7 August 2005
In the pocket the mobile phone asking for tributes to poor Robin Cook. In the eyeline our very own Paula Radcliffe looking leaden-footed as assorted Kenyans, Chinese and Ethiopians left her trailing. It didn’t seem to matter much.
That was actually the main trouble with Paula’s run. Almost within seconds of finishing what had appeared to be 30 minutes of gut-wrenching effort she was happily coming on TV, radio and impromptu press briefings to assure us that everything was fine. “I enjoyed most of the race, but I didn’t enjoy getting my arse kicked at the finish,” she said to us with a laugh as she jogged on the spot like a tethered deer. “But the main goal is the marathon.”
So this was, in effect just a training run. Fair enough and it was good to see a poised and beautiful Paula in front of us compared to the tearful wreck we had on those two fateful occasions a year ago in Athens. But La Radcliffe has now become such a national institution that when she takes the line in a major championship, and when we get assured she is there for real, a leaden-footed ninth is not just a disappointment, it is something of a let-down.
“People have been worried about what psychological damage I might do if I didn’t get out of this what I wanted,” she said. “But after what happened last year I said ‘I am racing for me.’ I am going to enjoy my racing and I wanted to race here. It was tough. I lacked a bit of 10km training and it showed in the last four laps.”
Close up Paula Radcliffe is such a magnificently elegant, intelligent and engaging person that it seems churlish to carp. Yet when she had jogged off to get the stiffness out of those astonishing legs, a feeling of futility began to take hold. This had been billed as Paula’s big chance to win the major championship at a track medal which has so long eluded her. What we got was not the anguished, out-sprinted fourth we had at Sydney in 2000 or at Edmonton a year later. This was an out of the pack ninth – and to be honest it never really threatened to be much better.
Of course we have long accustomed ourselves to the head-rocking high-stepping Paula style of running. If she was a horse the jockey would have his stick up after the first circuit. Around her the Kenyan Masai and the four Ethiopians looked like creatures in an element Radcliffe struggles to share. But she is always like this. She is not just the greatest female marathon runner in history, she has run a 30 min 1 sec 10km. She ought to be up for this. She wasn’t, the brutal truth is that perhaps now she never will be.
A well-informed insider assured me that she had wanted a 10km gold even more than the marathon. Maybe she did. Maybe she told herself so. But something suggests that it was never on. That on the track, after all her heroics, we have seen the best of Paula. That her talk of winning in Bejing has to be a strictly a marathon plan. No harm and indeed much great glory in that. But after all she has taken us through, it would be unhappy to repeat something as unsatisfactory as yesterday.
The Radcliffe excitements came as a welcome highlight to an evening which had started with an opening ceremony of quite mind numbing dullness. One can only hope that sometime very soon sports authorities will realise that the time for their big wigs to make a “state of the nation” address is not when you have got a full house of eager punters in to watch some life enhancing activities in the stadium.
But yesterday was Finland at, well at its dullest. Two hundered flag carriers plodded into the stadium. Two worthies banged on in English with Finnish sub titles on the big screen. A full concert orchestra gave us the obligatory Sibelius, who, while undeniably the greatest ever Finnish composer, was never a man to set the pulses racing. After that the 100 metres wheelchair final, the discus and the 20 km walk. Despite gold for Britain’s splendid David Weir in the wheelchair, you will understand that Helsinki did not get us off to a flying start.
Much later the organisers tried to make amends with a late-night show featuring lots of national flags and costumes and to start with hardly an athlete in sight. The rain fell, Jacques Rogge and other worthies shivered gamely in the VIP seats, goose-pimpled beauties roller-skated more flags round the track, the locals covered themselves in plastic and seemed to clap happily along especially when old Lasse Viren jogged round with the Finnish flag followed by two little kids and a guy in a wheelchair.
But then the rain really sluiced down, a strange white wigwam was lowered from the sky, a hugely quaffed group called Leningrad Cowboys began to deafen the night and we feared for the eardrums as well as the health of the goose-pimpled ones. We will need Paula to cheer us up next week. In a sad way she sort of owes us one.