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Paula paid price for losing high stakes gamble

Losing is like dying. We all have to do it. The only question - and it is one which has assailed the spirit of Paula Radcliffe cruelly here these last few days - is how we go about it.

Losing is like dying. We all have to do it. The only question - and it is one which has assailed the spirit of Paula Radcliffe cruelly here these last few days - is how we go about it.

Do we go gentle into the good night? Or do we fight in the failing light?

Some here - and no doubt at home - are charging the golden girl of British athletics with a grievous case of lying down in the face of unpromising circumstances. They are saying she should have taken the pain - and, as the world record-holder, the humiliation - of trailing into the historic Panathinaiko Stadium on Sunday night with the halt and the lame and the conspicuously brave.

Indeed, there were moments yesterday when this haunted young woman's face said that she might just be making the same accusation against herself.

No doubt she would now be having an easier ride, at least from herself, if she had made it to the finish line.

She wouldn't have the unspoken question going off like a bomb in her head. We all know it, we've all asked it these last 24 hours: how was it that her team-mates Liz Yelling, who coming into the beautiful stadium was locked into inseparable pain with Spain's Maria Abel fighting for 25th place, and Tracey Morris, who took an hour off her best time to qualify for this ordeal of the body and spirit, and the privilege of placing 29th, were able to fight through to the end while the great Paula Radcliffe, lionised and wealthy, sat on a pavement and wept?

The answer - simply if brutally - is that Paula Radcliffe is not Liz Yelling or Tracey Morris. Her pain at the reality of defeat, the extent of the investment that was disappearing before her eyes, was plainly of a different order. This isn't to diminish the value of losing nobly. It is merely to speculate on the effect of losing when you have played for the highest possible stakes.

Radcliffe came to Athens not to acquit herself with impeccable honour but to win - which are far from the same things - and when, as she reached her limits and felt a terrible lack of power in her legs, Elfenesh Alemu, of Ethiopia, sailed by her into third place - and the last medal position - only she could know the extent of the psychological damage.

When I asked her the meaning for her of that shattering moment all she could say was that it was a "kick in the guts" and that it would be sometime before she could explain to herself or the world what quite happened in both her mind and her body. Yesterday she underwent medical tests and did not disguise her hope that they would reveal something apparently not within the power of her own inquiries, something that might draw her out of the shock which she said for some time in the small hours of yesterday rendered her incapable of even crying. She was also asked if she knew what was at the centre of her grief, regret that she didn't win gold or that she didn't finish the course. Again, she said that she couldn't really answer.

There were no certainties in the big room where she faced the world, on the point of tears throughout, except perhaps one.

It was that this was plainly not a case to be solved by amateur psychology - no more than was the famous surrender of one of the greatest fighters the world has ever known, Roberto "Hands of Stone" Duran, to Sugar Ray Leonard in New Orleans 24 years ago.

When Duran waved his right hand in the air and said, "No mas, no mas (no more, no more)" some thought they had seen the action of a coward. It was not that. It was an inability to face the prospect of humiliation at the hands of his conqueror, to see himself - and having people see him - in a role so far away from the one in which he had cast himself. He would plainly have preferred to be taken into the street and shot rather than experience the long death of confronting the extent of his own failure.

On Sunday night the Athens marathon course - widely judged to be the most authentic test of a long-distance runner's power and resolve, it did after all kill Pheidippides nearly 2,500 years ago - played the role of Leonard. Maybe Radcliffe and Duran should have taken their punishment, but perhaps when you dedicate your life to winning only that will do.

Surely both the fighter and the runner had shown so many times that they could take the blows.

It was not as if Radcliffe before Sunday night had never experienced the sight of rivals moving into the distance, or had her body cry out for mercy. At one point in her career it was a routine crucifixion. Then she became a winner, so dramatically, that inevitably some questions were, given the levels of suspicion which are now a flood tide in her sport, placed against the pace and the degree of her improvement.

Suddenly on Sunday, she was back in that old and terrible place. She was a loser again and if we do not understand the impact of that, as she pitifully tried to summon up some resistance to her fate, we may risk an unsafe verdict. It is true, and there is no way around it, Paula Radcliffe quit. However, it was not before she risked - and lost - everything she regarded most precious.