Offside, 27 August
'Bottle' is the elusive quality that separates Olympic champions from the rest.
The motto for the modern Olympics, ‘Citius, altius, fortius’, misses out a vital ingredient. I don’t know what the Latin is for ‘bottle’ but it is the elusive quality that separates Olympic champions from the rest. ‘Lotta bottlius’, as they might say in comedy Latin.
We may never know why Paula Radcliffe’s bid for gold in the marathon ended in tears on a Greek roadside. It might have been the searing heat or a flaw in her training programme or even a dodgy moussaka. We cannot discount the possibility, however, that she wilted, not under the unforgiving Mediterranean sun, but under the intense pressure that only the Olympics can heap on an athlete. Whisper it, but maybe our national treasure simply bottled it.
What distinguishes an Olympic champion from someone who is merely a very good athlete is the ability to perform when the heat is on – and I’m not talking UV rays. It’s the capacity to maintain your technique, to keep your focus, to banish your inner demons, and to make the right tactical decisions when the world is watching you. That’s the mark of a great Olympian.
It’s all very well breaking records in European grand prix meets held in cooler spring or autumn evenings when the pressure is off. Ask Hicham El Guerrouj, the world record holder over 1500 metres, a flat-track bully who laid waste to his rivals week in week out on the grand prix circuit but who, until this week, was unable to translate his putative superiority into Olympic gold. In Atlanta he was desperately unlucky to trip and fall but in Sydney he bottled it pure and simple. Now, after striking gold in Athens, he probably doesn’t care if he never wins anything else in his life because he has finally claimed the one prize that really counts. The question marks over his claims to sporting greatness have finally been erased.
The same cannot be said for Paula Radcliffe. We know she is the fastest female marathon runner on paper. How could we possibly not know? The insufferable Brendan Foster never stopped reminding us of that fact throughout the race. But Paula’s marathons were all run in relatively benign conditions. In the spring or autumn, in the early morning, and, most importantly, in races that didn’t really matter. Of course it’s not easy to win a marathon or break a world record. These are outstanding achievements. But they still bear no comparison to winning Olympic gold. Paula Radcliffe knows the difference. Do you think she would have sat blubbering like a baby on Birdcage Walk if she had lost the London Marathon? Of course not. She would have been disappointed but not ‘devastated’ – the word she used to describe her failure in Athens.
Paula must have been under terrible pressure. Not only was this perhaps her last chance of Olympic glory but she went into the race with the added burden of being the bookie’s favourite. And of course she shouldered the nation’s inflated expectations as well – 10.7million British TV viewers tuned in to watch the marathon. For the hundreds of Union Jack-waving Brits who congregated in the Panathinaiko stadium it was a medal ceremony waiting to happen. But, of course, it didn’t happen.
It was only afterwards that we discovered that, actually, it was quite hot in Greece in the middle of summer. We also found out that those dastardly US broadcasters had pressurised the lily-livered Greek organisers into staging the race in the daytime. On reflection Paula never had a hope of winning in the first place. ‘This is not a true test of the world’s best marathon runners. It is a test of who can cope best with the heat and sun and a very demanding course’, said Brendan Foster. ‘I think it is well nigh impossible for a northern European to win in these conditions’, said David Bedford, the former 10,000-metres world record holder. Never mind that Paula had four years to prepare for those conditions. Never mind too that Japan’s Mizuki Nogouchi crossed the line in first place. As far as the Brits were concerned, it was the sun wot won it.
To her credit Paula refused to blame the heat. ‘I can’t use the conditions as an excuse because they were the same for everyone’, she told a press conference the following day. But she was at a loss to explain why she flopped. ‘I’ve never before not been able to finish and I’m desperately trying to find a reason for what happened’, she said.
I’m sure it would provide a few crumbs of comfort to Paula if she discovered a physical cause for her poor performance – an injury, a virus, a genetic condition, a dietary problem – almost any explanation would do. But the one explanation that really would be unbearable is that she lost because she couldn’t handle the pressure. She lost because, in the biggest race of her life, she did a Henman. Now that would be truly devastating.
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