It remains one of the defining images of the Athens Olympics, or arguably any Games; the greatest female distance runner of all time, utterly spent at the roadside, emptied of will and strength. Paula Radcliffe had reached the end of her road. Fifteen months after setting a world record in the women's London Marathon that still holds today, 2hr 15min 25sec, Radcliffe sat hunched on a Greek street, arms wrapped around her knees staring vacantly at the floor.
Some observers labelled her a quitter. Her bloated detractors peering down from comfortable middle age, most having sprinted only to a bar, trashed with craven pens the character of a woman, who it turned out, had been running for 19 years with a broken bone in her foot.
Apologies to those reading this over breakfast – she twice emptied her bowel during the race in Athens to try to gain some reprieve from the agonies of an undiagnosed stomach complaint in temperatures well into the nineties. Her subsequent embarrassment at the prospect of travelling to the Olympic Village in the back of her car in spoilt pants is heart-rending. She covered 22 miles before her body gave out. Quit she did not.
In a sense she has been seeking since what in sport cannot be had; the soaring finale, the triumphant farewell, the golden lap of honour before disappearing into the sunset a champion for eternity. More often than not the greats go on too long, take one stride too many, one punch more than is good for them. There is no scope, save for golfing vets and snooker legends, for sportsmen to tour in their sixties like the Rolling Stones, or play Lear at the Barbican in the peak of old age. Radcliffe's great moments did not coincide with the ultimate arbiter of athletic endeavour, the Olympic Games. She smashed the clock all over the world but never when the world was watching as it does during that quadrennial gathering of champions.
So it was not surprising to hear her latest appeal for one last chance to go out on her own terms, to beat an injury she has carried throughout her career, mostly unwittingly. By the aches and pains in her foot she could predict the weather better than any forecaster, such was its sensitivity to the rise and fall of the mercury in a barometer. One more 10k is all she asks, one more crack at a class field. Radcliffe is 39. It's over. But acceptance won't come.
She had hoped to make it to the start line this spring, admittedly a notional term in this endless winter, but, as she admitted last week, targets have gone out of the window. "I'm very much in that limbo where I know and accept that realistically it may not be possible," she said. "But at the same time I have a little window of hope and I would rather be able to finish my career in a race, rather than a race I can't actually get to the start line of."
Radcliffe cannot not do any more to enhance a record that boasts victories at the Junior World Cross-Country Championships in 1992 and senior cross-country world titles a decade later in 2001 and 2002 before moving up to the marathon, a distance she dominated with a hat-trick of wins at each of the blue riband races in London and New York. In the lingua franca of this sporting life they cannot take those triumphs away from her. Equally, she cannot embellish her CV with one last hurrah. There is no tape to breast that will tell the story of her magnificent career any better than those already posted.
Reconciling a mundane present with a rich past is the hardest line for the greats to cross. There are countless examples but few as graphic as Ricky Hatton's when the Hitman returned to the ring against Vyacheslav Senchenko last November believing he was engaged in some noble project. He wanted to leave a champ, three and a half years after Manny Pacquiao brought a fine career to a full stop. Hatton licked himself into fearsome shape, convinced somehow that the fighter we saw in Las Vegas was not representative of the "real" Ricky. He would prove that in the fury of victory over Senchenko as a prelude, perhaps, to taking down the twin towers who had beaten him, Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather Jnr. Hatton didn't make it to the 10th round. What he had refused to accept beforehand was beaten into him by an anonymous fighter from Ukraine.
Radcliffe is not at risk in quite the same way. But neither is she able to go in the way she imagines. None of us likes living with the consequences of decisions that we do not make. But in this case Radcliffe must learn to accept what nature is telling her via the mechanism of a foot that refuses to heal. She was a brilliant athlete who took the story on. That will never change. There is no perfect way to go, but go we must.
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