I will always associate Vienna 2012 with the solidarity shown by those running in aid of Iranian workers. For the press, a different story was at stake, the staggered half marathon race between Haile Gebrselassie and Paula Radcliffe, billed as the Emperor versus the Queen, which the Ethiopian runner won easily (too easily: he made up an eight minute deficit by15k).
Gebrselassie is by universal acclaim a fantastic athlete: a double Olympic gold winner over 10k, the winner of 4 world indoor and 4 world outdoor championships over a range of distances from 1500 metres up to 10k. He is also kind, courteous and genuinely modest. He was on Radio 5 a few months ago. None of the main presenters have even a passing knowledge of distance running, yet he charmed the entire studio. He remains an outstanding athlete; his time at Vienna was 60 minutes for a half marathon. He will not be competing at London 2012, simply because he has the misfortune to be competing against a brilliant generation of younger Ethiopian runners. In 2012, nineteen Ethiopian men have surpassed Gebrselassie’s best recent marathon time of 2 hours 8 minutes. (By comparison, the fastest UK finisher at the 2011 London marathon, Lee Merrien, came in at 2 hours 14).
Paula Radcliffe has run the three fastest three women’s marathon times in history. Her closest competitor Liliya Shobukhova has a best time of 2hr 18min 20; thirty-eight seconds slower than Radcliffe’s third-fastest time of 2hr 17min 42sec; and three minutes behind Radcliffe’s best ever time of 2hr 15min 25sec. She, Radcliffe Gebrselassie, will be at London. However, she seems to be 10 years past her peak. It is a long time since Radcliffe won a really top race, and few people seem to give her any real chance of winning at London. Her defeat at Vienna, where she had to be comforted by Gebrselassie is being taken as further evidence of her decline.
Radcliffe doesn’t seem to be a very popular athlete in Britain. You have to look right in the corners of the press coverage to see what the press think of her: a perfectionist, driven (too much so?), over-influence by her husband, who is also her coach. It is almost as if people have not forgiven her for her defeats at Athens, etc.
Both Radcliffe and Gebrselassie would be capable of competing as veterans should they so choose. Twenty years ago, most athletes -irrespective of their sport – seemed to peak at 26 or so and then decline rapidly thereafter (certainly neither McEnroe nor Borg got far past that milestone), and if better nutrition and sports science have pushed that milestone a couple of years back (just think of the longevity of Roger Federer) the frustrating reality remains that even marathon runners, with all their slow-twitch muscles, which are supposed to go more slowly than fast-twitch muscles of a sprinter, decline as they age.
This injured ex-runner, 12 months Radcliffe’s senior, wishes them both well.