James Lawton: Only Beijing can bury agony for Radcliffe

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Paula Radcliffe got so many things right in New York. In winning another marathon she achieved all of her goals except the one that was beyond her. She couldn't draw a line under Athens.

This isn't a reproach but a reality and it is one which shouldn't surprise anyone, least of all if you happened to be standing at the finish line in the glorious old Panathinaiko Stadium on an insufferably hot night a few months ago.

The issue is not how you reacted to the sight of Radcliffe weeping on the pavement as the rest of the Olympic field fought their way home in varying degrees of distress but the balance between the scale of what happened in Athens and whether or not it was redeemed in New York.

Some thought that by failing to drag herself across the line in the historic stadium she had let herself down in a way that could never be erased. Others attached themselves emotionally to the great athlete who in a few moments had become a bewildered young woman wrapped in a blanket.

If you happened to find yourself in the latter group, as I did, the argument was that Radcliffe had tried to win, indeed gone to her very limits, and that in itself distinguished her from most of the rest of the field. However, no one could say that this was not plainly a defining moment in the life of the runner who had in her youth modelled herself on the great Emil Zatopek.

Whatever compassion was felt, there was no avoiding this truth, nor the fact that for an extremely long time, and at great commercial advantage, Paul Radcliffe had excited her vast following in Britain with the idea that she would indeed join the company of Olympic immortals.

She did this, in truth, until the last few weeks before her great challenge. Then she withdrew from public attention as never before. She refused to be interviewed by an athletics press that in no small part had helped to create her impressive standing among sponsors, one that meant that if she never raced again she could enjoy a life of financial security. Nagging questions about her fitness went unanswered, which meant that when she went to the start line in Marathon no significant doubt had been cast in the minds of a public which would be both horrified and mystified by her terrible breakdown.

That disbelief was compounded a few days later when, against much advice, she went out in the 10,000 metres and suffered precisely the same experience of defeat and a failure to finish the course.

Before her triumph in New York she declared: "The whole world is usually watching when I race and I've reached a point when I'll do what's right for me and not worry about what others think."

That wasn't her message in the wake of the Olympic marathon. Then she talked about her torment as she tried to explain quite what had happened to both herself and her legion of supporters back home. She said she couldn't isolate a part of her body that hurt particularly. She had felt simply that her body was wrong, that it wouldn't, or couldn't, respond to the old promptings.

Her pain was terrible to see in the big room where the world's media gathered in search of answers to the central puzzle of why she hadn't finished the course. Someone wondered aloud if it was that the sight of Ethiopia's Elfenesh Alemu gliding by into third place had finally crushed her spirit. She agreed that it was a "kick in the guts" and that it would be some time before she could explain what had happened in her mind and her body.

She was also asked, as she fought back the tears that had refused to come when she returned from the stadium and was alone with her thoughts, if she knew what was at the centre of her grief, regret that she didn't win gold or that she hadn't finished the course. Again, she said that she had no answer.

In New York it was all so much more straightforward. A nagging injury, the side-effects of medication, had brought the meltdown of spirit in Athens, she said before going out to beat her Kenyan rival Susan Chepkemei along the streets of Brooklyn and Manhattan. For Radcliffe it was another great marathon win, another statement of a superbly competitive nature. But did it wipe away Athens? No, it didn't and it couldn't.

Winning the Olympic marathon, she said herself, would have represented the apex of her athletic life. Victory in New York was something to place alongside those triumphs in London and Chicago and it significantly augmented a fortune estimated at more than £5m. But, no, it couldn't take away the memory of Athens, no more than success in the 10,000 metres world championship in Helsinki next summer, which the UK Athletics performance director, Max Jones, believes will be Radcliffe's next major target.

Said Jones: "She did win the European title in fabulous style, but I know she is very eager to do it on the world stage. I'm sure Paula will decide what is best for herself." That, no doubt, is her right. However, if she is any longer interested, she might want to know the view of a wider world. It is, you have to believe, that there is only one place where she can truly lay to rest the trauma of Athens. It is at the Beijing Olympics in four years' time.