At least this time the heartbreak came for Paula Radcliffe without the agony of the marathon to endure. After three weeks of fighting to overcome a foot problem in time for one last shot at Olympic glory, the Bedford woman admitted defeat yesterday.
A week ahead of the women's marathon in London, following a fitness test at the British Olympic endurance squad's training base at Font Romeu in the French Pyrenees, the 38-year-old world record holder announced her withdrawal from the British team – stepping aside for Scot Freya Murray, whose promotion from reserve is subject to approval by the International Olympic Committee and the International Association of Athletics Federations.
"I have been through the mill emotionally and physically in the past three weeks, cried more tears than ever, vented more frustration, and at the same time calmly tried every direction and avenue available to heal myself," Radcliffe said. Sadly, it was not to be. Once again.
Radcliffe stands head and shoulders above all other women in terms of absolute performance in the 26.2 mile marathon. Her world record time, set in London in 2003, is 2hr 15min 25sec. No other woman has managed to venture within two minutes of it.
And yet, come Olympic time, the fates have cruelly conspired against one of the all-time greatest of Great Britain athletes, who has surely had her last crack at the greatest sporting show on earth. Having finished close to the medal frame as a track runner – fifth in the 5,000m in Atlanta in 1996, fourth in the 10,000m in Sydney in 2000 – she was beaten by illness and injury in the marathon at the last two Games.
In Athens in 2004 Radcliffe was left running on empty and failed to finish after antibiotics she was taking following an injury depleted her glycogen stores. In Beijing in 2008 she limped across the line 23rd, a long way short of fitness just three months after suffering a fractured femur.
This time the anguish and tears have come before the start line.
"From the day when it was announced that London had won the bid, taking part and performing well in the London Olympic Games has been a major goal in my life," an emotional Radcliffe said. "The goal of a fifth Olympics in my home country – what better chance to make amends to myself for bitter disappointments at the previous two Olympics?
"Through a lot of tough times, it has kept me fighting, motivated and focused. That is why it hurts so much to finally admit to myself that it isn't going to happen.
"My sport is a beautiful sport. It gives so much fun and enjoyment. I believe it helps me to be a better person and I have been very fortunate to experience some great success and have so many beautiful and happy memories.
"However, the downside is that it can break your heart and spirit many times over when your body is simply unable to match what your heart and brain want it to do. Sadly, mine is not a career or a hobby where mind over matter can work when your body is hurt, nor where giving less than your best each day can ever work."
Since winning the World Championship marathon title in Helsinki in 2005, Radcliffe has been assailed by a seemingly endless assortment of injuries and ailments. Despite her latest problem – a recurrence of osteoarthritis in her left foot – she does not intend to draw a definitive line under her running career.
"The joint is degenerative and badly damaged," Radcliffe said. "It was the same foot that I was told in 1994 I would never run on again. I refused to believe it then and I don't believe now that it can't recover and be carefully managed to allow me to still do what I love to do. Unfortunately, though, that isn't going to happen in one week."
At 38, and with a body suffering an increasing number of breakdowns under the strain of a punishing weekly training regime that can add up to 140 miles, it would seem that Radcliffe has run her last at the Olympics – and failed to gain a gold medal to match her standing, or indeed a consolation medal to match the silver won by her great aunt, Charlotte Radcliffe, a member of the Great Britain 4 x 100m freestyle swimming quartet in Antwerp in 1920.
Like her good friend Steve Cram and others who have been the best in their events in the world record books, Colin Jackson and Ron Clarke among them, Radcliffe seems destined to end her career without the crowning glory of Olympic gold. Not that her running life should be defined by that misfortune.
As Charles van Commenee, head coach of the British team, rightly stressed yesterday: "When we look back at her career it should be in the context of what she has achieved and not what she hasn't. She is undoubtedly one of the greatest female distance runners of all times and still holds the marathon world record."
Radcliffe flew to Munich three weeks ago in a desperate attempt to get back on track for the London Games, seeking treatment from the celebrated German sports doctor Hans-Wilhelm Müller-Wohlfahrt, whose eclectic client list has included Bono and Luciano Pavarotti. Sadly, "Healing Hans" could not work his magic this time.
"As desperate as I was to be part of the amazing experience of the London Olympics, I don't want to be there below my best," Radcliffe reflected. "If I can't be there and give it my best, then I would rather someone else who can do that is able to be there.
"Now is the time to rest totally, give my body the chance to recover and assess calmly what can be done and where I go from here.
"In the meantime, I will be supporting the team as strongly as ever and celebrating as they all go after and hopefully achieve their dreams and goals. Already, London is showing the world what I knew from that day the vote was won in 2005 – that the London Olympic Games will be one hell of a show."
Paula's pain: past olympic disappointments
The favourite to win the marathon, she suffered a leg injury just two weeks before the competition began and had to use anti-inflammatory drugs, which adversely affected her stomach, hindering food absorption. These complications resulted in her withdrawing from the race after 36km. Five days later Radcliffe started the 10,000m but, still ailing after the marathon, she retired with eight laps left. "I just feel numb," she said at the time. "This is something I worked so hard for."
Radcliffe endured an horrendous build-up to Beijing. She withdrew from the London Marathon in April due to a foot injury and scans later revealed a low-grade stress fracture of the femur at the top of her left leg, diminishing her chances of competing in China. She did make the starting line at the Olympics but with so little preparation – she confessed to running just six or seven times prior to the Games – she suffered cramp during the marathon and stopped. She resumed the race and came 23rd.Reuse content