No one should need to be convinced that Paula Radcliffe was a great distance runner. It should be evident to the dimmest of intellects that breaking the world record for the marathon by such a huge margin that no one else has come close to her time in 10 years is a huge athletic achievement. It was not a case of just having one run where everything came together - she still has the three fastest marathon times to her name. She is the best women's marathon runner of the 21st Century but she has not won an Olympic medal and the misfortune she suffered in those races has given some people the ammunition to undervalue, or even dismiss, everything else.
A couple of days ago the BBC carried an interview where she talked about the probability that her days of competitive running are over. Injuries have taken their toll and the latest operation on her foot is taking a long time to heal. As she herself admits it was always likely to end this way, with the her body giving out before the competitive will has abated and it is unsurprising as a body can only take so much punishment. She is a classic example not only of what can be achieved with extreme dedication and hard work but how such regimes cannot be sustained indefinitely. Nothing illustrates this better than the fact that she ran for 18 years on a stress fracture (something a wuss like me finds hard to comprehend).
I would have thought that a great athlete facing-up to the end of their career would cause people to remember the highs and celebrate what was achieved but nowadays that is rather naive as the culture of the internet commentator seems to be quite vicious. For some reason (and I really don't know why as it is something I usually avoid) I read the comments below the article and was quite shocked at the abuse, mean spiritedness, and ignorance. Why? She has always seemed to me to a be a decent, honest, and committed as well as being one of the country's greatest runners we have ever produced, so why would people want to be so spiteful?
Athletics Weekly had the same reaction as me and posted an interesting article suggesting the lack of respect was caused by a culture that saw medals as the only measure of success. Perhaps; but I think there might be something else happening as well: the way some some people identify so strongly with the person they are supporting they feel personally let-down (almost insulted) if that person does not perform as expected. Sadly Paula Radcliffe was not fit enough to compete properly (or at all) in the last three Olympics and so could not show how good an athlete she was. When she was sitting on the kerb in the Athens marathon, unable to go any further, I saw heartbreak. Others, however, saw it as quitting and an excuse to give up on her and pile-in. They saw vulnerability as an excuse for abuse.
Such people are best ignored as it is always better to try to look for the good in people and rejoice in examples of nobility or generosity. But thinking about it reminded me of a famous case from athletics history, which showed that people who really know what is involved in distance running can see triumph in what outsiders might see as defeat.
Ron Clarke was the dominant middle/long distance runner of his generation, for example in 1965 alone he set more than 10 records, but he too never won an Olympic gold. His best opportunity should have been 1968 but that year the Games were held in Mexico City, at altitude, where his ability to compete was also compromised by an unbelievable IOC rule that no one could train for more than a month at altitude to acclimatise (sometimes you have to wonder what goes on in the minds of sporting bureaucrats). He thus knew he was at a disadvantage to athletes who had been born, or lived their lives high up, nevertheless he ran as he always did, from the front, albeit at a more leisurely pace. His plan was to run faster in the last four laps and at first that was what happened but with a lap and a half to go he was finished, without enough oxygen in his body. On willpower alone he somehow managed to complete the race but took 90 seconds for the last lap instead of his normal 64. He then collapsed on the line, under the bell and was in such a bad way the team doctor, Brian Corrigan, was weeping as he administered oxygen. People were worried about his survival and although he recovered there was permanent damage to his heart.
For what it’s worth the winning time (by Temu of Kenya) was the slowest since Emil Zatopek, twenty years before, in London and it is Zatopek’s generosity of spirit of which I want to speak. He can lay claim to being the greatest Olympian of them all not only because of his achievements (he won four gold medals, three of them in Helsinki in 1952 where he won the 5,000m, 10,000m and the marathon) but because of who he was as a person. In 1966 he invited Ron Clarke to Czechoslovakia and at the end of the visit accompanied him to the airport. Just as Clarke was about to leave Zatopek thrust a parcel into his hand saying ‘this is for you because you deserve it’. It was an Olympic gold medal, one of the four. As Ron Clarke has said
"I do know no-one cherishes any gift more than I do, my only Olympic gold medal, and not because of what it is, but because of the man whose spirit it represents".
There is no reason for Paula Radcliffe to worry about internet trolls but if she is upset she should think of the gesture of Emil Zatopek and know that, as it was for Ron Clarke, her peers know what she has achieved and appreciate her qualities.