Radcliffe’s opposition to wiping world records doesn’t reflect well

There was a time when Paula Radcliffe would have been high on the list of athletes I most admired. Around the turn of the century she ran with a red ribbon on her vest, expressing opposition to doping and her frustration at authorities not doing enough.
10 May 2017
by:   Sunday Times

How could you not cheer when Radcliffe and middle-distance runner Hayley Tullett held up the sign “EPO cheats out” at the 2001 World Championships in Edmonton, a response to the presence of Olga Yegorova there? Yegorova had tested positive for EPO but got off on a technicality. The British athletes made sure Yegorova did not get off the hook. Canadians booed as the Russian sprinted to victory in the 5,000m.

Radcliffe was an iron lady, the late Mrs Thatcher in running shoes. There was one story, told by her husband Gary Lough, that caught the essence of her unflinching nature. A few weeks before the 2003 London Marathon she took a fall on a training run in Albuquerque. There was blood and pain and tears.


Under threat: Radcliffe’s marathon world record, set in London, could be wiped out

“Your face is ruined,” Gary said.

“I don’t care about my face,” she replied.

“What do you mean you don’t care about your face?”

“I don’t run with my bloody face,” she said.

Our relationship took a turn for the worse when we worked together on her autobiography in 2003. By now Paula had smashed the world record for the marathon and was perhaps the most celebrated athlete of her generation, and certainly one of the best paid. We kept putting off the moment when we would deal with her anti-doping crusade.

When it came to the point that it had to be done, I remember saying, “Paula, we’ve got to do the doping chapter.” She said she didn’t see it as a chapter but part of a chapter. We talked about how doping impacted on her career and it was a strange experience because she seemed less strident than she had been.

What she said was fine but when I checked back on previous interviews the difference was obvious. Annoyed at this toning down of her viewpoint, I discarded the interview we had done for the book and wrote about her doping stance from her previous, more passionate interviews. It was a blatant challenge to her. Paula, what do you want in your book: the EPO-cheats-out version of yourself or the newer, softer one?

If Paula is true to the sport she loves, she’s got to realise this is not personal

Gerard Hartmann She edited the section on doping and never changed a word. It hadn’t seemed what she wanted but she went with it.

The explanation for this wavering that made most sense was that Radcliffe had become a highly paid Nike athlete and her sponsor did not like the anti-doping stuff. At the time Lance Armstrong was Nike’s number one athlete and they had worked with him to make the most cynical commercial in the history of advertising. “This is my body and I can do whatever I want to it,” said the cyclist in that 2001 ad. “I can push it, and study it, tweak it, listen to it. Everybody wants to know what I’m on. What am I on? I’m on my bike, busting my ass six hours a day. What are you on?”

We talked about Armstrong a lot. Paula and Gary could see his story was a fraud and they certainly understood where I was coming from. Then a strange thing. After winning a big city marathon in the US, Nike invited Paula to visit their headquarters in Portland, Oregon. She told me what an experience it had been, first the amazing Marion Jones Room, then the even more amazing Lance Armstrong Room. All without a hint of disapproval.

I scratched my head, not knowing what to think. I didn’t believe then that Radcliffe doped, and still don’t believe she did. Suspicious blood values, part of a report in The Sunday Times last year, divided scientific opinion and were not satisfactorily explained. But knowingly cheating, I can’t believe that.

Gloves are off: Radcliffe has reacted angrily to the prospect of having her best time, recorded in 2003, scratched from the record books

paularadcliffegerardhartmannThere were other reasons, though, for not quite seeing her as the paragon. There was a constant debate within her team during the dominant years about how much to race. Gerard Hartmann, her physical therapist, argued her body could barely cope with one marathon a year and that in the long term, less would be more. Hartmann lost that argument. Radcliffe earned a lot of money on the road but not the Olympic gold medal she craved.

Then there has always been that contradiction, the great, quintessentially British hero who lives in Monaco.

So I don’t feel much sympathy for Radcliffe when she complains about the proposal from European Athletics to scrap all world records set before 2005. That would wipe Radcliffe’s spectacular 2.15.25, set in London 14 years ago, from the books. Like fellow British athletes with world records, Radcliffe is against the new proposal. “I am hurt and do feel this damages my reputation and my dignity. It is a heavy-handed way to wipe some really suspicious records.”

Many world records stand only as testimony to the power of drugs. Florence Griffith Joyner in the 100m and 200m, Marita Koch’s time in the 400m, Jarmila Kratochvilova’s 800m record and on and on. It is not possible to prove these times were achieved with the help of doping — and Kratochvilova denies the charge — but we know many were.

A better solution than resetting the system to begin in 2005 would be for the anti-doping authorities to up their game, set in stone robust conditions necessary for the acceptance of a world record and start from that point. Many records set over the past 12 years do not deserve our trust. But if it has to be a reset at 2005 I’ll go with that.

As for Radcliffe, I’m in the same camp as her former therapist Hartmann. “Paula,” he said, “has got to stomach up and realise how important this is for the sport. If she’s true to the sport she loves, she’s got to take a stance and realise this is not personal.” If Radcliffe is concerned about her legacy, she shouldn’t fret. Even if that 2003 marathon record were to stand until the end of Paula’s life, it would not be much good to her after that.

Eliud Kipchoge in London 1250x750
Kipchoge’s marathon effort runs in right direction

At 5.45 on the Formula One track at Monza in northern Italy yesterday a group of athletes gathered. They were present to run 17½ laps of the 1.49-mile circuit, the equivalent of 26.2 miles. The plan was for the best of them, Eliud Kipchoge, to complete the distance in under two hours.

It was a project dreamt up by the sportswear company Nike and while you might not be comfortable with all the details, it was difficult to ignore. Nike exist to shift product, turn a dollar. Road running is big business and they have a new runner, the Zoom Vaporfly Elite shoe no less, and knew if Kipchoge could break two hours wearing the Vaporfly, they would have a very valuable product on their hands.

You can say it is cynical but they would say it’s just marketing. Nike, of course, had to tilt the odds in their favour, hence the choice of the circuit with its flat surface and broad gentle bends. Pacemakers were there to shepherd the three elite marathoners through the run as Kipchoge was joined by the Eritrean Zersenay Tadese and the Ethiopian Lelisa Desisa. They were not common-or-garden pacesetters but men who would drop in and out of the run as needed.

To make sure they stayed on pace, a green light was projected on to the road from a lead car showing the runners the precise speed to maintain. At halfway, 13.1 miles, they were just inside the sub two-hour target but at 18 miles Kipchoge began to slip off the pace. Thereafter he conceded a little more through each remaining mile, finishing the 26 miles in 2hr 00min 25sec.

That was more than two- and-a-half minutes faster than the world record for the distance, Dennis Kimetto’s 2hr 2min 57sec from the 2014 Berlin Marathon. Kipchoge’s time was never going to count as a world record because of the rotation of pacesetters and use of the lead car. But this was not about a world record, it was a sportswear company wishing to generate publicity.

You want to dismiss it as a stunt but that would not be fair to Kipchoge. He has won seven of the past eight marathons he raced and he was attempting to run the distance at an average pace of 4min 34sec per mile.

To come within 26 seconds was not a failure. Nike want you to believe his performance was at least in part down to the quality of his footwear but Zersenay and Desisa, both wearing the new runners, lost contact with Kipchoge, though they completed the distance in good times.

Kipchoge says he is determined to break two hours. Good luck to him.

Looking for work?

Nuffin' Long TV has some of the most exciting opportunities around whether you’re a school leaver, a graduate or still studying. We perform at elite level with some of the greatest men and women in sports & entertainment. Click here for more info.