Paula Radcliffe at the 2008 Olympic Marathon
The Olympics are a big deal for any athlete.
The 38-year-old runner has won countless awards and prizes in her long, storied career. But in four tries dating back to 1996, she has yet to reach the podium at an Olympic Games.
Paula Radcliffe set the World Record for the Women's Marathon in London in 2003, with a time of 2:15:25. Nine years later, that record still stands. As she nears the twilight of her career, can she use the spirit of her homeland to push her to the Olympic medal that has eluded her thus far?
The Women's Marathon runs on Sunday, August 5 at 11 a.m. local time (6 a.m. EDT and 3 a.m. PDT).
Radcliffe did not finish the 2004 Olympic Marathon in Athens
Paula Radcliffe's Olympic career began in 1996 in Atlanta, when she finished fifth in the 5,000m. In 2000 in Sydney, she was fourth in the 10,000m. In 2002, she made the move up to the marathon and won her first race at that distance, the 2002 London Marathon (from PaulaRadcliffe.com).
Going into the 2004 Athens Olympics, Radcliffe had run seven marathons. She won six and set world records in five, and had run four out of the five fastest times in the history of the women's marathon.
An Olympic victory seemed practically preordained, but the heat took its toll and for the first time in her marathon career, Paula Radcliffe did not finish. The BBC reported that she dropped out, devastated, at the 23-mile mark.
Radcliffe was insistent that the heat wasn't to blame for her collapse, but the humid 35-degree Celsius conditions (95 F) didn't do her any favours. Not recovered from the marathon debacle, she also dropped out of the 10,000m race five days later.
After Athens, Paula rebuilt her reputation with a victory in the 2005 London Marathon, then won the 2005 World Championship in Helsinki. After taking a break and having a child, she returned to run the 2007 New York Marathon, which she won.
Despite her successful comeback, Paula's body started to break down leading into the 2008 Beijing Olympics. She sustained a stress fracture in her femur in May 2008, and it was believed there was no way she'd be ready to run in August.
Paula persevered with her training, and in the race. She stayed with the leaders for 19 miles in sweltering conditions before giving way to severe cramping. She was forced to stop and stretch before continuing on to the finish. She ended up 23rd with a time of 2:32:38 and once again, there were tears at the finish line.
At 38 years old, London will likely be Paula Radcliffe's last chance to break her Olympic curse.
Paula during the festivities at the 2011 New York Marathon
Paula carefully scheduled her second pregnancy so she'd come back in optimal physical condition for the London Olympics. Despite her intense desire to triumph in her final Games, her performances in recent months have not been promising.
Her last serious competitive race was a half marathon in Vienna in April. It was a blow to her confidence, as she finished seven minutes off her personal best at that distance, and over two minutes slower than any of her previous half marathons (from the BBC). The race was set up as a head-to-head with elite mens' distance runner Haile Gebreselassie. Paula had a head start, based on the difference between their personal bests, but Haile passed her at the three quarter mark
The BBC reported concern for her Olympic chances.
"I don't think she will win the Olympics," was the straightforward opinion of Ethiopian great Haile Gebrselassie after watching first hand as Radcliffe struggled badly over the half-marathon distance in Vienna.
For various reasons, Olympic Marathons have typically been slower than other womens' races. In 2008, the gold-medal time was 2:26:44, achieved by 38-year-old Constantina Dita. Perhaps that's a good omen, as Radcliffe will be 38 this time out. Also, the weather forecast for London during the games is much more moderate than what we saw in Beijing or in Athens. That could bode well for Paula on race day.
Paula Radcliffe in London April 2012
The Guardian reported on July 4 that Radcliffe had suffered a flare-up of the foot injury that had kept her out of the 2008 London Marathon.
Paula was said to be traveling to Munich for treatment by a top specialist, and didn't expect the injury to get in the way of her participation in the Olympics. "I can run on it, it just hurts."
It's another blow in the buildup of a race that means so much to a runner in the twilight of her career. Radcliffe has been laying low in recent weeks, working through her final training miles and preparing for the run of her life.
Nike's revolutionary new FlyKnit shoe
Paula will be supporting that foot injury in a brand new shoe design from Nike, featuring a knitted upper made of a single piece of fabric.
The Mirror reports that the new FlyKnit design is intended to allow air movement for the foot to breathe, while making for a lighter shoe with the same amount of cushioning and support. By eliminating all the gluing and stitching involved in putting together a traditional pair of trainers, Nike is hoping for a better fit and a lighter ride for its athletes.
The Olympics may have begun as a celebration of amateur sport. In 2012, sponsors bend over backwards to make a splash with their products on the Olympic stage. If Paula Radcliffe runs a good marathon in these shoes, it could be a game-changer for the industry.