PAULA’S MOMENT OF TRUTH

22 August 2004

The stage is set for one of the defining moments of the Olympics. Brough Scott sets the scene from Marathon

Her whole life has led to this. Our whole Games will be crowned by her winning the marathon this evening. Watching Paula Radcliffe will be an experience like no other. She will be running the longest freshly painted blue line in the world. It stretches the whole 26 miles from Marathon to the ancient Panathinaiko Stadium where these modern Games began. But she and we know she will be doing a lot more than that. Paula Radcliffe will be running for one of the defining moments in the whole Olympic history.

For in her style, her career, and her personality, she represents upright, old-fashioned virtues in the modern idiom. Athens 2004 is making a magical effort to rekindle the original, noble, uncorrupted Olympic spirit. The symbolism, as she sets off from Marathon as a tall, blonde, high-stepping, head-bobbing messenger of hope, will positively scream at us. It will not be easy but then – for both her and for this Athens Olympiad – it has been very hard already.

Four years ago a flock of goats grazed where now stands the ultra-modern Athletes’ Village, the traffic clogged the city, archeological objections threatened the building of the rowing lake, and a feeling of over-challenged malaise hung high in the air. Four weeks ago dogs lay in the yet unfinished tramway, the marathon course was incomplete and doubt was still an order. One week ago the moving glory of the opening ceremony was compromised by the shameful, test-evading escapade of local heroes Kenteris and Thanou. But then Athens delivered wonderfully on its promises. Now it’s Paula’s turn.

She will set off at 6pm local time (4pm BST) running south with the green-blue waters of the Aegean to the east of her. Cycling the course at that hour on Friday, the air was still hot, but the westward sun already cast deep shadows which will be blessed pools of shade as Paula gallops by. The Olympics in general and distance running in particular has had shadows enough of its own. Paula, with her red ribbon to advocate blood tests and her famous placard-waving against EPO-convicted Russian Olga Yegerova at Edmonton’s 2001 World Championships, has always waged battle with the drug cheats. Today, like some latter-day Pheidippides, she wants to carry the news to Athens that it can be won.

In the Greek story, almost certainly invented, old Pheidippides keeled over dead after gasping out his message in the stadium. But what is certain is that back in 490 BC the Persian fleet had disembarked a huge army in Marathon Bay only to be turned over by the Greeks who themselves then slogged back to Athens to defend a western counter-attack. Paula lay vomiting after that heart breaking fourth in the Sydney 10,000 metres and was decidedly wobbly after winning the World half-marathon in Villamoura last autumn. She won’t die but what is certain is that she will suffer. And that we will suffer with her.

For we have been a long way together. By the 1996 Olympics, where she was fifth in the 10,000 metres, she was established as a brave if apparently acceleration- lacking distance runner. By Sydney that reputation, and that fear, were confirmed when she memorably made the running only to be picked off by those three Kenyans on the final lap.

Worse still, the same thing happened in the next year’s World Championship at Edmonton, exacerbated by angry words from her disappointed husband and training partner, Gary Lough, at the finish. We knew Paula. She was the nice, intelligent (a first in languages), school mistress’s daughter from Bedford who would never get a gold.

Then came the 2002 London Marathon and nothing was the same again. Her first attempt at the distance produced a women’s only world best time of 2hr 18min 56sec. Her increased training load had also given her extra strength and confidence and she proceeded to lay the championship bogey on the track by winning first the Commonwealth Games 5,000 metres and then the European Championship 10,000 in exceptional times before going on to Chicago and taking almost a minute and a half off the marathon world record.

She had become sporting royalty, the greatest distance runner in our history, and that Christmas accepted all the awards in the lexicon. We got to know her clarity and graciousness. We saw film of her spartan lifetstyle and wondered at her dedication. Next spring she ran the London Marathon again. After two hours and 15 minutes some of us lesser beings were setting our faces eastwards towards the Isle of Dogs as the news came through. The next door jogger had a headphone. “Paula’s beaten the world record,” he said. We almost hated her for it.

But that was another place, 14 months and plenty of niggling injuries ago. She is 30 now and this is the day to make all those years of effort pay off. No one visiting the different Olympic venues this week could come away with anything but an uplifting of the spirit from the obvious lifeenhancing commitment of participants, be they weightlifters, wrestlers, archers, divers or horsemen. Watching Paula threatens to be the most uplifting if most painful of them all.

For the first six miles of the course is flat, but then it begins to climb, not sharp enough to even get this cyclist up off his saddle, but long drags and dipping descents which will test mind and muscle. After an hour the temperature eases as the sun lowers but then the road shifts west to face it head on. There are cicadas in the olive groves, pine scent in the air, but although there’s the odd vineyard and glimpses of mountains, most of the route is a scruffy concrete ribbon of garages, businesses, and halffinished flats. The beauty – and brutality – will be on the road.

It will be in this middle section that Paula will have to make it hurt. In the 1896 marathon the front-running Frenchman quit at 19 miles and took a carriage home. Even on a bike things were feeling tough when you saw 20 miles written on the road climbing up out of the underpass at Stavros. But from then on it’s downhill all the way. If Paula hasn’t dropped her rivals they might be able to freewheel, like my bicycle, in her wake.

Late into the second hour the air gets cooler, the sun just a dying flame. The nondescript surroundings become hospitals, barracks, government buildings. Coming on to Vassileos Konstadinou the crest of the Lycabettus Hill is floodlit out to the right, the Parthenon itself out ahead. But that’s not the destination. Suddenly, dramatically, the old stadium is here on the left, a great glittering horseshoe ready to welcome the drama. The sun has set. Is it too much to hope that Paula and Athens may encourage a better Olympic dawn?

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