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.