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?
Caption competition
Caption competition
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

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

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped commission: SThree: Does earning a 6 figu...

Recruitment Genius: SEO Executive

£18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: New Lift Sales Executive - Lift and Elevators

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A challenging opportunity for a...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service / Receptionist

£14000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss