The familiar nightmare had once again come to the darling of British athletics

Paula Radcliffe stopped and then started again but you could see she was consumed by a terrible truth. Her Olympic marathon was over, at 36 kilometres. The Panathinaiko stadium was no more than six kilometres away, but it might have been a thousand miles.

Paula Radcliffe stopped and then started again but you could see she was consumed by a terrible truth. Her Olympic marathon was over, at 36 kilometres. The Panathinaiko stadium was no more than six kilometres away, but it might have been a thousand miles.

Choking back tears, she stopped running after just a few more futile strides. For a moment she had the appearance of Mike Tyson reaching for his gumshield while on his back on the canvas, an instinctive gesture detached from the reality of his plight as an utterly beaten fighter. She then subsided and wept. The asphalt beneath her feet was hot - 49 degrees centigrade.

The British team coach, Alan Storey, later reporting that Radcliffe was tearful and distraught but causing no concern in her medical condition, added: "If the tarmac had been any hotter it would have melted.

"You can run a marathon in any conditions, but if you had a choice you wouldn't go in the ones we had tonight."

The bleak fact was that familiar nightmare had once again come to the darling of British athletics. She had always shown courage, always a fighting belief - not always supported by hard evidence - that she had the power to grind down more talented and natural runners.

But would she ever steal the drama of one of those races that live down the years, which announce supreme talent? That was the huge question mark against her at the start in Marathon, from where Pheidippides was said to have run to Athens 2,500 years ago with the news that the Persians had been defeated - and then died. Last night it seemed too many of the demons of her past crowded her when an Ethiopian glided past her into third place. That meant no medal, no mark on the great event, not even the glimmery of faint glory.

The temperature was 35C when she set off in the early evening. But for more than half the course she was a familiar figure, tall and purposeful as she towered above her opponents. It was an illusion, however. Increasingly it became evident that every stride for Radcliffe was becoming a form of torture.

Finally, when she admitted defeat, the 30-year-old from Bedford sat on the Athens pavement and the tears came in full. She had been brilliant in the spring in London and late autumn in Chicago in her epic year of 2002. She had dismantled the world record, smashing it by one minute 29 seconds, and for the first time in her long career she had come to a great event - the greatest of all, the Olympics - not as a worthy trier but an authentic star.

Or so it had seemed until Mizuka Noguchi, a 26-year company worker from Japan, and her compatriot, Reiko Tosa, in the company of some of those classic distance runners, Kenyans and Ethiopians, attacked a steeply rising hill at the 25km point in the 42.2km course.

Radcliffe tried everything she had to stay with the break, but with her head rolling and her stride faltering, she must have known that her ambition to match the achievement of the man who had inspired her girlhood, the legendary Czech runner Emil Zatopek, was in ruins. Half an hour after Noguchi, who stands just 4ft 11ins, had led the field into the beautiful stadium which saw a Greek shepherd win the first marathon of the modern Olympics in 1896, Radcliffe arrived wrapped in a tin-foil space blanket and being supported by members of the British coaching staff. She was still crying copiously - her deepest ambition had been shattered.

She had arrived at one of the bleakest points of her life - at the time when many believed her story of determination was about to reach a superb climax. As the stadium emptied, a banner was left forlornly pinned to a wall. Bravo, Paula, it said.

From her modest beginnings, and humiliating defeats - in the Sydney Olympics of 2000 and the World Championships of 2001 she had been a grim-faced pacesetter until the final stages, when rivals sped by her as though she didn't exist - she came here as a clear favourite. British bookmakers had her at the odds of 2-1.

Her fortune is estimated at £5m after her world records and marathon wins in London and Chicago. But there was an overwhelming sense that she would have given much of this booty in exchange for an easier passage through the wall of heat that awaited her in the home of the classic foot race.

For years Radcliffe campaigned against the scourge of drugs. She worked slavishly to improve her basically modest natural talent, and she came here the favourite of those who believe that character and determination can go long strides towards reaching your goal.

But that all seemed like the most dreamy of optimism when Noguchi kicked into the winning effort that brought her home, to a forest of Japanese flags, in a time of 2 hours, 26 minutes and 20 seconds, more than 11 minutes outside the world record. Radcliffe still had the record, and all that fortune, but it didn't seem to mean much when she sat on the pavement and cried.

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