Paula Radcliffe surprised many observers at the IAAF World Cross-country Championships here yesterday as she came within a second of earning a medal in the 4km event less than 24 hours after collapsing exhausted following her fifth place in the 8km race.
An even greater surprise followed as Kenya lost its grip on the individual men's title it has won since 1991 in the wake of a major selection row which undermined Paul Tergat's attempt to win a record sixth consecutive gold and almost led to a boycott by the team members.
Radcliffe performed with utter determination on the course she had been carried away from on the previous day, but she finished empty-handed after being out-sprinted over the final 100 metres, with Ethiopia's Kutre Dulecha passing Zahra Ouaziz of Morocco a stride from the line, and Kenya's Margaret Ngotho taking the bronze. All three medallists were given the same time of 30.00min, with Britain tantalisingly, agonisingly, recording 30.01.
Afterwards, Radcliffe tried to put a weekend, over which she had performed mightily without tangible reward, into the context of an Olympic year. "The 8km was always going to be my main race," she said. "Running today gave me a chance to get rid of some of the frustration and disappointment of yesterday. I feel I have run well here - I have been beaten by runners who were better than me on the day. But the Olympics is a very different race. Everyone tends to get wound up about it early, and some people are going to overcook things. Sonia O'Sullivan did that in 1996."
The 26-year-old Bedford runner, who will seek an Olympic 10,000 metres qualifying time at the European Challenge event in Lisbon on 1 April, is determined not to over-react after what has been a shattering experience on the Algarve.
Having arrived here in peak condition, as good if not better than ever before, she had no answer to the sustained, surging pace of the Ethiopian pair Derartu Tulu and Gete Wami, who finished first and second respectively in Saturday's 8km race. Yesterday, Radcliffe kept in touch with the lead until the final stages, but as she rounded the last corner in the company of three others she paid once again for the fact that she does not have a fast finish.
The disappointment was crueller still, however, for Ouaziz, who subsided into bitter sobs after seeing Dulecha come fast at the finish.
Radcliffe, who recuperated after Saturday's exertions by going for a swim in the Atlantic, remained phlegmatic. "I didn't allow myself think at any stage that I'd got a medal," she said, adding that that had been her mistake in Turin three years earlier when Tulu beat her to the line in the final few metres.
Tergat's demeanour after finishing third behind Belgium's naturalised Moroccan Mohammed Mourhit - who became the first representative of a non-African country to win the title since Portugal's Carlos Lopes in 1985 - was one of dignified anger. The 30-year-old Air Force sergeant said he had had no sleep after team members had argued until 4am with their management. He added that a decision to run had been made less than two hours before the race started.
The controversy centred on the management's decision to drop Joshua Chelanga from the team rather than Charles Kamathi, who finished five places behind Chelanga in 13th position at the Kenyan trials.
Officials had picked seven men for the event, believing that one would be able to run as an individual as Kenya's Bernard Barmasi had done at the 1997 event by dint of leading the rankings in the IAAF World Cross Challenge series. But upon arrival, the team management realised that the IAAF had altered their rules in 1998 and now only offer individuals the option to run if their country is not entering a team.
Tergat and his colleagues argued that Chelanga deserved to run rather than the 21-year-old Kamathi, who leads this year's Cross Challenge rankings and has beaten Tergat three times this season. Kamathi eventually finished seventh, four places behind Tergat, who lost out on the silver medal to Assefa Mezgebu of Ethiopia.
"This row probably cost me the title," Tergat said. "I had no sleep before the race, and my concentration and motivation were affected. We didn't race with any plan. But we decided to run here for our country, not the team management. We have a number of people who don't understand athletes and sport. It is us that do the job, not the men who sit in an office."
For Mourhit, who took over Belgian citizenship through marriage in 1997 after being unable to get into the Moroccan team, yesterday represented a final breakthrough after finishing in the top 10 of this event for three consecutive years.
"If you are a top 10 athlete, it is always possible to wait," said Mourhit, whose career has improved since he discovered that one of his legs was 20mm shorter than the other and sought corrective treatment.
Such an attitude holds out encouragement for Karl Keska, who became Britain's top finisher in 13th place after spending a month training at altitude in Boulder, Colorado, with the former European Cross-country champion Jon Brown.
In the junior men's race, the 16-year-old Mohammed Farah - born in Somalia but resident in Britain for the last eight years - underlined his huge potential by placing 25th in an event he is eligible to compete in for another two seasons.Reuse content