Stranded by the wayside

10th September 2004 at 01:00
My dad was a keen amateur distance runner. He learned his engineering at the old Regent Street polytechnic in London and ran all his life with Polytechnic Harriers.

Every year, he was an official for the polytechnic marathon, run from Windsor to Chiswick. It was then one of few marathons in the country, and all the greats were there. Among the officials was Harold Abrahams of Chariots of Fire fame. Among the runners was Britain's best, Jim Peters.

First contact with the runners was always at the indoor riding school at Windsor Castle. Around the walls, sitting in the sawdust, surrounded by their everyday clothes in carefully folded heaps, would be tiny whippet-like men preparing for the race. Getting ready for a marathon entailed rubbing those stringy limbs with evil-smelling liniment, always known as "horse oils" - fitting, you might think, in the surroundings.

In due course, a member of the royal family would turn up to watch the start, and off would go the dozen or two human whippets on their 26-mile odyssey.

The hero Jim Peters would eventually meet his nemesis on a hot day at the Olympic Games, when he would stagger towards the finish of a marathon, rubber-legged and delirious, his health broken forever by the event.

All this came to mind when Paula Radcliffe stopped, weeping, in the Athens marathon. And still more the day after, when she wept again for "having let her supporters down". What contrasts! What similarities!

Fifty years ago, long-distance runners were mostly working men for whom changing amid the horse litter in the Royal Mews was good enough. They were true amateurs. On Monday morning after the Saturday marathon, they would return to office desk or factory bench, heroes no longer except to friends and family.

But there was another breed of runner, the professional, barred from Corinthian events such as the Olympic Games and widely regarded as socially inferior - even to the little men who ran from Windsor to Chiswick.

Professional athletics not only carried the stigma of prize money but also that of the even greater evil, gambling. If few can recall the names of the great amateurs of the 1950s, no one remembers the professionals.

How different was that shadowy world of amateur endeavour from that of Paula Radcliffe. Today, great athletes train full-time. They employ coaches, sports physiotherapists and sports psychologists. They are the bearers of sponsors' logos, flogging the illusion of physical excellence and youth to the most inveterate couch potato. Those who can barely stagger under the weight of a supermarket trolley do so in jogging pants and trainers.

I have no nostalgia at all for the days when only men could be heroes, and still less for a social caste system which identified athletes with livestock. But I despise a situation in which a woman who had already run 23 miles, many of them uphill and in blistering heat, wept for the edification of the columnist who summed up her ordeal as, "No excuses: devastated Radcliffe still unable to explain her failure". Nothing could be more wrong, nothing a greater betrayal of the Olympic ideals of any era.

Extraordinary human performance is commonplace today. People like you and me (well, perhaps not quite like me), run the London marathon in much the same time as the athletes of half a century ago. They climb Everest. Much of the improvement is due to better nutrition, better physical conditioning and better equipment. Mallory and Irvine tried to climb Everest in tweed and hobnailed boots. Hillary and Tenzing were pioneers in the use of oxygen in the "death zone" above 8,000 metres. Their successors today are warmer, drier, better protected by lighter equipment than even they would have believed possible.

The improvements must also stem from belief. In a more open world - in part the creation of a free press - mystery is diminished and we are encouraged by seeing others succeed. "Just do it" says the slogan on the vest.

But at the level of Paula Radcliffe, athletes still flirt with the outer limits of survival. A marathon completed in a little more than two hours demands a running speed of about 10 miles per hour. If that doesn't sound a lot, it is more than most off-road cyclists can sustain. It matches the speed of the Arabian endurance horses, which race over 30 or 50 or 100 country miles - and these fourlegged athletes are often eliminated at the vetgates where their condition is frequently checked.

Paula Radcliffe owes you, me and a carping press nothing. She put her life on the line and, thank goodness, she stopped before her core body temperature rose beyond safe retrieval.

The Adult Learning Inspectorate is about to inspect citizenship. I wonder whether the subject should be "civilisation". Civilised values swept away a lack of decent respect for the athletic heroes of yesterday. They should also sweep away porcine behaviour towards those who give their all to inspire us to high endeavour today.

David Sherlock is chief inspector for adult learning

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