Golden girl still

Monday, August 23rd, 2004

The last 24 hours have been dominated by Paula Radcliffe's doomed attempt to win the Olympic marathon.

I missed the morning, on account of sleeping off the previous night's shift work until lunchtime, but the early afternoon was all about the build-up to the race's start. Then at 4pm came the agony of watching it. And when it finished and Radcliffe was being carted off in ambulance I drove to work – a distance six miles less than a full marathon, which nevertheless often makes me feel like I've run one after driving it – and spent the evening building Indy Digital's sports pages, which of course were primarily about the race.

Today, of course, saw her first painful interview with Steve Cram, in which she broke down in tears at the thought she'd let everyone down.

It's difficult to explain the reverence with which Paula Radcliffe is regarded in Britain. True, there are probably a fair number of people who are aware of her only as a gawky figure with unfortunate socks and a running style that suggests she could drop dead at any moment. But to most people she symbolises so many things – the rare sight of a Briton leading the world, someone for whom hard work and payment of dues have been deservedly rewarded, an outspoken campaigner against drugs, the achiever of deeds most of us can only dream of, an internationally-respected ambassador for this country and (possibly above all else) someone who has not allowed success to inflate her ego or poison her personality.

To be sure, she is something of a hero in this household. She has been since long before she suddenly stopped being a typically British plucky loser and became the setter of world records who arrived in Athens as the favourite for gold. Easily the most painful part of the Sydney Olympics was watching her in the 10,000 meters, relentlessly lapping at a fearsome pace, knowing she didn't have a sprint finish and that she would therefore have to burn off all her opponents. For 20 painful laps she led, but for all that time three other runners stuck to her like shadows and everyone – but everyone – knew what was going to happen next, long before her opponents accelerated past her at the death, leaving her bereft in fourth place.

Athens was supposed to different – Athens was supposed to be golden. But the truth is, Radcliffe is not a particularly experienced marathon runner. Her three previous races have been stunning in their dominance, but they have also been run over city courses designed for fast times and easy running, in clement weather. The Athens course, up hills and down dales in the burning heat, was always going to be a different sort of challenge and not one which the three previous races could shed much light on. It's no wonder the course destroyed her. A quarter of the field failed to finish and I'm surprised it wasn't more.

For the most part, the reaction back home to her struggle and her despair has been positive. We are not a country that can always be relied upon to reward effort over achievement, as David Beckham rediscovered when he sent that penalty kick into orbit in Euro2004. But for the most part, the public and the media are showing signs of auditioning her for the role of 'tragic heroine of the British people' that's been vacant since the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. This, of course, is only making her feel more as if she's let everyone down.

But on the fringes of this public love-in is another, snarkier, reaction. Inevitably it is being led by the Daily Mail, which recruits only the hacks who were weaned on neat vinegar instead of mothers' milk, and who sup on bile instead of coffee in the morning. Its sneery pages today are full of insinuations about Paula the quitter, Paula the failure, who gave up when it was obvious she wasn't going to win glory and didn't even have the bottle to walk the rest of the distance into the stadium and finish the race for her fans. It's at times like this that I wish I regularly read the Mail, so that I could stop in protest.

I drove home from the Indy at 2.30am, angry and upset, my route taking me along some of the course used for the London Marathon. I didn't see any Daily Mail hacks running it.

It's always been a dream of mine to run a marathon. Maybe it's time I did something about making that dream a reality.

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