before), 3:48.2 for 1500 metres (in both events 5th in the World rankings) and 4:08.6 for the mile (equal 2nd with Nankeville behind Bannister). Competitive highlights were double wins at 800 and 1500 metres in the first Mediterranean Games, held in Alexandria (plus another gold in the 4 x 400 metres relay), and in key matches against Finland and Sweden. His only other loss of the year was to Reiff at 1500 metres in the Belgium-v-France match.
Marcel Hansenne was particularly taken with El Mabrouk’s showing at the Mediterranean Games, though there was some criticism, too, as he wrote; “For a fellow who says he doesn’t like the effort of the 800 metres, El Mabrouk doesn’t do at all badly at the distance. I declare that his result in Alexandria is the one which has impressed me the most this year. El Mabrouk – is he a future 1:49.0 man at 800 metres? We can now think seriously about this. The year 1951 has thus revealed to us a new El Mabrouk, markedly better than he has been in previous years. What is curious is that this transformation is not yet echoed at 1500 metres. We still remain convinced that he should have taken the French record to 3:45 this season”. Hansenne had said at the start of the season that he thought El Mabrouk could run 3:45. By accident or design, the assessment of El Mabrouk’s 800 metres potential still left him short of Hansenne’s brilliant national record of 1:48.3 from 1948.
The prospect of the next Olympic Games in 1952 seemed to weigh heavily with El Mabrouk because Hansenne met up with him in early May of that year and quoted him as saying, “Everybody asks me about winning and I feel that it’s beginning to annoy me. From now onwards every one of my moves will be viewed in the context of the 1500 metres in Helsinki, but I would just like to forget the Olympic Games. I would like to think of this season as being just like the others”. A vain hope, perhaps, and a few days later El Mabrouk’s coach, Marcel Schmitt, was equally sombre and remarkably frank about his protegé: “I think he’s totally lacking in concentration. I would say that he’s ready to do anything to escape the pressure of the Olympics”.
Off on an exotic tour, where the timekeeping was not too reliable!
That pressure could have been too much in Helsinki, though El Mabrouk could hardly be too severely criticised for his fifth place considering the 3:46.35 lifetime personal best that he achieved. Like Bannister, he may not have fulfilled the expectations placed upon him, but the race was different to any other Olympic final that had been held before and as such is one of the most significant in the development of middle-distance running. I have described the circumstances leading up to the race and the race itself separately in the article which follows because I think the matter is of such importance, but in brief summary the major factors were as follows:
(i) for the first time at the Olympics or any other major Champîonships there were three rounds at the distance, which demanded greater qualities of endurance than ever before;
(ii) there was a deliberate team effort by the German duo, with Rolf Lamers leading for 900 metres in support of Werner Lueg, who had only recently equaled the World record of 3:43;0 held jointly by Sweden’s Gunder HÈgg and Lennart Strand;
(iii) Lueg broke the pattern which had prevailed since the previous century of middle-distance competitors waiting until the last lap before launching their bid for victory:
(iv) an athlete from the African continent was a genuine medal contender, and that had never happened before in any Olympic track event, though the significance of this was largely overlooked at the time. . .
Apart from Alain Mimoun’s silver medals at 5000 and 10,000 metres, the French had only seven other places in the top 12 in any of the 33 men’s and women’s event, and only one of those – 4th in the 10,000 metres track walk – was higher than El Mabrouk’s. For the next encounter in 1952 in the France-v-GB series, which had begun in 1921, El Mabrouk switched to 800 metres and beat Frank Evans and Tom White in Paris a month after the Helsinki Games, despite suffering from toothache. Maybe being wise after the event, the French national coach, Roger Debaye, suggested that El Mabrouk could have got the 800 metres bronze medal at the Olympics, but that doesn’t make much sense as Gunnar Nielsen, of Denmark, ran 1:49.7 there and was 4th. Certainly El Mabrouk’s win against the Britons must have been spectacular to watch because he apparently covered the first lap in 58.0sec and the second in under 54! His best 800 metres time of the season was 1:50.5 for equal 19th in the World.
The 1952 season ended in a much more relaxed fashion as a six-man team of French athletes went off to Madagascar, where the sport was – to say the least – in its infancy. El Mabrouk and two 400 metres runners, Yves Camus and Jacques Degats, ran every distance from 100 to 3000 metres during the tour. According to the reminiscences of the “L’Equipe” writer, Loys van Lée, at one meeting Camus was credited with 18.5sec for 200 metres, and when he politely pointed out that the time was more than two seconds faster than Jesse Owens’s World record the head timekeeper is supposed to have responded brightly, “We’ll announce the time as 19 seconds then. That will sound more reasonable”.
Back to serious business in 1953 El Mabrouk remained in the top 20 in the World at 800 metres (1:50.3) and 1500 metres (3:48.2), but at the White City he was well beaten at 880 yards by Bannister and Brian Hewson, both setting personal bests, and Britain won by a huge margin, 127 to 79 – the most decisive success in the 32-year history of these matches. El Mabrouk could reflect ruefully that his five appearances against the age-old cross-channel rivals had brought him two wins at home and three defeats by maximum points away. For French athletics as a whole, 1953 was a year to largely forget because the national men’s team also lost to Finland 128-86 and to Sweden 121-91. The only athletes higher in the World rankings than El Mabrouk’s 16th place at 1500 metres were the ageless Alain Mimoun (still three years away from Olympic marathon gold), 6th at 5000 metres and 8th at 10,000 metres, and Guy Cury, 9th at 400 metres hurdles..
El Mabrouk continued competing through 1954 and 1955, moving from the Stade Francais club in Paris to Union Athlètisme in the southern city of Tarbes, but was run right out of it in the European Championships 800 metres heats in the first of those years – 7th in 1:56.0 as Hewson won in 1:50.2. Even so, he took the French titles at the distance in those two years in 1:52.1 and 1:52.0, bringing his total of national championship wins to nine (four at 800, 1951-53-54-55, and five at 1500, 1949-53 inclusive). Maybe further evidence supporting Gaston Meyer’s opinion regarding El Mabrouk’s self-doubts is that – apparently worried by loss of form in 1954 – he sought a full medical examination in Germany by the doctor who worked with the famed coach, Woldemar Gerschler, and who advised Gordon Pirie among others, but no physical ailments were found.
By the next Olympic year of 1956 French standards at 1500 metres had fallen right away, as Michel Bernard was their fastest man, ranking merely equal 90th in the World at 3:49.2, though he would do much better in later years. In any case, El Mabrouk’s French record of 3:46.0 survived very little longer as 21-year-old Michel Jazy improved more than six seconds during 1957, reducing it substantially to 3:43.6. Jazy would run 3:38.4 for the silver medal behind peerless Herb Elliott in the 1960 Olympics and set a World mile record of 3:53.6 in 1965 – the first by a Frenchman at the distance since Jules Ladoumègue back in 1931.
No other North African after El Mabrouk would appear anywhere in the World rankings at 1500 metres until Mamo Sebsibe, of Ethiopia, ran 3:45.8 in the heats of the 1964 Olympics – and even then he was no higher than 93rd – and the very last name on the list that year was Mohamed Gammoudi, of Tunisia, in 100th place at 3:46.2. In the fullness of time Gammoudi would achieve much more at rather longer distances. No other Algerian would approach El Mabrouk’s status as a 1500 metres runner until Abderrahmane Morceli – elder brother of and coach to the future World record-holder at 1500 metres and the mile – ran 3:36.2 for 7th ranking in the World in 1977. That was a quarter-of-a-century after El Mabrouk was at his peak.
After his retirement from athletics competition, El Mabrouk put his other sporting skills to good use by becoming a professional coach at the prestigious Bourg-La-Reine tennis club; near Paris He died on 3 February 1994, aged 65.
The 1952 Olympic 1500 metres final
For the first time in 1952 there were three rounds to the Olympic 1500 metres, contested on successive days, 24-25-26 July, and that must certainly have played a part in the eventual outcome. The medallists would surely have been the strongest runners, rather than the fastest, and certainly neither Roger Bannister, of Great Britain, nor Patrick El Mabrouk, of France, were noted for the intensity of their training. Though they both ran personal best performances, it seems very reasonable to assume that they did not have the basic endurance of Josy Barthel, who had been taking part in major Championships since 1946 and had been advised by the legendary German coach, Woldemar Gerschler, in the months leading up to the 1952 Games. Bob McMillen, the silver-medallist, also came from an endurance background, having run the steeplechase in the 1948 Olympics.
There were 52 entries for the 1952 Olympic 1500 metres, and the organisers did not have much option other than to add semi-finals. In Berlin in 1936 there had been 43 entries, and the qualification had been savage, with only the first three in each of four heats going through to the next day’s final Thus 31 competitors were disposed of in the first round. Eight of them had done faster times in the heats than the eventual champion, Lovelock, and it would not be until 1964 that the concept of “fastest losers” was introduced to the Games.
The first round in Helsinki ended the chances of Willy Slijkhuis, the Dutch bronze-medallist of 1948, and of a couple of others who would soon gain great fame, Sándor Iharos and John Landy. The two semi-finals of 12 runners each had the first six to qualify, and another World-record-holder of later years, Stanislav Jungwirth, was among those who went out. For the final there were two competitors each from Germany (Werner Lueg and Rolf Lamers), Sweden (Ole Çžberg and Ingvar Ericsson) and the USA (McMillen and Warren Druetzler) and one each from Australia (Don Macmillan), Finland (Denis Johansson), France (El Mabrouk), Great Britain (Bannister), Luxemburg (Barthel) and Norway (Audun Boysen).
On the basis of their best times at the distance during 1952 the leaders ranked as follows: Lueg (3:43.0, equalling the World record), Çžberg 3:46.8, Lamers 3:47.4, Johansson 3:47.4, Ericsson 3:47.6, Barthel 3:48.5. Yet in their incomparable monthly magazine of that era, “Athletics World’”, Norris and Ross McWhirter had quoted the two leading universal statistics experts, Roberto Quercetani and Fulvio Regli, as saying that Bannister was their favourite, though his best performance in the preceding months was only a 4:10.6 mile. Eight others were mentioned by the McWhirter twins as contenders even to win, but neither Barthel nor McMillen was among them.
Lamers led the final in 57.8 and 2:01.4, which suggested he was setting up the race for Lueg, who bravely took over at 900 metres; The “Athletics World” report written by one or other of the McWhirters (or even both, readers could never be sure which of the identical and intuitive pair had actually typed the words) continued thus:
“It was Lueg still in the lead (3:03.0 at 1200 metres), followed by Barthel, Lamers, Bannister (3:03.6), El Mabrouk and McMillen. Sweeping round the last bend, Lueg was three yards in the clear and seemed to have the race well in hand. Lamers began to falter, and Bannister and El Mabrouk swung a little wide, so inadvertently boxing in McMillen, who looked like a fire-engine driver in a traffic-jam. The strain of leading for 500 metres began to tell on Lueg, and up the home stretch the fiery little man from Luxemburg attacked and passed the sagging German 40 metres out. Also closing with a mighty rush was Bob McMillen whose last lap in 56.0 seconds was the greatest in history.
1952 Olympic 1500 Final. Last curve: Lueg leads Barthel and McMillen,
with Bannister (177) and El Marbrouk (604) running wide.
“Barthel, with arms aloft, just made the line but had to share with the American the new Olympic record of 3:45;2 (equivalent to a mile in 4:03.6). Lueg was 3rd, and Bannister, who despite his last lap in 57.6 never looked to possess any fire, just managed to hold 4th place in 3:46.0 (equivalent to a 4:04.4 mile)”.
The McWhirters concluded that Barthel “is the most punishable athlete ever in this department”, and that McMillen “must now rank as America’s greatest ever miler”, and that Lueg “is the greatest talent and is No.1 priority for the Four-Minute Mile”. None of those predictions ever worked out like that because all three of them never ran remotely near as well in future years … and, as we know, Bannister, Landy and another Helsinki “failure”, Wes Santee, eliminated in the 5000 metres heats, were the three who instead enjoined the battle to become the first to break four minutes.
1 Barthel 3:45.28, 2 McMillen 3:45.39, 3 Lueg 3:45.67, 4 Bannister 3:46.30, 5 El Mabrouk 3:46.35, 6 Lamers 3:47.18, 7 Çžberg 3:47.20, 8 Ericsson 3:47.70, 9 Macmillan 3:49.77, 10 Johansson 3:50.24, 11 Boysen 3:51.75, 12 Druetzler 3:56.0 (no automatic time taken).. ,
As a final thought, it’s worth noting that the first Ethiopian or Kenyan to compete in an Olympic 1500 metres would be Mamo Wolde for Ethiopia in 1956, finishing last in his heat but only four-tenths behind a woefully out-of-form Barthel. Wolde would do rather better 12 years later, winning the Olympic marathon gold.