No excuses: devastated Radcliffe still unable to explain her failure

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The Independent Online

Paula Radcliffe's emotional utterances yesterday in the wake of her traumatic experience on the road from Marathon to Athens offered a disturbing picture of an athlete in meltdown.

Paula Radcliffe's emotional utterances yesterday in the wake of her traumatic experience on the road from Marathon to Athens offered a disturbing picture of an athlete in meltdown.

Above all else, Radcliffe is a woman whose life is under control. Every conceivable detail is thought of. She follows a monastic training regime of such rigour that she doesn't even like to take books with her on her high-altitude sojourns in Albuquerque or Font Romeu in case they affect her concentration on the task in hand - which is, quite simply, being the best female distance runner in the world.

Even in her private life, the intention to have children at some stage with her husband and manager Gary Lough has been rationally addressed, and she has undergone fertility tests because, in her own words, "you don't want to wait and find it's too late."

As the cameras flickered and flashed at her distress yesterday, Radcliffe, perhaps for the first time in her life, seemed at a loss to know how to proceed.

Lough has described his wife as being unable to comprehend grey areas too well. "She is very methodical, and she sees things in black and white terms," he said.

That, clearly, seemed to be the way in which she viewed things through the fog of exhaustion in which she finished her quest for the title she had worked so assiduously towards.

It has been suggested in some quarters of the media that Radcliffe took a calculated decision to pull out of the race once she saw a third runner go past her and realised she could not finish with a medal, perhaps with a mind to saving herself for an autumn marathon.

That judgement ignores many factors, not least of which is the question of why, having made that call, she attempted to start again on two occasions before sinking, beaten, to the ground.

"I came here to run the marathon, to win the marathon," Radcliffe said yesterday. At that fateful 36km-point in her race, she realised she could not do what she was supposed to do. It was a black and white judgement.

Dave Bedford, race director of the Flora London marathon, said yesterday that he had not entered into any discussions with Radcliffe about future events for the reason that, in his view, she was simply not thinking about anything beyond the Olympic Games.

It is ironic that Radcliffe, of all people, should be accused of quitting, considering her record as an athlete.

In 1994, she was told by one physiotherapist that she would probably never run again because of a stress fracture in her foot. He was wrong.

A year later she arrived at the World Cross Country Championships in Durham desperate to make an impression on home soil, even though she had missed several weeks of training through injury and was far from fully fit. Watching her complete the final stretch of that race was like watching a marathon runner reeling across the track. At the end, she could barely lift her legs out of the clinging mud and she was suffering so much that she temporarily lost her eyesight.

In March 2003 she suffered extensive cuts and dislocated her jaw in a collision with a girl cyclist while training in Albuquerque. Five weeks later she set her second world record, taking the marathon mark down to 2hr 15min 25sec in the London Marathon.

This is no quitter.

But there have clearly been enormous forces of expectation upon Radcliffe here, largely self-generated. Asked if her failure to finish the marathon had anything to do with the pressure she had felt in the build-up to the race, she deflected the question. "I've had pressure before," she said. "Yes, there is more pressure, especially at an Olympic Games. But I don't know that I can use that as an excuse."

The medical tests that she underwent yesterday morning may yet offer something which would help explain why, in her own words, she failed to do herself justice here.

After successive road-race defeats within the space of four months - the first in Japan in November 2003, the second in Puerto Rico in February of this year, tests indicated that Radcliffe was suffering from a magnesium deficiency. Should she find evidence of a similar physiological weakness on this occasion, the situation is likely to be swiftly rectified.

Should the tests come back negative, however, Radcliffe may be able to address the question she deliberately refrained from answering yesterday - whether to take up the 10,000 metres place she is entitled to in Friday's final, a final from which Ethiopia's world champion Berhane Adere is absent through injury.

"I desperately want to get out there and redeem myself and get something for all the hard work I've done and the support I've had," she said. "But I'm not going to put myself into that arena if I'm not right."

As she admitted yesterday, the calf niggle she had experienced a month earlier had disrupted her training after returning in the week before she was due to arrive at the Games. But she seemed adamant that it had not caused her to pull up.

"It wasn't like any part of me was hurting, if that makes sense," she said. "It wasn't any particular muscle that was troubling me. I just felt like I couldn't go on."

Radcliffe needs a reason - or a redemption. What a story it would be if she could return to the track.