Why winning an Olympic medal should not be the be-all and end-all of Paula Radcliffe’s athletics career
It has been almost three years since Paula Radcliffe finished a race with a smile on her face. Her victory at the 2009 New York Half-marathon saw Radcliffe beaming after the race, draped in the Union Flag and arms aloft in celebration.
But in recent years for every gratifying performance, there has been a disappointing one too. Post-race scenes of a distraught Radcliffe have sadly become almost as common as her jubilant displays from yesteryear.
The most recent example came last weekend at the Vienna Half-marathon. In a race billed as ‘the Queen versus the Emperor’ where Radcliffe was given a head-start over Ethiopian legend Haile Gebrselassie, Radcliffe was caught with 5km to go. Her time of 72:03, while smashing the course record, was the slowest half-marathon of her career.
After crossing the finish line, the marathon world record-holder briefly fell to the floor in exhaustion before getting back on her feet and apologising to the race organiser for her performance.
Radcliffe had nothing to apologise for, of course. She had simply done her job – turn up and run as best she could. But for Radcliffe the gutting thing was that her best on the day was nowhere near the form she had hoped to show.
In the days leading up to the race, she told Athletics Weekly that her winter training had generally gone well, apart from picking up a hamstring problem while in Kenya and more recently having suffered from bronchitis and pleurisy. She knew she wasn’t going to set the world slight with her run in Vienna, but she had certainly hoped to dip under 70 minutes.
What made the situation all the more sobering was the fact that just moments later and some 700 miles north of Vienna on the continent, previously unheralded Ethiopian Tiki Gelana smashed her lifetime best with a 2:18:58 victory at the Rotterdam Marathon. Her pace throughout the whole 26.2 miles was significantly quicker than Radcliffe had managed for half the distance in Vienna.
Gelana is just one of several athletes who have dipped under 2:20 within the qualifying period for the Olympic Games. Two of her Ethiopian team-mates have also achieved the feat, while Russia’s Liliya Shobukhova became the third-fastest athlete of all-time last autumn with her 2:18:20 run.
Kenya, meanwhile, have an embarrassment of riches and the Olympic selectors will have a tough decision to make. Such is their depth, they will either have to leave behind the world champion, or a sub-2:20 runner.
Put simply, the global standard of marathon running has never been higher.
Radcliffe, whose world record stands at 2:15:25, last broke 2:20 seven years ago. But as recently as last September she clocked an encouraging 2:23:46 at the Berlin Marathon. Although some way off her best, there were still reasons to be hopeful.
For example, the winning times at the past two Olympic Games were outside 2:26. The past three editions of the World Championships – one of which was in Berlin, traditionally a fast marathon course – were all won in times ranging from 2:25 to 2:30.
And for all the dozens of athletes who have run faster than Radcliffe during the Olympic qualification period, only a handful of those will be in London, as countries are limited to just three entrants each. Even then, there’s the very likely scenario that some of those will have a bad run on the day or even fail to finish.
Then there are the oft-quoted stats of the reigning Olympic champion, Constantina Dita, who was 38 years old when she won in Beijing – the same age Radcliffe is now. In a stacked race, the Romanian took off in the second half, never to be caught by her pursuers.
But amid all that optimism, it would be foolish to ignore the reality of the situation too. Lightning doesn’t strike twice, and a race like the last Olympic marathon won’t happen again – the calibre of the athletes will be so high that any sudden surge will be instantly covered. The conditions in London will also be much kinder than the past two Olympics and more conducive to fast times.
Any one of a handful of athletes will be capable of taking the race out at sub-2:20 pace. Or it could turn out to be a tactical race with a last-mile burn-up, where only the fastest athletes in the field will be capable of holding their own.
But there is still every chance that Radcliffe could still be in the mix in London, and she has previously turned her form around within a short space of time. Just ten weeks after her disaster at the Athens Olympics, she won the New York Marathon. In 2005 she struggled to a second-place finish over 5000m in the European Cup first division, but less than two months later she won her first World Championships gold medal.
After a disappointing run in Beijing where she was suffering from a stress fracture in her leg, she returned to New York later in the year and produced another victory. And as recently as last year, Radcliffe finished third at the Bupa London 10,000 in 33:17, beaten by two domestic rivals, but in September at the Berlin Marathon her 10km split was faster than that and she went on to finish in a time that no other British woman has ever bettered.
Radcliffe is acutely aware that she faces an uphill struggle. Ever since London was announced as the host of the 2012 Games, Radcliffe has spoken of her desire to win gold in front of a home crowd. Her experiences in recent years – from childbirth to Olympic heart break – have altered Radcliffe’s perspective, and she has reassessed her goals. She recently told AW that she simply wants to get to the start line 100% healthy and to be competitive, adding that a medal of any colour would be a bonus.
Personally, I completely agree with that outlook. Winning the Olympics, while being a great achievement, simply shows that you were the best athlete on that particular day. Setting the world record means that you are the fastest that has ever lived.
Win, lose or DNF – whatever happens to Radcliffe in London, it cannot detract from what has been an astounding career for one of the world’s greatest distance runners. She may not have an Olympic medal, but she has World Championships gold and silver, two senior World Cross golds, three World Half-marathon titles, and numerous world records on the roads.
It would, of course, be a fairytale ending if Radcliffe were to walk away from the London Olympic marathon with a medal around her neck. But a smile on her face – a simple sign that she was pleased with her run and had given it all she had – would be just as good.