Charles van Commenee - the pragmatic, spade’s-a-spade-calling Dutchman in charge of the British track and field team - had it just about right when he stood at the side of the wind-swept Paula Radcliffe Stadium in Loughorough a week past Sunday. “What about Paula Radcliffe?” Van Commenee had been asked, while giving his thoughts on the state of the host nation’s athletics talent as the pre-Olympic year track season got underway.
“Let’s see when she’s raced,” he replied. “Obviously Paula can be the star of the Games. She’s also fragile, and it’s all about getting her fit to the start-line in London. What happens between now and then, I’m not too fussed about.”
The result for Radcliffe in the Bupa London 10,000 on Monday, her first race for 18 months, was not great. The woman who holds the world best time for 10km on the roads, 30 min 21 sec, struggled home third in 33:17.
Even worse, as she fought back tears after a performance she described as “a bit of a disaster,” the 37-year-old Bedfordshire woman revealed that she had been stricken by yet another ailment. That fragile body, which betrayed her in the crucial run ups to the 2004 and 2008 Olympic marathons, had suffered a torn and leaking disc in the spine.
For Radcliffe, the Jonny Wilkinson of the running world, half of the battle in her quest for the one prize missing from her otherwise glittering CV was always going to be getting to the start-line in London next year in a fit state to challenge for an Olympic medal. That essential part of the equation, being in sound shape on the one day in the 1,400-day four-year Olympic cycle that matters the most, proved beyond her in Athens in 2004 and in Beijing in 2008.
As Van Commenee underlined, Radcliffe’s prime objective is to get to the start line for the 2012 Olympic women’s marathon on Sunday 5 August in a “fit” state. She does, however, also need to get herself fit enough to achieve the qualifying standard before the end of April next year.
That is 2hr 31min. Radcliffe’s world record, set in London in 2003, is 2hr 15min 25sec, although since 2005 she has not run faster than 2:23:09. Her plan is to run an autumn marathon, probably in Berlin on 25 September.
Asked whether this latest problem might lead to a postponement, Radcliffe said: “At this stage, I don't think so, but it depends on the time that it drags on. I only found out about this three or four weeks ago. Before that, I just thought it was taking me a long time to get back into shape and then they found out what it was.
“In a way, it was kind of a relief to find out there was something wrong because I was thinking, ‘Oh, my god! Can I just not do it any more?’ But I was still able to train on the roads and I still thought I would be able to run much better in London
“I'm going up to Loughborough University this week, so I'll see the doctors and probably get another scan up there. I've not got to run a marathon until the end of the year and if they say, ‘Rest this long and then it’ll clear up,’ then I'll do that.
"I certainly wouldn’t go into the Olympics next year if I thought I was going to run rubbish. If I think I’m going to be there and give it a shot and run well, then I definitely will.”