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Sharing Paula’s pain

Why Radcliffe's marathon breakdown won more headlines than Kelly Holmes' Olympic victory.

David Wainwright

Topics Politics

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If Olympic 800-metre gold medallist Kelly Holmes has seen this week’s British newspapers, she might be feeling a bit miffed. Her stunning victory was front-page news, but coverage of her achievement was overshadowed by pages of analysis of Paula Radcliffe’s emotional exit from the marathon.

Defeat is hardly a novel experience for British athletes or their frequently disappointed fans, but Radcliffe’s story of vaulting ambition brought low seemingly by emotional frailty makes it an ideal morality tale for our hubris-hating times. Athletic excellence and the joy of victory take second place in the popular imagination to public displays of tears and emotional collapse. BBC News offered a gallery of 10 photographs inviting us to share ‘Paula’s Pain’ (1).

The sentiment appears to be that if we cannot be a nation united in victory we can at least be united in grief. Former athlete Steve Cram confessed that his post-race interview with Paula had been ‘the hardest piece of television’ he had ever had to do, and that he too had been in tears when her race came to an end (2). A Guardian editorial suggested that ‘many television viewers will have wept with her’ (3). The Mirror’s front page invited readers to share the ‘tears of a hero’ (4). People participated in the grief-fest by sending hundreds of ‘supportive’ emails and text messages.

The subtext running throughout much of the discussion has been: ‘do we put too much pressure on our athletes by expecting them to win?’ The suggestion that the support and encouragement of sports fans might impede rather than enhance performance is a remarkable transformation. Perhaps the recently appointed football laureate could pen some ‘emotionally literate’ lines for football fans to chant, in case the usual refrain of ‘we’re by far the greatest team the world has ever seen’ should place too high an expectation of success on their team.

This heightened sense of emotional vulnerability lay behind Steve Cram’s suggestion that Paula should withdraw from Friday’s 10,000-metre race: ‘Well, physically she probably won’t feel too bad in a couple of days time – but we could all see what a state she’s in emotionally, and that takes much longer to heal.’ He added that ‘as the months go by, the pain will start to heal a little. It’ll never completely go’.

If Paula Radcliffe’s emotional scars do bring an end to her athletics career, she could always take her lead from other high-profile trauma victims and engage in a bit of therapeutic campaigning. So that nobody else has to go through what Paula’s been through, the spirit of ‘non-competitive games’ that permeates the nation’s primary schools could be brought to bear on future Olympics. Alternatively, our athletes could be counselled to avoid the stress of striving for victory altogether.

David Wainwright is the co-author with Michael Calnan of Work Stress: The Making of a Modern Epidemic, published by the Open University Press, 2002. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

Read on:

spiked-issue: Sport

(1) Photos of Paula’s pain, BBC News, 22 August 2004

(2) Guardian, 24 August 2004

(3) Guardian, 23 August 2004

(4) Daily Mirror, 23 August 2004

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics

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