She never won an Olympic medal. But Paula Radcliffe is much more than just another medallist decked in red, white and blue. Writes Chris Broadbent.
She retires from competitive sport as one of the UK’s most inspirational athletes ever. Quite simply, she reset the boundaries. She made the seemingly impossible, possible.
Her emotional farewell at Sunday’s Virgin Money London Marathon showed just how much affection Britain has for this tenacious runner. There are not many athletes who the public are on first-name terms with. They are with Paula.
Her iconic world record winning run of 2:15:25 at the 2003 London Marathon deserves comparison with the greatest sporting achievements of all time. It was that good. And as the years pass and no-one comes anywhere near it - it gets even better.
I was fortunate to be Team GB’s athletics press officer at the 2008 Olympic Games. Devastatingly, Radcliffe had fractured her leg in the weeks leading up to Beijing, where she would have been favourite for gold. Mere mortals would not even had contemplated racing the Olympic marathon. But she was no ordinary human being.
Four years earlier at the Athens Olympics, the nation had pinned their hopes on her for gold. But an infection and illness scuppered her hopes and she was left sobbing on the pavement at 22 miles, forced to withdraw by her failing body.
It was as traumatic a sporting experience as any individual was likely to go through. Yet, it only seemed to have doubled her already formidable resolve. It did not matter what the sports scientists and running experts advised, Paula was going to be at the Olympic start-line in China no matter what.
Physiology, conditioning, VO2 max – there are many facets to international distance runners. But Paula’s greatest asset was her spirit. Her determination, her courage, her sheer bloody-mindedness – call it what you will. It was that aspect of her that made her the standout runner of her generation and is probably why the public took to her so strongly.
It would be unfair to go into some of the details of life behind the scenes in and around the pre-Beijing holding camp in Macau all those years ago. Needless to say, there was tension. Which was perfectly natural. Every athlete there had been through years of sacrifice and they were on the eve of – arguably – the most important days of their lives, all in front of an audience numbering billions.
For Paula it felt the stakes were even higher. Her incredible performances had given rise to massive expectations. But, she was only human and she eventually limped to 23rd in the marathon, badly affected by her lack of preparation due to the injury.
But there was one occasion on camp which reflects the enormous esteem she was held in. The Macau base housed hundreds of members of Team GB across a range of sports. They were not just the best in Britain, some were the best on the planet. Olympic medallists, World and European champions galore. The dining room was a bustling area where hundreds of Britain's fittest and finest mingled and chatted, eagerly trying to shed the nervous tension.
In the corner of the room there was a giant screen with the BBC feed broadcasting early Olympic competitions and previewing the upcoming. It continued in the background with athletes glancing over occasionally in between mouthfuls of salad, fish and grilled chicken and small talk with their fellow Olympians. Then, one evening Paula appeared on the screen - it was an interview recorded earlier that day in the complex. For the only time at the camp, the room was instantly silenced.
People who had already won Olympic gold, talented youngsters on their first international trip, weightlifters, boxers, swimmers, gymnasts – they all stopped, looked and listened. There was a real sense of reverence in the air. Although they had all made sacrifices, all trained hard, there was an unspoken acceptance that no-one had done more so than Paula Radcliffe. Despite it all, she was the absolute embodiment of what it meant to be an Olympian.
Not only did she inspire ordinary runners, she inspired the very best. Paula has the unquestioned respect and admiration of all her peers. She was - and will remain - one of the UK’s most inspirational sporting figures ever. There is being an Olympic champion, and there is being Paula Radcliffe.