Athletics: Radcliffe's quirk of history

Simon Turnbull says a long trail of confusion should end today
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The Independent Online
ACCORDING TO the advance publicity, Paula Radcliffe will become the first British woman since Zola Budd to break a world track record in Britain if she succeeds in her latest clock-chasing mission at Loughborough University this afternoon. Radcliffe has already eclipsed her own Commonwealth 10,000m record on the track this year and, given decent weather and help with the pace, she should stand a more than half-decent chance of bettering the 9min 19.56sec Sonia O'Sullivan clocked for two miles at the Cork City Sports last June.

Strictly-speaking, though, it would not be a world record. The rarely- run distance is not on the list of events recognised for "record" purposes by the sport's governing body, the International Amateur Athletic Federation. Technically, O'Sullivan's performance stands as a world best rather than a record.

By the same token of pedantry, it is factually correct to say that Budd was the last British woman to run a world track record in Britain. She was competing in her British vest of convenience, and running barefooted, when she broke Ingrid Kristiansen's 5,000m record at Crystal Palace in August 1985. She was not, however, born British and she has not been British for a decade now. She has, in fact, been British for just four of her 32 years.

The last occasion when a British-born woman broke a recognised world track record on home soil actually dates back 32 years. Joyce Smith won the 1971 women's AAA 3,000m in the fastest-ever time for that event, 9:23.4, but the women's 3,000m was not accorded world record status until 1974. It was in 1967, six years before Paula Radcliffe was born, that the feat was last officially achieved.

On 3 June that year, Anne Smith won the southern counties' mile at Chiswick in 4:37.0. En route she passed the 1500m mark in 4:17.3, also a world record. A month earlier she had clocked the first women's mile world record endorsed by the IAAF, 4:39.2. A protege of Gordon Pirie, Smith was a woman ahead of her time. It was her considerable misfortune that she never had a chance to challenge for Olympic gold at 1500m. The distance was not added to the women's programme until 1972.

A PE teacher and a member of Mitcham Athletics Club, Smith did compete in the 800m in the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo and set a British record, 2:04.8, in the semi-finals. In the final, though, together with the rest of the field, she was left trailing in the wake of Anne Packer's 2:01.1 world record run. She finished eighth.

Smith died of a brain haemorrhage five years ago, aged 52 and without the kind of recognition that has been bestowed upon the great Britons who have broken the men's world mile record. Due recognition, it could be argued, has also eluded the athlete who happens to be the fastest ever British-born women's miler. Kirsty Wade was only briefly British record holder after running 4:19.41 in Olso in July 1985. She lost it a month later, when Budd ran 4:17.57 in Zurich. No other British woman has broken 4:20 for the event.

Equally anomolous is the fact that Budd also holds the British 3,000m record, ahead of Yvonne Murray. Budd, Wade and Murray all competed in the 1992 Olympics, but only two of them in the red, white and blue of Great Britain. The British record holder among them represented South Africa.

Not that Wade, retired from running now at 36, feels the need for the record to be put straight - not that particular one, at least. "The fact is Zola set those records while running for Britain," she said from her home in the Outer Hebrides on Friday. "I must admit, in terms of records and whether they should or should not stand, I find it far sadder that people who have been caught taking drugs are still allowed to hold records.

"They were effectively cheating, whereas Zola was a victim of a political situation." And an exceptional runner, in any colour of vest, it has to be said.