Athletics: Radcliffe back on course: Paula starts to clear a path

Marathon journey back to the top is right on track but there's smog on the horizon
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So, here we go again then. After four years, one Greek tragedy, a world title, a marathon childbirth, and the mother of all comeback victories in the New York City Marathon a week ago, Paula Radcliffe finds herself back where she was four years ago: heading into an Olympic year as favourite for the women's marathon gold. Not quite such a red-hot favourite, perhaps, but on the strength of that 2hr 23min 9sec demonstration of unbreakable determination and relentless high-speed endurance last Sunday, the 33-year-old Briton has emerged as the woman to beat in Beijing next August.

The big question four years ago, even in the wake of her untouchable 2hr 15min 25sec world-record run in London, was whether she could conquer the challenge of the Marathon to Athens course, with its punishing climb from 13 to 20 miles, in oppressively hot and humid conditions. The answer was no – though that was due in no small measure to the sheer misfortune of arriving at the big day in the 1,460-day, four-year Olympic cycle with her body on the verge of breakdown. Drained of her glycogen stores by a course of antibiotics she had taken to ease an untimely injury, Radcliffe was running on empty before she finally ground to a tearful halt four miles from the finish line.

This time, like the course four years ago, there is another X factor to consider. Such is the pollution in Beijing that Jacques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee, has said that events such as the men's and women's marathons may be rescheduled at short notice.

As an asthmatic, Radcliffe has obvious cause for concern, though as a woman renowned for leaving not so much as a pebble unturned in her marathon preparation she is guaranteed to spend much of the next nine months discovering how she might cope with the problem. As Mara Yamauchi observed: "I'm sure Paula will be doing a lot of work on how to run in the pollution."

Yamauchi is likely to be doing the same. Ninth in the World Championship marathon in Osaka three months ago and ranked second on the British all-time list (with a time of 2:25.13 in this year's London Marathon), the Oxford woman seems sure to be selected alongside Radcliffe for the Beijing marathon.

Yamauchi lives and trains in Japan – the homeland of her husband and mentor, Shige – and is well-placed to consider the challenge of the woman who holds the Olympic marathon crown.

Little has been seen of the diminutive Mizuki Noguchi since she broke the ailing Radcliffe on the punishing climb to the outskirts of Athens. She has run just the one marathon since then, setting a Japanese and Asian record of 2:19.12 in Berlin in 2005. At the Sapporo half-marathon in July this year she beat Yamauchi by 23 seconds, winning in 68min 22sec. A week today she runs in the Tokyo Women's Marathon.

"It's one of the three trial races for the Japanese Olympic team, along with the Osaka Marathon in January and the Nagoya Marathon in March," Yamauchi said. "But there are only two places open in the team now because Reiko Tosa got one by rights when she won the bronze medal at the World Championships.

"As far as I know, Beijing is Noguchi's big aim and you'd have to say she should be one of the top competitors there, but it's not a foregone conclusion that she'll be in the Japanese team.

"It's happened before. It happened to Naoko Takahashi four years ago. She was the reigning Olympic champion but she failed to make the team for Athens. There's so much strength in depth in Japanese women's marathon running, it's tough getting into the team." It is unlikely to get any easier in Beijing, even if Radcliffe makes it to the start line in full working order.