There is a problem with performing to a high level in athletics. Such is the record of doping abuse within the sport that people tend to assume the worst. And when Paula Radcliffe improved by almost half a minute in the 10,000 metres here on Tuesday to claim the European title in 30 minutes 01.09 seconds, the second-fastest time ever recorded, many observers from outside the British quarter were seen to be raising their eyebrows.
"Paula has a great heart, and I would hate it if she was involved in doping," said one highly experienced French journalist yesterday. "But from last year she has gone, voom, suddenly three, four, five steps up. And you have to ask the question why."
It so happens that most of the British press corps here, a not noticeably naïve bunch, would probably resign on the spot if Paula Radcliffe ever tested positive for drugs. The conviction, domestically, is that Radcliffe's high profile anti-drugs stance is utterly genuine.
But, as the runner herself acknowledges, there is no foolproof method currently available to convince the watching world that what they witnessed in the Olympic stadium at the climax of the European Championships' opening day was no more nor less than a just reward for outstanding talent, toil and courage.
"It obviously upsets me because it is something I regard as very important," said Radcliffe, who for the last three years has run with a red ribbon attached to her singlet in an effort to promote blood testing within the sport. "But I know myself and people around me know that I have achieved this because of the hard work I have put in.
"You have to accept the situation. At the same time it's very hard. That's why it would be great if we could win the battle against doping and have testing that was 100 per-cent reliable. But I don't think that will happen in my competitive career.'
Her time has been bettered on just one occasion – when Wang Junxia, of China, set the current world record of 29min 31.78sec in Beijing on September 8, 1993. That record came in a period when Chinese runners suddenly rewrote the record books in women's athletics from the 1500 to the 10,000 metres. There was widespread doubt over its provenance, even though no proof has ever been forthcoming that the marks set in that period came as a result of doping.
Just imagine, for a moment, that the figure forcing herself onwards, alone, through the driving rain of Munich on Tuesday night had been Chinese, rather than British. How would British observers have felt about her run?
Radcliffe acknowledges that her reaction to the dramatic Chinese breakthroughs of 1993 was as sceptical as the next middle-distance runner who had sudden seen the landscape they operated in changed forever. But when invited yesterday to say if she regarded her own 10,000m time as the unofficial world record, she stopped deliberately short of accepting.
"No, I don't," she said. "Because I don't want people to doubt my time. If you had asked me a few years ago I would never have thought I could run this fast. So maybe in my mind I was a bit unfair to the Chinese. Obviously people did doubt the record at the time, but the suspicions were never proven. Having said that, I don't think I could ever run the final 3,000 metres in 8.15 like Wang Junxia did."
At one stage it looked as if these championships would bring Radcliffe up against Olga Yegorova, the Russian whose involvement – and ultimate success – in last year's World Championships 5,000 metres, despite having failed a blood test for the banned booster, EPO, several weeks beforehand, prompted the British runner to stage a trackside protest.
Yegorova, however, dropped out of contention a week ago, and Radcliffe was only due to decide whether to take part in tomorrow's 5,000m heats when she assessed her condition this morning. "My heart is telling me to do it," she said. "But my head is telling me not to overstretch myself, because I want to be in shape to break the world best time at the Chicago Marathon in October."
In answer to those who question her dramatic breakthrough this year – a year in which she has retained the World Cross-Country title, run the second-fastest marathon ever recorded on her debut in London, lowered her British 3,000m record and, in the space of nine days, earned Commonwealth 5,000m and European 10,000m gold medals – she can point to the fact that she has already had eight doping tests this year, including two blood tests. The nine-day wonder has scientific fact on her side.
One of the blood tests was conducted at the Flora London Marathon, and Radcliffe, who is involved in setting up a new website for the International Association of Athletics Federations educating young competitors about the dangers of drug abuse, has put in a request to UK Sport to publicise the details. "I have absolutely no objection to my test being released," she said. "I would like to know it myself."
The new champion now looks ahead to Chicago, the last challenge in what has been a stupendous year of achievement that she trusts is going to conclude in the same vein. "Until you start coming down on the other side," she said, "you don't know if you've reached the top."
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