Paula Radcliffe: 'You can't change the past, you have to come to terms with it'

In the first of a series of interviews with major sporting figures for whom 2004 was a vital year, Paula Radcliffe tells Mike Rowbottom about the trauma of Athens and the triumph of New York
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You might feel Paula Radcliffe is entitled to look back with pride on 2004, given the way she won the New York marathon just 10 weeks after her traumatic failure at the Olympics. Suggesting as much to her, however, creates uncharacteristic consternation.

"I don't really think of it like that," she eventually responds, after staring out of the window for a while. We are at penthouse level in the Tower Thistle hotel, located on the London Marathon route next to Tower Bridge, but from where we sit the only view is sky. "I wish I hadn't had to face this year as a whole. I wish it had gone better. But it didn't. You can't go back and change the past, you have to come to terms with it and you have to not let it affect the future. That's just part of my nature, just the way I've always been."

By Rudyard Kipling's definition, Radcliffe is a man, my son. Having encountered the twin impostors of triumph and disaster within the last 12 months, the 30-year-old Bedford athlete has subjected both to the same analytical gaze. And although her husky and tearful public appearance after failing to finish the Olympic marathon testified to the depth of her bewilderment, she was, even then, desperate for a rationale.

She knows now that a major part of her downfall was the late diagnosis of a haematoma on her leg, and her subsequent reaction to the anti-inflammatory tablets required, which caused a stomach upset that sent her on to the searing road from Marathon to Athens unable to retain the necessary fuel for her exertions. It helps her to understand, even if it will never allow her to forget.

Some have asked whether she was wise to prepare on her own, away from the fold of the British Olympic preparation camp in Cyprus. She is entitled to respond that it has always worked well for her in the past. As for the suggestion that the intensity of her ambition - and that of her 24/7 husband and manager, Gary Lough - to win at the Olympics eventually became counter-productive, she is entitled to respond that you do not win gold medals without desperately desiring them.

Only once before has Radcliffe endured a similar torment to the one she underwent in the heat and hype of this summer's Olympics. Ten years ago I encountered her as a disconsolate figure on crutches hobbling around the fringes of the World Cross-Country Championships in Budapest, suffering from what was eventually diagnosed as a stress fracture and a collapsed arch in her foot.

She was as indomitable then as she is now. But for an athlete who had just established herself in the senior international ranks, it was a huge ordeal, and one which she feels was on a par with her trials of 2004.

"They can be compared," she says. "Although then it was just me and my emotions. At least one specialist at the time said I'd never be able to run again, let alone come back to racing. It was a test. But because it was something that I couldn't ever envisage not doing in my life, I didn't ever think of not getting back. It was hard, though, because it took so long. The World Cross-Country Championships were in March, and it wasn't until 1 October that I got running again. I tried a couple of times in between but the foot just kept breaking down."

There is an intake of breath as she turns once again to the topic which has exercised so many of her waking hours in the last few months, her voice tightening ever so slightly as she does so.

"By Athens, my career had moved on so much from 1994," she says. "Winning there had become very, very important. And I really felt that that was the year where it wasn't even just a dream. I was capable of doing it. I just couldn't believe it when I failed because I wasn't healthy enough.

"I was dealing not just with my own emotions, but with everybody's else's hopes and expectations. On top of that I had the worries about my own health and I wasn't feeling great. So, yeah, all of that together probably made Athens harder to come through than 1994, even though it was not as drawn out."

Radcliffe would also have had to be a saint not to feel chagrin at the fact that her failure to live up to her status as favourite in the marathon, or to gain subsequent consolation in the 10,000 metres, counterpointed with the unexpected double Olympic success of Kelly Holmes, an athlete with whom she has always been on respectful terms but who is hardly one of her bosom buddies. Their relationship was not enhanced by the fact that Holmes, who by her own estimation has had seven of the past 11 years undermined by injury, was dropped from a major sponsorship deal with Nike, who then turned to Radcliffe.

But the respect is real. In her recently published autobiography, Radcliffe recalls an incident at the 1993 World Championships in Stuttgart which indicated to her the depth of Holmes's passion and potential. Having resumed her promising career after watching the previous year's Olympics on television, Holmes had fallen victim to inexperience, failing to proceed from her 800m semi-final even though she ran a faster time than her team-mate Diane Modahl, who qualified in the other semi-final.

"Getting back to the athletes' quarters that night," Radcliffe writes, "Kelly was so frustrated she kicked a cup still half-full of coffee that someone had left on the floor. Next morning when we got up, her disappointment was splattered all over the wall. 'That woman,' I thought, 'she's going to survive and come through in this sport'."

Now that Holmes has come through in grand style, not to mention succeeded to the honour which rested on Radcliffe's shoulders in 2002, that of being BBC Sports Personality of the Year, the world marathon record holder finds herself sharing a pre-eminence she has enjoyed alone for the last couple of years.

The collapse of Radcliffe's ambitions in Athens led to a number of vitriolic attacks from some parts of the media, not to mention some cruel cartoons and jokes playing upon the suggestion that she was a quitter. She isn't.

The response from the public, it seems, has remained constant. She had hundreds of letters of support in 1999, when she was narrowly beaten to the world 10,000m title in Seville. This year the correspondence has gone beyond 1,000. And when she talks of answering everything personally, she is entirely genuine. One young girl I know of had a handwritten reply within 10 days to her letter of support in the wake of the marathon.

Before Radcliffe arrives for her interview, Lough has recalled the number of people who encouraged her in the aftermath of Athens, and those who, earlier in the day, had tapped on her car window as she was driven across London, praising her for the New York victory.

It is something she deeply appreciates. "Immediately after Athens, I didn't worry about the support because you can't do anything about that," she says. "You can't control it in any way. It comes from people.

"I worried about me and my health, and my leg and that I might have done long-term damage. I worried that my body had let me down and everyone else down. But the support I have had is just something I am very lucky with, and for which I feel very, very grateful.

"Following the Olympics there was a lot of compassion, a lot of concern. It was things like, 'You'll show them, you'll be back'. And, 'You don't need to apologise to us'. I had that a lot.

"Since winning in New York there have been people saying things like, 'You've inspired us' or, 'You did really well'. A lot of people have been saying how they were in tears watching the end of the race."

Despite the overblown treatment of her marathon in New York by the BBC, who billed the race as "Paula's Redemption", Radcliffe insists that nothing can nor will redeem her failure in Athens.

Yet as she moved inexorably away from Kenya's Susan Chepkemei as the New York event reached its final couple of hundred metres in Central Park, it was hard not to see her victory as a profound statement of continuing intent. An hour earlier, the home runner Deena Castor, who won the bronze medal in Athens, had dropped out with what she candidly explained was exhaustion because the race had followed so closely upon her draining efforts in the birthplace of the Olympics. That spelt out the boldness of Radcliffe's gamble.

If the idea of redemption was misguided, New York surely allowed Radcliffe to return to work with a positive vibe.

"That was why it was important to me," she assents. "That's why I said after Athens I wanted to come back and I wanted to race. That was part of the gut instinct of getting into the 10,000 metres five days after the marathon, although obviously I didn't realise how much trauma my body had been through.

"The 10,000 metres was never going to come off. It was just the heart trying to hope that it would. But by New York I knew that it was possible, even if I wasn't back to my best shape. Some people said I was coming back too soon, but you can never please everyone. I had to go with what I felt was right at the time."

The gamble worked. And what New York has done now is allow her to bring her year to a positive conclusion that she hopes will carry over into 2005, when she seems likely to pursue the global track title that has so far evaded her at the World Championships. Decisions about whether to go for a third London Marathon title, or to complete the unofficial grand slam of marathons by running in Boston, also remain, as does the prospect of seeking a third world cross-country title in March.

In the meantime, Radcliffe has been awfully naughty and allowed herself a little sliver of normality, holidaying in Mexico with her husband and, according to at least one interested party, letting herself go.

"I was at a cinema the other day and this man came up told me that I shouldn't be having Baskin-Robbins," she says with a grin. "He said, 'You can't eat that. You're an athlete'. And I said, 'I can eat that. And I will'."

She calls across the room to her husband. "Gary! Do I feel guilty if I eat things that I shouldn't?"

A shake of the head, and the suggestion of a frown, indicate that this might have been a topic of conversation between the two on a previous occasion. It seems safe to assume that the ice-cream did not go uneaten.