Paula Radcliffe's entrance to the Panathinaiko Stadium was not supposed to have been like this.
Paula Radcliffe's entrance to the Panathinaiko Stadium was not supposed to have been like this. For four years the woman who represented British athletics' only likely chance of winning a gold medal at these Games has dreamed of setting the final garland on an honour-strewn career by running into the birthplace of the Modern Games as Olympic marathon champion.
Last night she made her arrival by ambulance after staggering to a halt less than four miles from the finish after slipping back to fourth place the same bitter position she ended up in at the last Olympics, in the 10,000 metres.
Confused and weeping, she was escorted to the medical centre wrapped in a foil blanket which, ironically, was intended to prevent her dehydrated body losing any more heat at the end of a brutal race along the hallowed course from Marathon, which had began in temperatures above 100 degrees.
By way of a final, tragi-comic indignity, she was obliged to pass through the x-ray security barrier before being allowed to make her dazed way down the deep tunnel that leads to the stadium medical centre.
Had the machine been able to interpret interior emotions it would have registered a maelstrom of frustration, despair and misery in a woman who has, in the space of the last two years, reshaped her event.
Her only verbal comment was predictably desolate: "I am devastated. I can't say any more."
No other woman has run within three minutes of the world record she set in London last year, but the 30-year-old Bedford runner knew that the searing conditions, and a course that contained not one but two brutal hills the latter rising 650 feet over eight miles would mean this event was a completely different proposition to the big city marathons where she has established her dominance.
It was still not clear after a race won by Japan's Mizuki Noguchi in 2hr 26min 20sec, more than 10 minutes slower than Radcliffe's world record of 2:15.25, whether Radcliffe had been affected by the calf problem which surfaced last month and prevented her running in the Crystal Palace grand prix on 30 July.
What did seem evident was that, even in the early stages, Radcliffe flushed, and nodding her head in that characteristic accompaniment to maximum effort was finding the conditions punishingly tough. She nevertheless remained in the leading group of seven as they reached the halfway point in 1:14.02, in the early stages of the grinding climb between 11 and 19 miles.
It was there that the Japanese runner, last year's world silver medallist, made her break after being escorted to the crucial point by both her teammates. Elfenesh Alemu responded, and Radcliffe dug in to try and hold on to a medal position, briefly overtaking the Ethiopian. But soon Catherine Ndereba, the woman whose world record Radcliffe surpassed in 2002, had put her back in bronze medal place.
It was at the point where Alemu came past her once again that something seemed to break inside the British runner.
Alongside the red 36km marker, she slowed to a halt, putting her hand to her head, her face a mask of misery and exhaustion. Twice she made faltering attempts to restart, responding to some deep and futile instinct.
On the first occasion, she stopped to hang on to a barrier; on the second she finally accepted her fate before slumping inconsolably at the roadside.
Like that other British marathon runner who had gone into the Olympics as a world record holder, Jim Peters, Radcliffe had discovered the cruel truth that everything is different when it comes to the Games. Peters failed to finish at the 1952 Games after being passed by the eventual winner, Emil Zatopek. And after all the iced baths, and the 160-mile-a-week training runs, and the special circulation-stimulating socks, and the frozen vests, and the monastic training regimes in Font Romeu and latterly southern Spain of eat, run, sleep, eat, run, sleep, the finest female marathon runner was ultimately vulnerable.
As she sat distraught by the verge Radcliffe turned to look at the television camera which was, inevitably, looking right back at her. The world was watching as she reacquainted herself with the persona she thought her long string of victories on track and road had banished that of the gallant British loser.
Noguchi was followed by Ndereba on to the dark, narrow track looped inside the marble steps of the stadium that hosted the 1896 Games. The Kenyan had appeared to struggle in the early stages but eventually clocked 2:26.32. "The conditions were tough," she said. "But God was with me."
Bronze went to Deena Kastor, of the United States, who overtook Alemu on the approach to the stadium and finished in 2:27.20.
Tracey Morris, who earned an Olympic appearance by cutting an hour off her personal best at the last London Marathon, achieved her own more realistic ambition of lasting the course. She finished in 29th place with a time of 2:41.00, four places behind Britain's third runner Liz Yelling, who clocked 2:40.13.
Morris was a relieved figure at the end, having recovered from a back injury which had put her participation in doubt. "Just a few weeks ago I didn't know whether I would make it," said the woman who works for a Leeds optician. "I was delighted to have finished. It was an amazing experience."
That it was, for deeply differing reasons.Reuse content