29 August 2004
Brough Scott has the last word on another traumatic Olympic Games for Radcliffe
It was brave if mistaken, but it made it worse. By compounding Sunday’s marathon collapse with Friday’s leaden-legged 10,000 metre debacle Paula Radcliffe has inflicted a great wound into her and our self-belief. And she cares.
A different person might take the pain, accept that the 95 degree heat broke her in the marathon, that the decision to run in the 10,000 metres was doomed before the start, go off for a long holiday and then return to put it right by beating the Japanese Olympic champion, Mizuki Noguchi, in the mother of all return matches at the London Marathon. We would all buy into Radcliffe as our greatest distance runner again and Athens would be but a tearful memory. But that’s not the way it was with Paula.
It was as if she had invested her soul into the dream of bringing home the gold in last Sunday’s re-creation of Pheidippides’ legendary first-footing back from Marathon. When she staggered to a halt with only 2½ of the 26 miles to go, it was as if more than her running will had broken on the searing anvil that the course had become. Radcliffe is a creation of her self-belief. There was a sort of death on the kerbside.
It was not something she could comprehend. As she was ushered out of the athletes’ changing room, she stopped and turned to a group of us, her eyes wide, and said: “I can’t understand it”. There was a sense of self-denial that was repeated through sobbing interviews and a press conference the next day when she insisted the heat had not been a problem and that, after medical checks, she might attempt “redemption” in the 10,000m on Friday.
Quite why someone in her team had not put a firm block on this idea before it developed will remain one of the most unfortunate episodes of Radcliffe’s career. By Friday the likes of Steve Cram had come round to the idea that if she felt like it, she might as well have a go but in Seb Coe’s swish temporary London Olympic offices, the chairman of the bid and former dual gold-medallist said firmly “my heart goes with her but my head says that it is impossible”.
Distance greats Liz McColgan and Ingrid Kristiansen had been even more specific. “I don’t think it’s smart,” Kristiansen said all too prophetically on Thursday. “She has almost run a marathon. She’s very disappointed and she can’t be mentally prepared to do another race. I hope she does well but I am afraid she won’t.”
In the stadium there was a sense of relief when Radcliffe could be seen smiling on the start line, feeling the comfort as all sports people do of being back in the capsule that only you and the others understand. There was a rousing “Paula, Paula” chant from the Union Jack contingent up beyond the finish line but, to be honest, what happened after the gun went was little short of embarrassing.
In action Radcliffe has never been a pretty sight, that rolling head, pumping shoulders and hackney knee-lift making her a mind-over-matter athlete compared to the easy flowing strides of the diminutive Kenyans and Ethiopians. But her awesome, trail-blazing performances have long put achievement in front of aesthetics. The trouble on Friday was that, from the very start, you could not sense achievement. There was no front-running attack. There was the indignity of being shoved and pushed on the opening lap. As she came past the first time she seemed to be lifting her knees especially high as if to loosen them. She ran close to the lead without pushing it. We tried to believe it was some cunning new plan.
At seven laps she went to the front but she seemed to be running on blisters. She slipped back into the leading group, holding on with difficulty. Around her the two little trios of Kenyans and Ethiopians floated effortlessly, the orange-wigged Lorna Kiplagat moved with trademark flamboyance and Sun and Xing, the two Chinese, ran with their arms down like rickshaw drivers. After 10 laps Radcliffe was clearly in trouble, after 14 laps she was dropped from the bunch as Werknesh Kidane kicked on. For two more circuits she struggled round before pulling up with a little smile at the pointlessness of it all.
On Sunday there had been a sense of catastrophe as we sat in the Panathinaiko Stadium and the big screen showed pictures of her collapse. Now there was just a feeling of the waters closing over. Like the Auden line on Brueghel’s Icarus – “how everything turns away quite leisurely from the disaster”. An official held Radcliffe back while the crowd cheered a javelin thrower. The Ethiopians tried unavailingly to lose the Chinese.
Radcliffe’s demise was other people’s news. For Brits, our own lady Icarus was in the drink. Radcliffe has such innate good manners that she stops to respond when any normal person would hustle off and weep. She was led one way and another in the scramble of “the mixed zone”, seemed to be in shock as she kept saying “there was nothing in the legs”. Her record shows she is one of the toughest, bravest and brightest athletes we have had. But up close she looked thin and frail, a vein throbbing high on her right temple, her eyes red rimmed with effort and soon with tears.
She and her team have made a gallant but colossal miscalculation. She will have to go away and let the scars heal. The cautious advice would be for her to stop now, start a family and live a little. But at heart she is a runner and the fastest one in the world at her trip. When she is rested she is likely to get the urge again. There is a World Championship next summer and an April redemption in the London Marathon against her tiny nemesis from Japan would be the sporting event of a lifetime.
But an Olympic title is another matter. She will be 34 in 2008 and in Beijing this week factory closures were threatened because of the heatwave. The magic of the gold medal dream looks gone forever.