There were no excuses, but no explanations either. Yet it was typical of Paula Radcliffe, typical of her courage and integrity that, less than 24 hours after what she described as the most devastating experience of her life, she should attend a press conference and speak about what went wrong in an Olympic marathon that she had expected to win.
The conference was a painful experience for all concerned. But it was, mercifully, more than an hour shorter than her ordeal on the road from Marathon to Athens the previous evening, when she dropped out at the 36km mark.
Radcliffe arrived at the Olympic press centre in Athens a few minutes late on Monday afternoon, looking pale, drawn and red-eyed, with her wanness emphasised by her fair hair that had been trimmed especially for the race. In a hesitant voice, she said that she had no excuses and did not believe the heat, humidity or the largely uphill course were reasons for her demise.
“I'm struggling to find a reason, because I came here to win the Olympic title,” said Radcliffe. “I felt good in the early stages, and was putting in efforts to raise the pace, and I felt good on the first couple of hills. I had stomach problems at 15k, then a bad stage when the two girls [eventual winner Mizuki Noguchi of Japan and Efenesh Alemu of Ethiopia] broke away.
“I felt better when I got back into second, but then there was nothing in my legs. No part of me was hurting, but going downhill felt like I was going uphill. I'm desperately disappointed, I'm just in shock. Last night I was so numb, I was unable to cry. I'm more able [to] today.”
At that cue she broke off and began weeping, and a brief interlude was called while Radcliffe composed herself.
She then said she had undergone tests in hospital and was awaiting the results. She said that if they yielded a significant finding, it would offer some consolation. “I wouldn't take satisfaction from anything but yes, it would be easier to pick myself up and do something about it if you knew the reason.”
The 30-year-old also apologised for letting “everyone down”, and it may be that the weight of expectation induced psychological trauma that in turn took its toll on her body. Radcliffe is also entered in the 10,000m, which takes place on Friday, but she said it was too early to consider whether she would participate.
She has time on her side, as declarations for the race do not have to be made until Thursday. Yet memories of her fourth place in the Sydney 10,000m, having led until the last lap before being beaten in the final sprint, will weigh just as heavily as the expectation that accompanied her on the road from Marathon.
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