Up until a few weeks ago Said Aouita was one of my all-time heroes. I'd always considered him to be one of the greats, maybe the greatest ever with his astonishing and unparalleled range. Furthermore, he competed in one of the greatest of all eras, running against other legends such as Cram, Coe, and Ovett.
But lately his name has come up quite regularly here and I've learnt a few things that have really forced me to rethink my entire estimation of him.
For a start, it seems that he didn't really run against those other legends at all, or hardly at all. He ducked them at almost every opportunity. He avoided racing against Ovett until Ovett was an old man moving up to the 5000m. He did race against Cram in the famous Nice race in 85, but after that went out of his way to avoid him, even choosing the 5000m at the 87 world championships, and only dropping back down to the 800 and 1500m in 88 when it appeared Cram was burnt out, as well as Coe past his best and Elliot an Bile injured.
He dodged Coe, Cram, and Ovett in 84, preferring to take on a 1500m icon from a decade earlier - John Walker - in the 5000m. He even backed out of a head to head with Coe immediately after LA, choosing to run the 2000m instead of racing in the 1500m like a man with Coe.
But more disturbingly is the doping scandal he was involved in as national coach of Australia, in which he was accused by several of his athletes of encouraging them to use PEDs, claiming it was the only way to win. Instead of defending himself at the subsequent enquiry, he elected to flee back to Morocco, where he astonishingly was appointed as national athletics director.
Others here have detailed how he was at best an average b-level runner on the European circuit for several years in the early 80's, only transforming into the superhuman capable of running WRs at any distance in 83 (at nearly 25 years of age) after he moved full-time to Italy, where blood doping was rife in the 1980s. Later, he switched managers and was coached by Norwegian Vincent Modahl, husband and coach of Dianne - later to become the first British female athlete to ever fail a drugs test.
Although Aouita was the first ever world class male athlete from North Africa, in his wake followed a stream of runners recording incredible times, coinciding with the availability of the most powerful endurance drug ever - EPO.
Does this make Aouita the greatest villain in track and field history? Arguably, if Aouita did dope to the eyeballs as seems almost certain, it was he who killed our sport by normalizing the use of PEDs, particularly in Africa, and hence destroying the legitimacy of athletics.
In the mid-eighties, athletics - and in particular middle-distance - had never been more popular. The sport had been blessed by a string of legends from Snell, to Ryun, to the Golden Brit generation of Coe, Ovett, Cram and Elliot. Along came Aouita, running extraordinary times from 800 to 10000, constantly denigrating the British runners whose popularity had almost single-handedly transformed athletics from an amateur pasttime into a professional multi-million dollar global sport, and yet refusing to back up his words by meeting them on the track. In his wake, followed a plethora of obviously drugged up Africans, in particular a slew of North Africans that put WRs out of reach, records that are now seen as so obviously fake that the whole history of athletics is on the point of being put in the trash can amid calls to start all over again with a 'year zero'.