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I bumped into Cathy Freeman at the Olympic stadium on Tuesday night. She was wearing glasses. She seemed edgy in the presence of the huge crowd and the succession of old friends, dimly remembered acquaintances (like me) and out-and-out strangers who veered up out of the night to request their piece of her. Oh and her hermaphroditic cat, Nashi, has run away.

But she looked fit and well, much better than the last time I had seen her, and she was happy to talk about the “fantastic” 400m duel we had just witnessed between Tonique Williams-Darling of the Bahamas, the winner, and Ana Guevara of Mexico.

The experience, she said, had transported her back to that famous night in Sydney four years ago, when her own 400m victory had transformed her into a global sporting icon in less than the time it took for her to sit down cross-legged on the running track, a green Lycra-clad figure lost in the enormity of what she had just done.

“I watched the girls warm up,” she said. “I was going through the same [procedure] through to the victory-lap. All in my own little head.”

It got me thinking about the almost unimaginable pressures to which star athletes are subjected in our hero-hungry, ultra-specialised age, and how they can possibly cope.

To the ancient Greeks, whom we have spent so much time remembering in Athens these past two weeks, sport as I understand it was a means to an end. One of those ends was war, with events designed to forge good soldiers, or at least to foster a fit populace, skilled in the basics of soldiery. According to Nigel Spivey, the Cambridge classical art and archaeology specialist, “the entire programme of athletic ‘games' could be rationalised as a set of drills for cavalry and infantry fighting”.*

Another end was the body beautiful, with good looks tending to be equated with goodness. Spivey again writes of the “peculiar but pervasive Classical Greek belief that beauty was invested with morality; that to look good was necessarily also to be good”.

Nowadays though, for all the Blair government's attempts to rope sport into its public health agenda, elite sport has become an end in itself. Getting to the top, be it in the pommelled horse or the ‘keirin' bicycle race, usually requires years of unstinting devotion, your every waking moment subordinated to a minutely calibrated, all-consuming plan for world domination in whatever thread of the sporting tapestry you have come to specialise in.

In Paula Radcliffe's case, I gather, the pursuit of supremacy has led to her drinking gallons of wheatgrass juice, even though “it doesn't look or taste very nice”. Kelly Holmes, who by Saturday night may be a double Olympic champion, is chomping cashew nuts by the fistful. As Freeman told me a year after her day of glory: “I was almost blinded by this one ambition [to win Olympic gold].”

And then bang! the dream you have been dreaming for 15 or 20 years comes true and the world changes. Freeman described to me how she was “swallowed up by the moment. I was absolutely immediately sucked into this moment of euphoria. It no longer was my moment”.

One imagines Fani Halkia, the Greek 400m hurdler, felt something similar on breasting the tape this week, in the closest thing Greece has experienced to its own Cathy Freeman moment at these Games.

When I saw Freeman in 2001, she was in the middle of an “extended sabbatical” that she exited briefly before hanging up her spikes for good. “I guess this time now is just for me to reassess my new goals,” she said. I think it is fair to say she is reassessing them still.

The other much more common side of the coin, of course, is failure. And the consequences of this were plain to see at Radcliffe's unbearably poignant post-marathon press conference on Monday.

For 20 minutes, I felt like an intruder on the agony of a woman whose love affair had ended. British heptathlete Denise Lewis evidently saw things the same way, commenting: “Her heart was broken by Sunday's disappointment”.

In the event, of course, Radcliffe picked herself up in astonishingly rapid time and ran in Friday night's 10,000m a distance over which she had recorded the fastest time this year by a margin of 26 seconds.

We hoped against hope. But Sunday's trauma had taken too much of a toll, as we always feared it must, and she dropped out. Her gutsy attempt to salvage something from the Games had tears welling in my eyes, for reasons that had little to do with our shared nationality. Her decision to run in the race must, after all, have been an extraordinarily difficult one. Double or quits: win and you join US swimmer Michael Phelps as the reason why these Games will be remembered; fail again and the misery so excruciatingly displayed at the start of the week is compounded, but this time with no means of redemption to hand.

It will be of no consolation to her but the pressure of winning would probably have exacted just as heavy an emotional price. As Freeman told me: “I was never prepared for all the extra attention.”

*The Ancient Olympics by Nigel Spivey. Published by Oxford University Press. Price £16.99.

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