When the great distance runner Emile Zatopek, a winner of four Olympic golds including the 1952 marathon in Helsinki, was banished to driving a sprinkler truck for the Prague sanitation department, he must have felt the world had forgotten his astonishing deeds. But it wasn't true.
A little girl in Bedfordshire, who had been taken running in the local woods by her father, had been told the heroic story of the son of a Morovian carpenter who had been admonished by his mother for scaring the geese as he went charging by them, his face grimacing with pain, and the more the English schoolgirl thought about it the more it shaped her life.
Here, tomorrow, on the classic course from Marathon to the beautiful old Panathenaic stadium, where a Greek shepherd crossed the finish line in the first Olympics of the modern era 108 years ago, the world champion marathon runner, Paula Radcliffe, is favourite to run in the steps of her hero.
Matching the legendary Czech, who died four years ago restored to his dignity, is not possible, even for this remarkable 30-year-old who, until the last two years, had spent most of her athletic life under the curse of being good but not quite good enough. In Helsinki, Zatopek gained the 5,000 metres and 10,000 metres gold medals before winning another Olympic title in his first marathon. Two years later, he staggered the world again by breaking the 5,000 metres and 10,000 metres records in the space of three days. Yet if Zatopek's portfolio of achievement is unique - and almost certain to remain so - there will, no doubt, be a point of comparison if Radcliffe's amazing transformation produces gold tomorrow.
Zatopek always looked on the point of collapse when he ran, saying, "I'm not talented enough to run and smile at the same time." Radcliffe also suggests she is being tortured. Her head rolls and seems to be only loosely attached to the rest of her body. Her eyes rear back in their sockets, and she says, "It is something that has happened from the start, and the head bobbing is just part of my natural style. What I've started doing now is rolling my eyes back so you just see the whites. It might be because I started altitude training. It takes me a moment to react when I'm being passed, because I don't see it."
The impression is of someone running through a dark tunnel to the light, and it is one that Radcliffe, who in the last few days has angered a doting athletic press by retreating behind a screen laid down by an aggressive agent and her controversially proactive husband, the former runner Gary Lough, is increasingly disinclined to contradict. She insists that this could be the great moment of her life. Distractions will simply not be allowed.
Her commitment to winning - after so many years of noble fight and mediocority - was perhaps mostly painfully drawn when she suffered the injury which wrecked her competitive training programme last year. It came in New Mexico when she tried to overtake a young girl cyclist. Radcliffe recalls: "I was on a long run and had done about 22 miles. I thought I was clear of the cyclist, but she must have turned round to look back because she went right across the path and into my back foot. I fell flat on my face and hit the concrete really hard. I cut up both knees, got burns on my shoulders and dislocated my jaw."
The accompanying Lough - who has been accused of trying to dominate every aspect of his wife's life - was shocked and, perhaps not wisely, blurted out: "Your face is ruined." Radcliffe's reply was telling. "I don't care about my face. I don't run with my bloody face."
Running has always mattered most - and at an utterly obsessive level. When she started serious training at the age of 14, she had two problems which might have broken the spirit of a less resilient character. She developed asthma and her coaches noted that she lacked a crucial ingredient of success - a killing kick of acceleration in the final stages of a distance race. But, she insisted, she would do it the Zatopek way. She would run the opposition into the ground - eventually.
First, though, there was a great accumulation of pain and anger, which came to a head at the end of the 10,000 metres in the World Championships - a year after the agony of finishing fourth in the Sydney Olympics.
Feeling that she had reached her front-running limits, and been exposed, in Sydney, Radcliffe changed her tactics in Edmonton, Canada. She settled into the pack and made her dash to the front with just 1,400 metres to go. She led for scarcely half a lap before three Ethiopians sped by. What followed was humiliating and, some thought, signalled the break-up of her marriage with the fiercely controlling Lough, who is three years older than Radcliffe and was a moderate runner in his time.
They rowed publicly, Lough questioning her tactics and Radcliffe tearfully pushing him away. After her brilliant victory in the London Marathon - it was soon followed by a world-record shattering triumph in the Chicago version of the great race - Lough interrupted her post-race press conference to tell her that her smile was too fixed, and that her hair needed attention - the overall effect was that she looked "gormless".
However, Radcliffe rejects suggestions that the marriage is doomed. Indeed, she says she looks forward to having children - "when we can do it without inflicting the wrong lifestyle on them". As a consequence of the Edmonton incident, Lough now stays away from trackside - on Radcliffe's orders. Her father, Peter, was not surprised by the development. "In all other matters, Paula might be prepared to compromise," he said, "but not in running. In running, she is the boss."
The couple met at Loughborough University when they were both students, and now they have homes in Bedford, Leicestershire, and the French Pyrenees. Their wealth - which piled up dramatically in the great year of 2002 when her career moved on to an entirely different level, with marathon wins and two stunning world records, and success on the track in the Commonwealth Games and European Championships - is now estimated to touch £5 million.
It is not likely to be frittered away. Though she reports proudly that her husband recently bought her a beautiful diamond, she also says: "I looked at a pair of Jimmy Choo shoes recently, but would never consider paying £400 for them. I'm just happy that we are comfortable enough to have nice holidays and invest in the training I need."
Two luxuries are an Alfa Romeo, which she enjoys for its road-holding capacity on Pyrenean hairpins, and a Mercedes CLK. In fact, her most prized possession is a pendant styled in the Olympics rings given to her by her mother on graduation day at Loughborough. She has lost the pendant several times, but invariably it turns up again in its faded colours. She will be wearing it tomorrow.
If she wins, there will be huge celebrations at home, a fact she noted this week when she told friends that she was desperate for the British sailors or rowers to break through for gold medals and remove a little of the pressure on her as she tackles the route of Pheidippides, who is alleged to have run to Athens to report the victory over the Persians at Marathon in 490 BC. Elsewhere, and especially in the Paris office of L'Equipe, the bible of French sport, the reaction will inevitably be more questioning
The newspaper has already noted that Radcliffe's rise from mediocrity has been astounding, and the kind that, for many years, has frequently invited speculation on the possibilities of drug use. From being a game also-ran at the highest level, Radcliffe has become an irresistible force, with one of her rivals, the Kenyan Margaret Okayo, saying: "Most of us will be thinking, 'Where's Radcliffe?'"
This was the sudden stockpile of achievement which changed the life of the ferocious anti-drug campaigner: a world record marathon win, slicing a massive 1 minute 29 seconds off the existing record, the most dramatic improvement in 19 years; a second world record in the marathon at 2 hours 15 minutes 25 seconds, and a half-marathon record in 2003 which also lopped chunks off the 15-kilometre and 10-mile records.
Most insist that Radcliffe is an athletic citizen quite above suspicion and that her success flows not from illegal means but simply the result of long years of dedication which have drawn their benefit from the move to the longest race. Certainly her stance against performance-enforcing drugs has been relentless and extremely public.
Recently, she expressed only personal sympathy to her British team-mate Dwain Chambers when he was caught using the designer steroid THG before repeating her argument that all those caught cheating should be banned for life. It was in Edmonton, the day after her public row with her husband, that she made her most spectacular gesture, holding up a sign that said: "EPO cheats out."
The object of her anger was the Russian runner Olga Yegorova, who had tested positive, been banned and then reinstated for the World Championships. Radcliffe said at the time: "I've been wearing a red ribbon (a sign that the wearer is in favour of compulsory blood tests) on my running vest for some time, but with Yegorova in the championships we felt we had to do more. My purpose is to point out to the IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federations, the ruling body of world athletics) that they must make testing reliable and comprehensive to restore credibility to our sport."
Now, in the way of a cynical world, she finds that suspicion knows no bounds. She would, no doubt, insist that it is not her problem but that of the sport to which she has given her life, for better or for worse. Tomorrow, she runs into Athens, as Zatopek did Helsinki, with a simple ambition. "All I want to be able to say at the end of my career," she swears, "is that I couldn't have done any more to go faster." In these besmirched Olympics, that has the touching quality of a simple prayer.
A LIFE IN BRIEF
Born: 17 December 1973, Northwich, Cheshire, to Pat and Peter Radcliffe.
Family: Married to the former athlete Gary Lough.
Education: BA, first class, in Modern European Studies at Loughborough,1996.
Career: Winner world junior cross country: Boston, 1992; world half-marathon: Veracruz, 2000, Bristol, 2001, Vilamoura, 2003; marathon: London, 2002, Chicago, 2002, London, 2003 (in which she set a new women's world record of 2:15.25); five UK records at 5,000m and 10,000m, and three at 3,000m.
She says...: "I always believed I could run a good marathon, but just to be able to think at times that I am the best in the world is great."
They say...: "How does she run that fast and look that bad? It's painful to watch" - Chicago race director, Tim Murphy.Reuse content