Paula Radcliffe delivered the news yesterday that Britain's beleaguered World Championship team least wanted to hear: she will not be fit to compete in Paris next week.
The 29-year-old Bedford athlete, the clear favourite to earn what would have been her first global track medal at 10,000 metres, and maybe at 5,000m as well, has had to give up her aspirations for this summer following a succession of injuries and a bout of bronchitis.
After a period in which she could do nothing wrong, during which time she won gold medals in the Commonwealth 5,000m and European 10,000m before setting consecutive women's world records for the marathon in Chicago and London, Radcliffe's painstaking plans began to fall apart when she suffered a shin injury in June, which was followed by a bout of bronchitis last month.
Although Britain's selectors left the door open until the last possible minute, naming her in the second wave of selections for Paris last Tuesday, a further niggling injury sustained while training in Font Romeu at the end of last week proved to be a problem too far.
Radcliffe returned to her Loughborough home this week in order to have a run-out at sea level on Wednesday, but, after considering her position, she informed UK Athletics yesterday that she was not sufficiently fit to do herself justice at the World Championships.
"I am very, very disappointed, because Paris was my main aim for the year," she said yesterday. "I've had my preparations interrupted this year, which has left me short of time and training.
"I probably could have coped with one or other of the problems, but both left me with too much time to catch up. I've come very close, but this week has shown me that I'm not quite at the level I hoped I would be. I have to be realistic and look at the bigger picture."
Although the announcement had been half expected by UK Athletics - whose performance director, Max Jones, had put her chances of competing at even the shorter distance at only 50-50 when the main team was announced at the end of last month - it still made a tangible impact.
"This is a blow," Jones said. "At the start of the year Paula was a clear favourite for gold. She has been trying to put three months into five weeks, and it has been like trying to put a quart into a pint pot. Other athletes would have given up earlier, but she was desperate to get a gold medal for herself and her country."
Radcliffe told Jones that she intends to run this autumn and next winter, although she has no plans to do a marathon in that time. That could mean that she will seek to earn a third World Cross Country title in March next year, something she avoided this year because the event was too close to the London Marathon.
Radcliffe's coach, Alex Stanton, who has guided her career since she was 12, was in subdued mood yesterday. "She has had problems, and got through them," he said. "Last week I was still hoping she might make it, but everything has snowballed. She had another niggle last week which meant she wasn't training. We were hoping it would go away but it just hung on.
"I have been speaking to her on the phone every day while she has been in Font Romeu. All her hopes were up for Paris, so she's very upset."
While Radcliffe is now looking beyond this summer, Jones has the problem of taking a team to the French capital that has been shorn of potential medallists by illness and injury.
His two crucial concerns now are the defending triple jump champion Jonathan Edwards, and the European Cup 400m hurdles champion Chris Rawlinson, both of whom missed last night's IAAF Golden League meeting here in order to recover from injury.
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