Athletics: Non-appearances can be deceptive

Mike Rowbottom
Saturday 04 January 2003 01:00

Thursday's news that Paula Radcliffe had pulled out of today's Great North Cross-Country in Newcastle with flu came as a nasty shock for the race director Peter Elliott. Radcliffe's announcement – made through her husband and manager Gary Lough – happened to coincide with the publication of a survey by a nasal spray manufacturer that indicated women were more likely than men to take time off with colds or flu.

The survey also maintained that 81 per cent of the women spoken to admitted exaggerating how ill they felt in order to gain extra attention from their partner. I think it's a fair bet that, had Radcliffe been questioned, she would have been in the other 19 per cent. The idea of her flopping about in an exaggerated manner for the benefit of her other half is impossible to entertain. I imagine her regarding any kind of illness as an affront. I picture her sitting bolt upright in bed reading an improving book or reviewing her nutritional plans for the next six months.

But however the gilded goddess of British athletics has occupied her time this week, her indisposition has presented the Great North race director with a black hole in his annual event following earlier withdrawals by the Ethiopian pair Gete Wami and Derartu Tulu. During his own time as an athlete, Elliott was famously present and correct at meetings all around the world, most notably the 1988 Seoul Olympics, where he won a 1,500m silver medal after masking the pain of a leg injury with a cortisone injection, a calculated risk which had agonising after effects.

Later that summer, working for a Sunday newspaper, I travelled to Brussels for a Friday night meeting where Elliott was one of the star turns. The timing of his race, later in the evening, made it ideal for the purpose of writing a big follow-up piece.

My hotel was an imposing edifice of marbled columns, towering pot plants and escalator walkways. Quite why I had been booked into such magnificence was a mystery that I was in no hurry to question, although the expense no doubt played its small part in the eventual financial collapse of the organ that I was to have to represent. For which, naturally, I am sorry.

I made it my business before anything else to pick up my accreditation and accompanying bag, which I knew would contain the jamboree of gifts which meeting promoters seemed to regard as requisite. I have collected a number of outstandingly useless items – a section of tartan track courtesy of the manufacturers, a paperweight with the initials of one of the main sponsors and, most fatuously of all, a medal, presented in a smart red box.

You would have thought that medals were things that should only be collected by competing athletes, ideally the first three in each event. The idea that working members of the press deserved to be similarly honoured is perplexing. Although, thinking about it, I have endured evenings where cramped seating, faulty phones, and excruciatingly poor results services and a tumult of on-deadline action have left me feeling worthy of tangible reward. At which point I have found a bar. Because there's nothing quite like a cold lager when you deserve one, and in Brussels they tend to serve them in those long glasses which somehow make it taste sharper, and also create the illusion that you're hardly drinking anything, so that another one always seems welcome. And, of course, you deserve it so much...

Forgive me, I seem to have got carried away. So, yes, got the accreditation, and had a look while doing so at the start lists pasted on the office wall – all appeared present and correct – before making my way back to the hotel, where I met the man generally recognised as the doyen of his generation of athletics writers. He accompanied me down one of those strange, sci-fi escalator runs and, by the time I had stepped off the sliding steel at the bottom, the doyen of British athletics had informed me, with perhaps 99 per cent quiet regret and a tiny modicum of something else, that Mr Elliott would not be running later in the evening. Had not, in fact, even felt it worth travelling. Hamstring problem.

As I know better now, athletes drop out of races all the time for a variety of reasons. There are some whom you cannot guarantee will appear unless you actually see them on their marks in front of you. And even then you can't be sure they'll finish.

Radcliffe, needless to say, is a bona fide absentee today as she seeks to dislodge her bacterial infection, and there will be others to write about. I seem to recall that my Brussels trip eventually centred on an interview with Said Aouita which suffered for the fact that he pretended not to understand any English and urgently required to be somewhere else.

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