Radcliffe must be left alone to deal with this latest defeat of the spirit

We will never know why Paula Radcliffe submitted to her second crucifixion in six days, but we don't have to speculate for a moment on the consequences. She was wrecked in the wake of her withdrawal from last Sunday's marathon and last night she had another little death. Little death? It is hard to imagine that at 30 Radcliffe, a runner of marvellous courage, will ever run again with the belief that turned her into the comeback girl of the ages.

We will never know why Paula Radcliffe submitted to her second crucifixion in six days, but we don't have to speculate for a moment on the consequences. She was wrecked in the wake of her withdrawal from last Sunday's marathon and last night she had another little death. Little death? It is hard to imagine that at 30 Radcliffe, a runner of marvellous courage ever since her days as a schoolgirl Bedfordshire, will ever run again with the belief that turned her into the comeback athletic girl of the ages.

Maybe she ran last night because she couldn't live with what happened on that ancient marathon course ­ in the broiling streets and the rising ground of Athens. She confessed the following day to being so shattered there were times in the night when she couldn't muster even tears to irrigate her pain. Maybe she was vulnerable enough to believe those angry claims that she was a quitter because she didn't complete the course once she knew her drive to win gold was over.

We have to hope that what took her on to the track last night ­ and another near certain defeat of the spirit ­ was her own business, and that she was engaged with her own demons. It would be hateful to think she was responding to some twisted idea of what constitutes honour in a sport which forfeited such luxury many years ago in its dark pursuit of advantage by any means.

That she couldn't finish the course last night tells us one thing above all. The girl who once ran with a virus and reached such physical extremes she lost her vision, is utterly broken in her mind. Hopefully, it is a temporary condition but we cannot doubt that it is a crisis which was exposed all over again in the Olympic stadium.

Her brilliant success in three marathons, her world record, meant nothing as she halted her labouring stride when it became detached from the front runners.

The world, by a growing vote, may now be more inclined to say she is a quitter. There may be even more sinister theories about why a woman who two years ago was on fire suddenly became a shattered force. There will be theories about the domineering influence of her husband, a mediocre runner who some said transferred his failed ambition into the talent of his wife.

Here the inclination is to note that a woman of proven spirit, who with her sudden success risked the attention of the cynically inclined who had noted her long campaign against drug abuse, is now incapable of finishing any race she enters.

This may be deemed a failure of spirit, accumulating evidence of a descent into moral cowardice. That is a judgement available to all. But then it is far too simplistic and cruel. The instinct is to choose to see a woman locked in a kind of pain she has never known before. It is plainly a nightmare that has stripped her of choice.

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