Experimental feature

Listen to this article

Experimental feature

The euphoria of Britain's Golden Saturday evaporated in the Athens dusk on Sunday as a distraught Paula Radcliffe, world record-holder and race favourite, dropped out of the Athens marathon 6km from the end.

The Bedford athlete, then lying in third place, dramatically ground to a halt right beside the 36km marker on the relatively merciful downhill gradient that marks this tough course's closing stages.

Looking dazed and disoriented, she eventually tried to struggle on for a few paces, but to no avail.

She ended her marathon sitting pathetically by the side of the road, sobbing uncontrollably. At 30 years of age and with only a fourth place in the 10,000m to show for her efforts four years ago in Sydney, she may go down as one of the best athletes never to win an Olympic medal.

With Radcliffe's demise, the honour of winning the first Olympic marathon to finish in the marble Panathenaikó stadium, one of the world's most beautiful sports venues, since 1896, went to Mizuki Noguchi of Japan that country's second consecutive victory. Punching the air, the woman once known as the Queen of the Half-Marathon, breasted the tape about 80m ahead of Kenya's Catherine Ndereba, with the fast-finishing Deena Kastor of the US a further 50secs back in third.

With Reiko Tosa coming fifth and Naoko Sakamoto seventh, the Japanese women can claim utterly to have dominated the race run over the original course from Marathon to Athens.

For all Radcliffe and Britain's disappointment, this was somehow fitting: the race is virtually a religion in Japan and, as the Ancient Games were a religious festival in honour of Zeus, so this victory will be seen as a consecration of a modern obsession.

The winning time was slow at 2hr 26.20secs, almost 11 minutes outside Radcliffe's world record. The combination of a hellishly tough course, which climbs gradually but relentlessly towards the capital for half of its 42km length, and 35°C heat were always going to make sure of that.

Given the circumstances, a time so far under 2½ hours was a superlative effort. This sunk in when the last finisher Luvsanlkhhundeg Otgonbayar of Mongolia, limped in to cheers and a standing ovation in 3hr 49min.

The news for Britain was not all bleak. Tracey Morris, who won the affection and admiration of a nation when she unexpectedly qualified for Athens at the London Marathon, finished a worthy 29th in 2hr 41min four places behind Liz Yelling in 25th. But the country had expected so much more.

Radcliffe, carrying a leg injury that was obviously worse than she and her physiotherapist believed, had begun to fall back when Noguchi accelerated at 25km. She quickly dropped back to fourth, rallied briefly, but when first Ndereba and then Ethiopia's Efenesh Alemu passed her, it was clear that the number was up.

For someone who had invested so much time, effort and expense a permanent physiotherapist travelling with her there will be much recrimination and debate before she is able to take to the track and road again. She is entered for the 10,000m in four days' time, but it seems unthinkable that she will run.

In the baking hot suburb of Nea Makri a little after the 10km point at 5.45pm, all had been quiet, too quiet. Cicadas sang. A brass band rehearsed in the distance. Little else moved. Yet when the race arrived just after 6.30, the crash barriers were lined with people and all seemed to be well. Radcliffe, at the head of the leading cluster, was first to reach for her fluid bottle, covered in blue and white checks and topped off with a red bow. It was a sign of things to come, if only we had realised, that the Japanese had taken water-bottle art to extremes. The two belonging to Tosa were got up like a Christmas tree with a long handle covered in green tinsel. Noguchi's was either blue and yellow plastic or black and white with pink trimmings.

Was it this sort of attention to detail that paid off? Or was it rather Noguchi's way of acclimatising that helped her victory? On Sunday morning she and a colleague were observed trotting around a park. That was not so surprising. What was surprising was that Noguchi was in full tracksuit and hat. After that, running 42km in vest and shorts must have seemed a breeze.

Get alerts on News when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.

Comments have not been enabled for this article.

Follow the topics in this article