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Last Updated: Sunday, 22 August, 2004, 21:22 GMT 22:22 UK
Paula's party falls flat
By Andrew Fraser
BBC Sport in Athens

Radcliffe was distraught after the race

It seemed like anyone with a drop of British blood in them had made their way to the historic Panathinaiko stadium to roar Paula Radcliffe on to marathon glory.

Hundreds of excited fans waving Union Flags and banners of support crammed into the banks of marble seats waiting to celebrate Radcliffe's inevitable coronation as Olympic champion.

There was just one problem.

The guest of honour never showed up.

The Brit brigade had been dancing the YMCA and doing an impromptu conga around the stadium as Radcliffe set the pace in the searing Athens heat.

But the noise level started to fall when the giant screen at the end of the stadium showed Japan's Mizuki Noguchi and Kenyan Catherine Ndereba easing away from the world record holder.

Spirits were lifted again when Radcliffe passed Ethiopia's Elfenesh Alemu to move up to third place.

Surely this was 'Radcliffe On Another Rampage', as one banner in the crowd said.

But the optimistic buzz turned to gasps of disbelief when an exhausted Radcliffe stopped running, briefly started up again, and then ground to a halt.

You could almost hear the crickets humming in the trees behind the stadium.

The mood changed once everyone saw what happened to Paula
The mood changed once everyone saw what happened to Paula

As if out of nowhere, Japanese flags began to appear, and Noguchi homed in on the gold medal that everyone had assumed would be going home around Radcliffe's neck.

After the adrenaline rush of Matthew Pinsent's triumph on Britain's 'Super Saturday', the Sunday comedown had arrived.

"We were at the rowing and that was such a high," said Rob Dutfield from Wallasey on the Wirral, who had turned up with an inflatable banana decked out in red, white and blue.

"We knew it was going to be hard, but we expected Paula to do it. She has trained all her life for it and it's heartbreaking for her.

"She is such a symbol in British sport. I'm a teacher and I've got pictures of her plastered all over the walls at school to try and inspire the girls.

"It must have been 80% British in here and the atmosphere early on was unbelievable. But the whole place just went dead when she stopped running."

The silent majority in the crowd were briefly revived as they welcomed Liz Yelling and Tracey Morris into the stadium, the pair finishing 25th and 29th respectively.

The British duo had been unaware of their team-mate's dramatic collapse, and only found out Radcliffe had failed to finish when they were told by the waiting media.

"It was much harder than I thought it would be. From the profile of the course, it looked like there were some flat bits, but I didn't see any," said Yelling.

"I know how hard Paula trained and all the preparation she put in. She really wanted this one."

When Radcliffe finally arrived at the stadium, it was via the back door.

And, having received medical treatment, she was whisked away into the night past the waiting reporters, flash bulbs lighting up her face.

Just a few minutes later the final athlete on the course, Mongolia's Otgonbayar Luvsanlkhundeg, staggered across the line - one hour and 22 minutes outside the winning time.

Many of the dejected British fans stayed behind to cheer her, but it was not the finish to the night they had been hoping for.

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