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Olympic Running Events (X): Marathon with Paula Radcliffe

As the world record holder for the marathon, she stands on the brink of the Olympic pantheon

2004-08-10

THE SITUATION:

She has always set a standard for others to follow. Her first international success was in 1992, when she beat Chinas Wang Junxia on a snowy Boston Common to win the junior title at the World Cross-Country Championships in the USA. The following year it was Wang who was making headlines as she and the other Chinese women under the tutelage of the controversial coach Ma Junren set world records and took gold medals at the World Championships in Stuttgart.

In contrast to the Chinese women, the history of probably the best female long distance runner ever is a perfect example of careful development to the present day, when she, as world record holder for the marathon, stands on the brink of the Olympic pantheon.

If the 30-year-old goes to the startline of the Olympic marathon on August 22, will she find the role of favourite too tough to bear? Judging by her career so far, the answer must be an emphatic "No." But there will be strong opposition: the Kenyans Margaret Okayo and Catherine Ndereba plus the Japanese.

PAULA RADCLIFFE – LEAVING NO STONE UNTURNED IN PURSUIT OF SUCCESS

The Radcliffe running team was founded from the start on a solid base. She was being advised by the husband and wife team of Rose and Alex Stanton even before she reached teenage and in recent years her husband Gary Lough, a former international class middle distance runner, has played an important role as training partner and manager.

Radcliffe runs, as she has always done, for Bedford and County. The club is based in a town some 80 kilometers north of London. Good team spirit with the emphasis on cross-country in winter and track and road in summer is the key. Thanks to the Stantons, she had a classical education in track and field and did just as well academically, graduating from Loughborough University with a first-class honours degree in Modern Languages (French and German). In the late 1970s a certain Sebastian Coe also studied at Loughborough, but he read Politics and Economics.

Failure can give you the chance to start afresh. Does it sound too harsh to say that Radcliffe before the spring of 2001 had experienced more of the former than success, when it came to championship medals? On the track she had the reputation of the eternal runner-up, or third or fourth-placer etc. Only in the 1999 World Championships in Seville did the plot produce a different outcome, when she took silver behind Ethiopias Gete Wami. Otherwise she lacked the killer finish over the final laps. Fourth in the Sydney Olympics in 2000 and the same result a year later in Edmonton seemed to sum up the limit of her track potential.

The change came with her first World Cross-Country victory. That was in March, 2001 in Oostende in Belgium. A year later she retained the title in Dublin and within three weeks had made history as the fastest ever marathon debutant and second fastest runner in history: Radcliffe won in London with an astounding 2:18:56.
She had found her true distance!


She was also in imperious form in the summer track season: first she won the Commonwealth 5,000 m title in Manchester, then triumphed at the European Championships in Munich, winning the 10,000 m in 30:01.09; only Wang Junxia, that old adversary from ten years ago in Boston, has ever run faster.

Her most brilliant performance to-date came in the Flora London Marathon 2003 when she took almost two minutes off her own world record with 2:15:25.
Since then thereve been some hitches, she had to withdraw from the World Championships in Paris last year, not feeling sufficiently recovered after illness and a hip injury. There was a defeat in 2004, beaten in the World Best 10 km on the road in Puerto Rico by Lornah Kiplagat, the former Kenyan now running for the Netherlands. Shortly afterwards she underwent minor surgery for a hernia but came back in the best possible style, running the third fastest 5,000 m ever at the European Superleague final at Bydgoszcz in Poland in June.

Who can beat Radcliffe in Athens?
The course is hilly, there shouldn be any world records run and the heat will make it that much harder. If she decides to run the marathon, Lornah Kiplagat might have a chance, especially if she has retained her form from the spring. Catherine Ndereba could win a medal, as could her Kenyan team-mate Margaret Okayo, the winner in London this year. The Japanese triumvirate of Reiko Tosa, Mizuki Noguchi and Naoko Sakamoto have shown themselves to be runners of the highest quality. But if Radcliffe is in form, Great Britain will be celebrating their first Olympic marathon champion.


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