Athletics: Bold Radcliffe wins new admirers: A young Briton leaves Bondarenko and Pieterse behind across the Durham countryside as Gebresilasie trots up in men's race

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AN ENVIRONMENT devoted to the past provided a heartening glimpse of the future for British middle-distance running yesterday.

Paula Radcliffe, who turned 20 on 17 December, ran boldly and beautifully to win the County Durham international cross-country race on an undulating, snow-powdered course around the Beamish Open Air Museum.

In her wake amid the goods yards, workshops and model farms she left two competitors with illustrious pasts - Olga Bondarenko, Russia's 1988 Olympic 10,000 metres champion, and Zola Pieterse, formerly Budd, who was running her first cross-country event in this country since her traumatic return to South Africa five years ago.

Radcliffe, tall, blonde and pale, runs with an honesty and commitment which endears her to spectators. World junior cross-country champion two years ago in the snow of Boston, and seventh in last summer's world championship 3,000m final, she has the potential to take over the role at present occupied in women's athletics by Yvonne Murray and the former world 10,000m champion Liz McColgan, a winner here two years ago who is still recovering from a serious hamstring injury.

The leading trio broke away virtually at the start of the three-and-a-half lap 5,000 metres race. Radcliffe, negotiating the course best despite having the longest legs, established a 10-yard lead on the second lap as she pushed on up the steepest hill.

The gap opened up to 40 metres, and although Pieterse narrowed it to 25 metres by the finish, Radcliffe, grimacing with the effort and bobbing her head up and down, held on to win in 15min 37sec - one place better than she had managed after a similarly bold run in last year's event when she gave Ethiopia's Olympic 10,000m champion, Derartu Tulu, a run for her money.

'I am probably in better shape than I was this time last year,' Radcliffe said. 'Last year I think I was at my peak in January. I hope to build on this performance this year.'

Her aims are the world cross-country championships in Budapest in March, and then the 3,000m in - probably - both the Commonwealth and European Championships.

'I only looked round once at Zola,' she said. 'Near the end, everybody started saying, 'Keep going, keep going, she's closing.' I was absolutely knackered, but I held on.'

Pieterse also finished tired, as she was fully entitled to do. Following the withdrawal of first Lynn Jennings, a three- times world champion, and then Sonia O'Sullivan, the world 1500m silver medallist, Pieterse had received her invitation only three days previously, and had flown in the day before.

She is in the middle of one of the most intensive training periods of her life as she prepares for the world championships in Budapest - having won the title twice for Britain in 1985 and 1986, she wants to add a third for her native country in March. For the last seven weeks she has been averaging 150km per week in the arid hills around her home in Bloemfontein.

A far more relaxed figure than the tense waif who left these shores after being frozen out of Olympic selection in 1988, Pieterse was generous in her praise of an opponent who had beaten her with the kind of front-running which she herself has always favoured.

'If she keeps on like that, I'm sure Paula will have a good chance of winning the world title,' she said.

The event was part of the International Amateur Athletic Federation's World Cross Challenge, although the women's race did not count towards the overall points total because there were not enough qualified entrants. That did not worry Radcliffe, a second-year student at Loughborough University. 'I don't have to run for money,' she said. 'It doesn't interest me. Mum and Dad are very supportive.'

The men's race, over 9,000 metres, was won with utter ease by Haile Gebresilasie, Ethiopia's 20-year-old world 10,000m champion, in 26:27.

Steve Tunstall, of Britain, was second in 26:38, finishing swiftly after Andrew Pearson, the 22-year-old who was Britain's top finisher in last year's world championships, had run bravely with the Ethiopian for the bulk of the race.

Eamonn Martin, still to attain full race fitness after his foot injury, was well down, as was Rob Denmark, the European Cup 5,000m champion.

The Ethiopian's victory was entirely expected. In the last two years he has risen to the peak of his event. Having won the world junior cross-country title in 1992, he finished seventh in the senior event last year. On the track, he took world junior titles at 5,000 and 10,000m two years ago and followed them with gold at 10,000 and silver at 5,000m in Stuttgart last summer. Nobody else could live with him.

(Photograph omitted)