Athletics: Equable winners prove nice guys do come first

AT THE risk of appearing churlish I have to say that Paula Radcliffe took defeat in last weekend's World Cross-Country Championships with almost inhuman fortitude. Radcliffe is a world-class athlete. Last year she annihilated Liz McColgan's British 10,000 metres record, set a world road best for five miles and won the European cross-country title.

But the world title remains her premier objective, and last Saturday's race over the sloping mud of Barnett Demesne in Belfast appeared to offer her the best opportunity of earning it. The competitors who had beaten her to gold on the previous two occasions, Derartu Tulu of Ethiopia and Sonia O'Sullivan of Ireland, were absent, and Radcliffe reported herself in peak condition for the event. She finished third - the only European in the top eight. Excellent run. Not what she wanted.

As the two Ethiopians who had finished ahead of her bent double and began retching loudly, Radcliffe stood - waxen but composed - explaining calmly that she couldn't have any complaints, because she couldn't have done more.

Scream and shout, Paula! Throw your shoes on the ground! Swear!

No. There were no histrionics from the multilingual first-class honours graduate. Towards the end of her post-race press conference the man from L'Equipe asked her something in French as rapid as a TGV train. No worries - Paula translated, with a strange, starry smile: "He has just asked me if I think I am a jinxed runner who can never win this event, like Catherina McKiernan, who won four silvers..."

Paula! Refuse to answer! Storm out!

No. She made it sound as if she were translating a question that had been put to someone else. Then she summoned up a diplomatic response, pointing out, quite properly, that winning four world cross-country silvers was an amazing achievement, and that if she were to achieve such a record she would have - that's right - no complaints.

I thought to myself: "How nice is Paula Radcliffe? Could anyone have been nicer in the circumstances - not possible..."

I recalled a year earlier when she had set her world five miles best within the snowy grounds of Balmoral Castle and had been kept waiting because no arrangements had been made for a urine test, without which the new mark could not be ratified.

Paula! Complain! Make a right royal fuss!

No. Paula sat patiently in the all but deserted event marquee until the Queen's own doctor arrived and submitted to her instructions over the necessary procedure. She pointed out that a witness would be required. The choice appeared to be between myself and two BBC employees waiting for transport after their broadcast - David Coleman and Sue Barker. Not a difficult decision.

For all I know, Radcliffe may go home and take out her frustrations on the sofa cushions. But for those who follow her career there is a nagging wish that, just for once, she should let rip and send feathers flying.

"She shouldn't be taking it like this," said a colleague after the Belfast race. "She should be gutted."

Instinctively, I agreed with him. But was that fair? Part of this requirement for expression lies in the unspoken assumption that winners don't just have to care, they have to be seen to care. When they lose, it is like death. They go away like broken things.

And if Radcliffe doesn't show how much she cares, ergo she can't be a winner, because winners are intense, driven, unreasonable people untrammelled by polite constraints.

Winners are, by definition, bad losers. They are John McEnroe, Ayrton Senna, Mike Tyson.

But there is a second sporting tradition - that of Arthur Ashe, Damon Hill, Trevor Brooking. Equable people. People who give the lie to the adage that nice guys don't come first, but who are also able to set sporting disappointment in context.

The archetypal victory of the nice guy remains Ashe's resolute defeat of the swaggering young braggart, Jimmy Connors, in the Wimbledon final of 1975.

The archetypal gesture of the nice guy remains the header with which Brooking won West Ham United the FA Cup in 1980 and answered the pre-match jibes of Brian Clough that he "floated like a bee and stung like a butterfly".

And Hill's eventual Formula One success ahead of Michael Schumacher was sport's equivalent of sending the pantomime villain packing.

We celebrate these moments of triumph all the more because they erode the prevailing view of what it takes to be a winner. When "losers" win, we find it somehow easier to identify with.

All that extra goodwill lies in store for Radcliffe if, as she vowed in Belfast, she does keep coming back to the event until she wins it. At the moment, however, she maintains her place in another honourable tradition - that of the good British loser.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Bourgogne wine maker Laboure-Roi vice president Thibault Garin (L) offers the company's 2013 Beaujolais Nouveau wine to the guest in the wine spa at the Hakone Yunessun spa resort facilities in Hakone town, Kanagawa prefecture, some 100-kilometre west of Tokyo
Oscar Pistorius is led out of court in Pretoria. Pistorius received a five-year prison sentence for culpable homicide by judge Thokozile Masipais for the killing of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp
voicesThokozile Masipa simply had no choice but to jail the athlete
Arts and Entertainment
James Blunt's debut album Back to Bedlam shot him to fame in 2004

Singer says the track was 'force-fed down people's throats'

Life and Style
The Tinder app has around 10 million users worldwide

techThe original free dating app will remain the same, developers say

Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

IT Project Manager

Competitive: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Chelmsford a...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

IT Manager

£40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

Day In a Page

Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album