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Lost In A Crowd - Paula Radcliffe in ATHENS

by HUGH JONES with courtesy from RUNNERS WORLD - UK -

Hugh Jones is Generalsecretary from AIMS (Association International Marathon and Road Races) - and former winner of the London Marathon 1982 in 2:09:24. He took part also several times in the BERLIN-MARATHON and is responsible for measuring the right course in Berlin.

For a day or two it was the story of the Games, and on front pages everywhere. When Paula Radcliffe dropped out of the Olympic Marathon, it was as if a war had been lost. It shouldn’t have been such a surprise.

Favourites falling by the wayside in championship marathons litter the pages of athletics history books. It’s always possible, particularly if the race starts in 35°C of heat.

The heat must have had something to do with

Instead of asking the obvious question “what went wrong?” – and the obvious answer is that the heat must have had something to do with it – we should look at what others did right. But this would not have caught a fickle public’s attention, and so the British angle could only be one of catastrophic failure. The success of others may not grab the daily headlines, but it is instructive.

What did the Japanese do right?

In the women’s Marathon, what did the Japanese do right? The answer is in the question. We talk about “the Japanese”, not about Mizuko Noguchi personally. After all, her two compatriots followed her in fifth and seventh places, and the Japanese had fifth and sixth in the men’s race.

Traditional strength

Japan has female marathon talent, and Britain has Paula Radcliffe; Japan has male marathon talent, and Britain has Jon Brown. Both countries have, but Britain’s is only traditional, while Japan’s is also contemporary. Japan has kept its position in the marathon world while Britain, and every other western country, has slipped back.

Japan has been able to buck the downward marathon-performance trend because of the exalted status that elite marathon running enjoys there.

Top runners are heroes just like Paula Radcliffe, but they are appreciated in an entirely different way.

Fun-run coverage

The dominance of the Flora London Marathon in Britain means that public awareness of marathons in general comes from fun-run coverage. Commentary at serious championship races takes its cue from this, and dumbs down. It cultivates convenient myths, like Paula’s “meticulous” preparation.

What we understand by this, informed by cartoon media presentation, is that she is invincible.

She herself would always have known different.

Trained on the Olympic course

Japanese preparation, including Noguchi’s, was specifically meticulous. She trained in the heat for months, she trained for the topographic conditions, and she trained on the Olympic course. She did this because it was Japanese policy to. They all did it.

This is teamwork without the conspiracy theory. It is simply the full support of an organisation, available to all contenders alike. There is no organisation backing Paula Radcliffe’s efforts, other than the one created and directed by her. She is a standalone industry, around which she has built an organisation.

Teamwork just means that she employs subcontractors. UK Athletics is merely another of these, and does not provide the framework around which she can organise her effort.

The chance of falling short could never be seriously considered

Apart from that 35°C of heat, she also had to suffer the burden of expectation. That expectation was unrealistic not because Paula’s chances were less than good, but because the chance of falling short could never be seriously considered. She became a “driven” athlete in the worst possible sense.

The guiding light was other people’s expectations. How else to explain her televised apology to anonymous people who just happen to inhabit the same country? Why should she apologise?

Does she owe them anything simply because they have bothered to turn on their televisions to watch her?

Do or die

If we think so, then we are condemning other athletes to the same fate. It was the very lack of fevered expectation that made Kelly Holmes’s success all the more attainable. And, it is the team approach in Japan that shields runners from “do or die” expectations and gives them the required space in which to exercise their abilities.

RUNNERS WORLD - UK - november 2004