World record holder Hicham El Guerrouj came into the race with a target on his back. Though El Guerrouj had won four straight World Championships, he had failed to win the previous Olympics, falling with a lap to go in his breakthrough year of 1996 and being beaten to the line in 2000 by the same Noah Ngeny who had chased El Guerrouj to the mile world record a year earlier. Ngeny was not back but bronze medalist Bernard Lagat was, seeking to finally beat El Guerrouj. Lagat had the potential assistance of two Kenyan teammates, but El Guerrouj also had his teammate Adil Kaouch make the final and Kaouch had previously sacrificed himself by acting as a pacesetter leading El Guerrouj to the 1999 and 2001 world titles. Because of the assistance, El Guerrouj's ability in a strategic race was suspect.
Off the line, the three Kenyan runners took the lead and formed a wall keeping the field behind as they slowed the pace, El Guerrouj could not run away from the start, the race would be strategic. With 500 metres to go, El Guerrouj worked his way to the front, with a line of kickers including Lagat, Reyes Estevez, Ivan Heshko and the unknown Mulugeta Wendimu lined up behind him. Down the backstretch, Lagat stayed a step behind El Guerrouj as other speedsters jockeyed for position and then fell back. From deep in the pack, Rui Silva was on the outside passing the others. Around the final turn, Lagat edged his way closer to El Guerrouj, pulling even just at the head of the stretch, with Silva gaining to just a step behind. By halfway down the home stretch, Lagat edged into the lead, but El Guerrouj didn't go away, fighting back to take the win as Lagat gave up the fight a couple of steps before the line. After clearly running the fastest last lap, Silva was unable to make any further headway, celebrating his bronze medal as he finished.
The first round comprised three heats with the first five in each plus the next nine fastest losers progressing to the two semi-finals. Here the first five and the two fastest losers went to the final.