Radcliffe's real test goes far beyond the pain

After the double despair the big fear is that the damage to a great athlete might be irreparable

It was the morning after the night before, and Paula Radcliffe was pondering the big decision - "probably the biggest decision she will have to make in her running life", the Independent on Sunday described it at the time.

It was the morning after the night before, and Paula Radcliffe was pondering the big decision - "probably the biggest decision she will have to make in her running life", the Independent on Sunday described it at the time.

The previous night, in the 2002 Euro-pean Championships 10,000m final, Radcliffe had reduced the opposition to little more than human rubble. Runners were strung out around the rain-sodden track in Munich's Olympiastadion, in various states of distress, as the Bedford woman bulldozed her way to victory in 30min 01.09sec - a time only ever bettered by Wang Junxia, fuelled on a diet of brutal training and turtle blood (or so her coach, Ma Junren, insisted). Fourth in the 10,000m final at the 2000 Olympics and at the 2001 World Championships, Radcliffe suddenly had the prospect of Olympic track gold beckoning - should she decide against her long-term goal of tackling the marathon in Athens.

"Yeah, it's a big decision," she acknow-ledged, sitting on a wooden bench underneath the Olympiastadion's vast spiderweb glass roof. "I'm conscious of the fact that it will probably be my best shot at the Olympics, and I have to make the right decision. In any other Olympics you would think, 'Yep, it's the track race that everybody remembers. It's the track race that you want to win'. But Athens is the home of the marathon. And that makes it special."

As Radcliffe made her departure from the home of the marathon yesterday lunchtime, bereft of Olympic gold, silver or bronze, it would have been inevitable for her to look back and conclude that she got her big decision wrong. Sure, she has run the marathon distance 10 minutes and 55 seconds quicker than the time that won gold last Sunday for Mizuki Noguchi, but the road from Marathon to the Panathinaiko Stadium - with its brutal mid-race climb and the brutal conditions expected - was always going to be a risky one to take.

Not that such reflection would have helped to ease Radcliffe's bitter Olympic disappointment. Quite the opposite.

It was easy, with hindsight, to watch the 10,000m final unfold in the Olympic Stadium on Friday night and imagine Radcliffe destroying the opposition with her relentless pace from the front. After all, in the gusting wind and bitter chill of Gateshead on 27 June, she did run the distance in 30min 17.15sec. When the race was run on Friday night, she still stood on top of the world rankings for 10,000m, but it was Xing Huina of China who stood on top of the Olympic medal podium, after winning in 30min 24.36sec.

Radcliffe, of course, had made her exit before the 20-year-old Xing had crossed the finish line. With eight-and-three-quarter-laps remaining, the damage done by struggling to the 22-mile point in the marathon five days previously had taken its inevitable toll.

"Mentally, emotionally and physically, I thought it was there," Radcliffe said, fighting back tears in the bowels of the stadium. "But as the race went on, there was just nothing in my legs. They just felt beaten up. I wanted to finish, but I didn't want to do anything that would cause lasting damage, and my body had taken a severe beating.

"If I'd watched the race on television I would have been thinking, 'Could I have gone there, and could I have won it?' I know the answer now. It's never good to drop out of a race, but I'm not a quitter. To me, it would have been quitting not to have gone out there. I wanted to go out there. I wanted to run well for everyone."

It is to be hoped that those sudden athletics experts who labelled Radcliffe "a quitter" after her failure to finish the marathon can be prevailed upon to join the field for the men's race today. It would be interesting to see whether they could last one mile standing up, before crawling 25 miles to the finish. But then they probably have a different crawl arranged already - around the bars of Omonia Square in central Athens.

Anyone who has followed Paula Radcliffe's running career, and anyone who has the remotest bit of insight into competitive sport, knows that the very last thing she has ever been is a quitter. From 299th place in the girls' race at the English women's cross-country championships in 1986, she has fought for everything she has gained as an athlete. And, lest it be forgotten, she has run a marathon in 2hr 15min 25sec - the best performance in the world-record book bar none, equivalent to a 10.30sec 100m by a woman, a 9.71sec 100m by a man.

This is a woman who has achieved the finest athletic performance of them all, a woman held in awe even by the all-time greats. "How on earth do they get such a big heart into such a small body?" David Hemery once mused. And the late Jim Peters, the man who turned the marathon from a test of endurance into a high-speed race, admitted to being moved to tears by Radcliffe's inspirational running.

The question now is whether Radcliffe has suffered the kind of damage that Peters did to himself when he pushed too hard in the heat of the Empire Games marathon in Vancouver in 1954. He never raced again. The fear in the aftermath of Athens is that the fallen golden girl of British athletics might never be the same again.

Just two months after her most recent tour de force, in the wind at Gateshead, it would be premature in the extreme to say. It is not just the physiological damage to be considered, but the psychological cost of two breakdowns on the ultimate stage. Steve Cram was never quite the same athlete after he was outsprinted by a considerably lesser athletic mortal, the Spaniard Jose Luis Gonzalez, in the Europa Cup in 1987. And Steve Ovett was never the same after he ran into some church railings in Brighton in 1982. Both lost their aura of invincibility.

Radcliffe has already lost hers, in the eyes of her rivals at least - and suffered the kind of physical and mental mauling of which Jim Alder, the 1966 Commonwealth marathon champion, warned her on the eve of her marathon debut in London two years ago. "Watch out at 22 miles," he told her. "It's like a big bear comes out and jumps on your back."

At 30, Radcliffe still has time to recover. She still has time, even, to strike Olympic gold in Beijing four years hence. If she does, it will be justly described as one of the greatest comebacks since Lazarus - and not merely since Mark Lazarus overcame a groin strain to score the winning goal for Queen's Park Rangers in the League Cup final of 1967.

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