Mike Rowbottom: Connection of competing with your idols beats any humiliation

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The Independent Football

As those desperate characters who steal celebrity rubbish could tell you, there's much to be learned from what's in a bin.

At the recent Nike 10km run in Richmond Park, where Paula Radcliffe made her comeback after injury, the bin next to the Roehampton Gate entrance overflowed with banana skins and empty mineral water bottles. It was performance art, created by those flocking to the mass start, and if there was a message it was surely: "Here's Health." (Or perhaps, for inhabitants of The Priory, the clinic which overlooks the park: "Don't Do That, Do This.")

Compare and contrast bin No 2, outside Arsenal's stadium, which, shortly before last Saturday's match against Portsmouth, brimmed with empty lager cans, plastic Coke bottles, crushed cigarette packets, burger wrappings and a scattering of their contents. View the football supporters' lifestyle.

It is a peculiar irony that many of those whose unhealthy intake was evident in the Avenell Road bins would have been wearing replica shirts bearing the names of the super-fit athletes whom they had paid to watch - Henry, Ljungberg and Pires.

Although thousands of Sunday morning footballers are free to fantasise that they are David Beckham, Thierry Henry or Zinedine Zidane, the limit of their aspirations will be watching such players from the stands and wearing shirts which carry their numbers. There's no other link.

For those who seek to model themselves on athletes such as Radcliffe, however, events such as the one in Richmond Park offer an opportunity to be part of the same experience.

My stepson and a number of his friends also completed that event, and when I reported to them afterwards Radcliffe's complaint about how hard she had found the uphill stretch from four to five kilometres, a section which she confessed had "done some damage", they were immediately able to recall their own encounter with that part of the course.

Such a connection works in two ways. Having negotiated an identical route, there is a sense of closeness with the élite athlete who has gone before you. But there is at the same time a keener appreciation of what makes them special - because you have shared not just a course but a yardstick.

I have sometimes speculated over how long I could keep up with Radcliffe if I sprinted. Ten seconds? Maybe... This week, however, I was briefly able to occupy common territory with another of Britain's stellar sporting performers, James Cracknell.

The man who took rowing gold in company with Steve Redgrave, Matthew Pinsent and Tim Foster at the Sydney Olympics was on hand as the British Olympic Medical Centre was officially opened in its expanded setting alongside Northwick Park hospital in west London. Visiting journalists were invited to sample the range of facilities now on offer to 3,000 or so accredited British athletes, including a rehab gym, a physiology lab and a hydrotherapy pool.

So it was that I found myself sitting alongside Cracknell on one of the ergonomic rowing machines with which he and his colleagues have worked themselves into states of collapse over the last decade. Told to complete seven strokes, I tugged at the bar in front of me with all urgency, my seat sliding backwards and forwards on its runner. It felt briefly like going on one of those "Test Your Strength" machines at fairgrounds, where despite bringing your wooden mallet down on to the peg with what feels like enormous force, you rate as "Weakling".

In such cases, clearly, the fairground equipment has been faulty. But there was no questioning the hi-tech calibrations at the BOMC, which indicated that, were I to have continued at such a pace, it would have taken me 1 minute 44 seconds to complete 500 metres.

As Cracknell prepared to match my Herculean effort, my heart was thumping slightly. Perhaps it was the excitement. The senior sports physiologist Dr Steve Ingham explained that our rower was about to start a step-session in which his breathing, heart-rate and oxygen levels would be monitored in graded stages. Thus, Cracknell began leisurely work at the stroke rating I had just established. As a measurement of the gap between mortals and Olympians, it was pretty much perfect.

By the end of the day, however, I was able to count myself an Olympian in at least one respect: appearance. BBC News 24 wanted to film the hydrotherapy pool, but there was no athlete available and I was asked to volunteer.

Bobbing up and down in my buoyancy belt, I felt the oncoming current strengthen as the power was turned up and soon found myself running to stand still. The technique came to me as if I'd done it all my life.