Athletics: Radcliffe runs into critics over bid to win track gold

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The Independent Online

A year on from her traumatic failure to finish the marathon or the 10,000m at the Athens Olympics, the 31-year-old Bedford runner has put herself back in both arenas, a decision which has sharply divided opinion within the sport.

Liz McColgan, who won this title for Britain in Tokyo 14 years ago, has described Radcliffe's decision to attempt two events as "stupid", and other former athletes including Steve Cram and Grete Waitz have also suggested she would have been wiser to concentrate on the longer distance. But two former Olympic 10,000m champions, Haile Gebrselassie and Lasse Viren, have spoken approvingly of her schedule.

However much the world marathon record holder maintains that her efforts today will be all about tuning up, she has taken a huge gamble. She starts this race as the clear favourite for the one next weekend; who knows what her status will be when she finishes it? Because Radcliffe does not do moderation.

She accepted as much soon after flying in here from Ireland, where she has been making her customary visit to physical therapist Gerard Hartmann.

"I know that," she said. "I'm not going into it thinking I'm just going to use it as a runaround. But I feel a good competitive outing is not going to do me any harm. I'm looking forward to racing and I feel like I'm in good shape. It's not a decision to double up, it's more a decision to use the 10,000m as preparation. I felt it could fit in without harming the marathon."

You have to suspect, though, that after so many years of frustration in her pursuit of this track title - she took silver behind Ethiopia's Gete Wami in 1999, was berated by her husband Gary Lough after allowing three Ethiopians to pass her in 2001, and missed 2003 with injury - Radcliffe still has a sneaking hope that it may yet be within her grasp.

There certainly could be no more inspiring a setting for such ambition, given that the only other athlete to have achieved the double of the 10,000m and the marathon at a global championship, Emil Zatopek, did so here at the 1952 Olympic Games. But there have been suggestions of some concern within the Radcliffe camp about the effect of running what would be only her fourth track race of the year on a hard, new Mondo track just eight days before she embarks on the marathon, especially if she wears spikes.

Radcliffe's insistence that the race today was a means to an end would be underlined were she to take to the track in flat shoes. That seems unthinkable, given that she has chosen to preface her marathon with a hugely competitive race in the full glare of the world's attention. It is hard, nevertheless, to see her overcoming the challenge presented by China's Olympic champion, Xing Huina, and four Ethiopians of the highest class.

Tirunesh Dibaba, the 19-year-old world 5,000m champion of two years ago who is seeking a 5000m/ 10,000m double here, looks the most formidable of the African runners after clocking 30min 15.67sec - the fastest time in the world this year - despite heavy rain in what was her first attempt at the distance. Dibaba's elder sister Ejegayehu and her team-mate Werknesh Kidane have the next two fastest times this season while Berhane Adere is allowed back as the defending champion.

Radcliffe, of course, has the second fastest time in history to her credit - the 30:01.09 she clocked in winning the European championship in a rain-swept Munich during her annus mirabilis of 2002.

But her track form this season has hardly been of the same order. After injuring her hip when falling in the Prefontaine Classic 1500m in June, her performances in the European Cup 3,000m and 5,000m later that month were adversely affected, although she stressed after arriving here that she was fully fit.

If she is going to try to win she must surely hope to get away at a relatively early point in the race. Despite improvements to her finishing speed over the past few years, she cannot afford to allow the likes of Dibaba to remain within striking distance with a lap to go. The thought of her reaching such a point with the exuberant teenager pent at her shoulder is enough to induce a shudder.

Radcliffe's performance, of course, will also set the tone for the British team on the opening day of a World Championship meeting at which their medal prospects appear scarce.

Apart from all this, she is under no pressure at all.