Peter Corrigan: The pitiful sight of courage on its last legs

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The Independent Online

In the end, Paula Radcliffe trusted her legs more than the rest of us did. She banked on them rescuing her from the nightmare of her marathon failure by pounding out some consolation in the 10,000 metres, but they merely confirmed their reluctance to respond in the manner to which we are accustomed.

In the end, Paula Radcliffe trusted her legs more than the rest of us did. She banked on them rescuing her from the nightmare of her marathon failure by pounding out some consolation in the 10,000 metres, but they merely confirmed their reluctance to respond in the manner to which we are accustomed.

The general reaction was more of sympathy than disappointment, because most recognised from the outset that it was a forlorn attempt to make amends. It was hard to disagree that she was right to try, but among her watching admirers there was hardly a breath that wasn't bated. At least, when she ran off the track during the 17th lap it seemed far more of a deliberate act than the ending of her challenge in the marathon last Sunday, when she looked a disorientated, plaintive figure.

Strangely, in her interviews after each event she talked about her legs as if they were a separate being. "My legs just stopped working," she said, as if they were employed by British Airways.

Not to be used to such disobedience would be disconcerting enough to cause her to call it a day, although this isn't enough for some critics, who saw dishonour in her early terminations, who saw her legs as the tools of someone who no longer possessed the resolve to drive them forward.

That is not a view easily held by anyone who has paid even superficial attention to the marvellous progress of the athlete over recent years. Surely her courage cannot be questioned when every one of her great races seemed a triumph over physical torment. She had won marathons in world-record times despite the appearance of toiling discomfort. She exuded bravery in every step of her slender body. Her head lolled around her shoulders so much you would think the only way she could travel a long distance was in the back window of a motorcar.

Thus, when she arrived in Athens as the irresistible force that was our one stone-bonking certainty to bring gold back to Britain, the last worry to cross our minds was that she wouldn't get the trip.

What went wrong, and why it went wrong, are questions that will live with her, and us, long after other memories of a compelling Olympics have begun to fade.

Were her preparations awry? Was she finally bowed by the weight of expectation? Were the heat and the hills too deadly a blend for her?

As Simon Turnbull reveals on page four, she was warned in advance about the danger she faced, but she stuck to her tactical plan. She is certainly not the first great runner to fail to prove superiority at Olympic level, but she is the most tragic. I watched every yard of the race and, even allowing for her natural tendency to look distressed, she never appeared comfortable, and when the eventual winner broke away from her she was already deteriorating.

When she finally cracked she was a pitiful sight, and certainly did not resemble someone who had just decided to pack it in. According to the cynics, she capitulated as soon she realised her medal chances had gone, and she said to herself something like: "Sod this for a game of soldiers. I'll sit on the kerb and wait for a lift back to the hotel."

Her duty to her nation, apparently, was to finish the race, even if she had to phone ahead to tell them to leave the keys of the stadium on the finishing line and that she would lock up. You did not have to be a medical genius to deduce from her demeanour that she couldn't have finished if you had fitted her with a set of Roller-blades. Indeed, Brian English, the British team doctor, has said she could have died had she continued for the last four miles. Perhaps martyrdom would have been an acceptable penance to those whose high sporting values she failed to satisfy.

I feared that she had been goaded into the 10,000m because of the spite of her detractors, but this was not the run of a penitent; hopeless as it may now seem, this was an attempt to win a medal.

And when, unsurprisingly, her legs proved unequal to the task, she stopped running. I wish I could see the crime in that as clearly as some can.

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