Athletics: Thirsty Radcliffe confirms potential

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PAULA RADCLIFFE'S victory in Saturday's international cross- country race at Mallusk, near Belfast, served to confirm her status as the Girl Most Likely in British middle distance racing.

The way the 20-year-old from Bedford matched Catherina McKiernan, the defending champion and double world cross-country silver medallist, on a waterlogged course that suited the Irish girl, was admirable. The way she sprinted clear over the final 500 muddy metres, face scrunched, head bobbing with the effort, was exhilarating. 'She doesn't take any prisoners,' said Ian Stewart approvingly. It was praise of a high order from a former European champion and Olympic 5,000m bronze medallist who was one of the very toughest on the track himself.

Even so, Stewart, who is now in charge of cross-country and road- racing promotions for the British Athletic Federation, played down the idea that Radcliffe might win a medal at the world cross-country championships in March. 'She is in with a shout, and she could be around the top five or six,' he said. 'But she is only 20. I don't want her to get burned out. I don't want us to be remembering her in five years time and saying 'She could have been really good.' '

Radcliffe, the world junior cross- country champion in 1992, is not about to get carried away with things. 'I have felt pressure, but not as much as last year,' she said. 'There was a lot of fuss after Durham last January which I didn't expect at all. But now I know what to expect.'

Since that race, when she finished runner-up to Derartu Tulu, the Olympic 10,000m champion, she has improved steadily. Alex Stanton, her coach at Bedford since she was 11, described the improvement as a controlled process. 'In the last year, we have just added a little bit more,' he said. 'She is getting stronger; her appetite for running remains.'

One of the factors which has contributed to Radcliffe's progress is a sensible schedule which includes regular health checks. Following her discovery in January 1992 that she is anaemic - a fact which helped to explain her poor showing in that year's Durham cross-country event - she now has her haemoglobin levels checked every three months.

Had Liz McColgan been following a similar schedule in 1992 she would have discovered earlier the anaemia which, it transpired, contributed to her failure to win an Olympic 10,000m medal in Barcelona. Radcliffe, and her coach, are leaving nothing to chance.