Obituary: Alain Mimoun / Algerian-born distance runner who won Olympic gold

an. 1, 1921 - June 27, 2013

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Alain Mimoun was a virtual unknown in international track and field when he won a silver medal for France in the 10,000-meter race at the 1948 London Olympics. The Algerian-born Mr. Mimoun soon became one of the world's most brilliant distance runners.

But gold eluded him. He was the runner-up twice at the European championships in 1950 and twice more at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics.

Emil Zatopek of Czechoslovakia, perhaps the greatest distance runner ever, won all five of those races, leaving Mr. Mimoun tagged as his "shadow."

Mr. Mimoun finally ran the race of his life at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. At 35, he won the first marathon he ever entered. Zatopek, the winner of the 1952 Olympic marathon, was far back, in sixth place. He died in 2000.

When Mr. Mimoun died June 27 at 92 in Champigny-sur-Marne, a suburb of Paris, he was hailed for the grandeur of his achievements and for his grit.

His death was announced by France's athletics federation.

But Mr. Mimoun, whose victory proved a precursor to the arrival of great international runners from Africa, was remembered as well for embodying the amateur ideal. The story of the respect he showed for a rival who had become his friend, and whom he had ultimately vanquished, was told once more.

On Dec. 1, 1956, a crowd of more than 100,000 cheered the 5-foot-7-inch Mr. Mimoun, a mustachioed man with a blue jersey bearing the French tricolor and the number 13, as he ran a seemingly effortless final marathon lap at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on a day when the temperatures reached about 100 degrees. Mr. Mimoun had looked back for a glimpse of Zatopek or anyone else challenging him in his final strides, but there was no one in sight.

After crossing the finish line, Mr. Mimoun lingered among the officials.

"I was sure Emil was there at my heels," he told Sports Illustrated in 1972. "I was hoping he would be second. I was waiting for him. Then I thought, well, he will be third. It will be nice to stand on the podium with him again. But Emil came in sixth, oh, very tired. He seemed in a trance, staring straight ahead. He said nothing. I said: 'Emil, why don't you congratulate me? I am an Olympic champion. It was I who won.' "

Mr. Mimoun continued: "Emil turned and looked at me, as if he were waking from a dream. Then he snapped to attention. Emil took off his cap, that white painting cap he wore so much, and he saluted me. Then he embraced me."

"For me, that was better than the medal," Mr. Mimoun said.

Ali Mimoun Ould Kacha was born on Jan. 1, 1921, in Telagh, in northwest Algeria, the eldest of seven children in a farming family. He began running as a teenager, then joined the French army during World War II and was wounded in the foot at Monte Cassino in the Italian campaign.

He faced possible amputation, but the wound healed and he moved to Paris after the war. He joined an athletic club and took the French name Alain. When he showed promise as a runner, he was named to the French Olympic team for the 1948 London Games.

After Melbourne, Mr. Mimoun never raced against Zatopek again, but his career embraced a host of superlatives beyond that rivalry.

He won the International Cross-Country championship four times from 1949 to 1956. (Zatopek did not compete in those events.) He won six French marathon championships, the last when he was 45, along with many other French national running titles. He made his last Olympic appearance at Rome in 1960, finishing 34th in the marathon.

He worked as a physical education instructor and ran recreationally into his 90s.

Many French streets and municipal running tracks bear his name.

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