Kevin Garside: Nothing can erase what Radcliffe has achieved but her race is run

One more 10k is all she asks, one more crack. She is 39. It’s over

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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper / Receptionist

£21000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A bookkeeper/receptionist posit...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£28500 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company offers unique corp...

Recruitment Genius: Technical Product Support Specialists

£20000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This world leader in the design...

Recruitment Genius: Field Engineer

£15000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company has 30 years of ex...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
11 best bedside tables

11 best bedside tables

It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

Italy vs England player ratings

Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

An underdog's tale of making the most of it

Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat