120 years, 120 stories (Part 53): Paula Radcliffe and that missing Olympic medal


“Winning medals wasn’t the point of the Olympics. It’s the participating that counts.” Such were the words of Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern day Olympics when he emphasized more on the struggle than the end result – that would go on to be the very spirit of the quadrennial event for the next 120 years to the present.

So as we celebrate the nuance of the Games with 120 such special stories from the pages of history, let us, for a change, throw some light on a legendary long-distance and marathon runner from Great Britain who had participated in four Olympics but could not win a medal in her career – the great Paula Radcliffe.

Paula Jane Radcliffe, born in December 1973, was one of the greatest long distance runners that the world has ever seen. With loads of participation and staggering performances in them more often than not, Radcliffe is an inductee to the England Athletics Hall of Fame. The 42-year old lady called it a day to the game last year but only after making many comebacks in her career stretching to more than a decade or two – which includes two children born in a span of three years as well as some career threatening injuries.

Representing Great Britain, Radcliffe made her Olympic debut at 22 in Atlanta. Taking the track for the women’s 5000 m, the Briton finished at fifth taking about six seconds more than the eventual bronze medalist, Italy’s Roberta Brunet. She once again faltered to take a place in the podium after she came fourth and four second slower for a possible bronze medal in the 10000 m distance run. It was however in Athens four years hence that could well be the most significant Olympics of her career – and if not the most painful for sure.

Radcliffe was at the peak of her career with back-to-back titles at the London Marathon and was a European champion in the 10000 m. Moreover, she set a marathon world record in 2003 at London record clocking 2 hours 15 minutes and 25 seconds – that still stands to this day. She also clocked just about 30 minutes to finish off 10 km on both track and road – the latter still stands tall. So under these circumstances, the British lady was thought of a gold medal prospect for Athens.

The Commonwealth gold medalist’s charge however was marred by a leg injury weeks before the much-anticipated event. Her medical team tried to resurrect her fitness through anti-inflammatory drugs, which contrastingly caused her stomach problems on the day of the marathon. About 10 km into the race, the stomach ailments started to trouble the runner who still led the race for the first 15 km. With periodic cramps and toilet breaks, Radcliffe lost out on the pace. Further with every passing time, she was losing out on the energy she desperately requires to finish off the race. Finally, the pre-race favourite has to call it quits at 36 km mark – when she felt that her legs were like “sore lead weights”.

Radcliffe’s collapse however faced criticism from various quarters of the British media – calling her a “quitter”. Five days later, she tried to make amends and took the track for the women’s 10 km – an event where she came fourth last time around. However, the Olympic medal still remained elusive as the champion lady has to once again retire with eight more laps to go.

The greatest long-distance runner of this generation – who had in her name three best marathon timing – tried once again for an “Olympic hurray” at Beijing four years later. At 34 and after returning to the business giving birth to her first child just a year before, the British athletics legend finished the race at 23rd place with just a training period of three months prior to the big spectacle.

In 2011, Radcliffe made another comeback post her second child and trained hard to make sure that she earned the Olympic qualification time for London next year. London – being a place where the home favourite never lost in her career – was being foreseen as the perfect background for her claiming perhaps her only piece of missing accomplishments. It however was not to be as the Laureus World Comeback personality had to stay away from the showpiece event owing to a foot injury.

Thus the circle comes to a stop for the athlete who participated in a total of five events in four Olympics – but failed to win a medal. But that does not take anything away from Paula Radcliffe – who has been an inspiration to many across the globe. And obviously it is not the podium that matters as much as the participation that really is.

Photo by EEPaul