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Paula Radcliffe

Triumph and Disaster

BY Ian Pocock

There is a cliché which holds the worst place to end up at an Olympic Games is fourth.  It isn’t.  The worst place to be is left at home.
 
Try imagining a career that requires 10,000 hours of training, only for it to be defined almost entirely by a few days of competition (some in just a single day).
 
This is the world that Olympic athletes inhabit.  
 
For most athletes at the Games, success or failure - as the legendary US college Football coach Red Sanders once put it - ‘isn’t everything. It’s the only thing’.
 
Making the team means joining that most exclusive of clubs – becoming an Olympian – with the potential of commercial contracts.  To fail means an overwhelming sense of four years wasted and a feeling of being lost. This is the reality that hundreds of athletes are coming to terms with today.  
 
So it should be no surprise that Olympic qualification is a visceral, individual pursuit, setting friend against friend. The fact that friendships remain long after the retirement bell tolls, is testament to the characters of the athletes.
 
My wife qualified for two Olympics, winning a bronze medal in the Modern Pentathlon in Sydney and returned from injury four years later to reach Athens.  
 
On each occasion another world-class athlete, who would probably have also won a medal, missed out.  Four years of submitting to the intense demands of a single goal and the opportunity is gone in less time than it takes to complete one day’s training.  It is that brutal.
 
Elite sport has always been as much a test of character as a physical one.  But for an Olympian, the chance for validation comes only once every four years.  Every day is part of a countdown that builds the pressure and elevates demands on the resolve even further.
 
If you think this is hyperbole, cast a glance in the direction of Paula Radcliffe.  The fastest female marathon runner to lace up a pair of trainers has won every medal available with the one exception, despite four attempts.  She will arrive in London knowing this is surely her last opportunity.
 
Vince Lombardi famously told his players: “If you can accept losing, you can't win”.  He wanted to instil in his players the psychology that securing the extra inches needed to win meant being prepared to risk losing your biggest prize.
 
For 17 days of Olympic competition this will be the challenge facing each athlete. They have the skills and physical conditioning.  But can they manage the emotional challenges to keep a steadier hand than their rivals? And will they find the strength to risk that fourth place, to make the podium?
 
The London Olympics has already delivered a host of shattered dreams and it will deliver more over the coming weeks.  But it will also create a new generation of sporting heroes who will fulfil their ambitions and inspire the rest of us.
 
And the best thing is…it’s just 7 sleeps until it all gets underway.

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