23rd March 2020
ON THIS DAY...2002: PAULA RADCLIFFE WORLD CROSS GOLD
18 years ago, today, at the Leopardstown Racecourse in Dublin, Paula Radcliffe won her second World Cross Country Championships title, in contrasting styles to how she had won her first title in Ostend one year prior.
Radcliffe already owned an impressive résumé across the cross country on the global stage in the senior women’s race. Silver in Torino, and another behind Sonia O’Sullivan (IRE) in Marrakech, before a bronze in 1999 around the Playing Fields at Queen’s University in Belfast.
12 months prior to the event in the Republic of Ireland, Radcliffe had narrowly edged Gete Wami in a thrilling finale, bursting away from her Ethiopian opponent in the closing 50 metres to claim her first world cross title, powering through the muddy fields to clinch a hard-fought victory in Belgium. A day later, Wami turned the tables on the Briton in the short race, Radcliffe settling for silver on that occasion.
Fast forward to Dublin, and the course was not as tricky underfoot, but an undulating 7.9 kilometre circuit including a steep incline to the finish was a completely different proposition.
Negotiating a fast and furious start, as is the norm at cross country events of all levels, a breakaway group formed after eight minutes of racing with Radcliffe well among the mix with America’s Deena Drossin and Kenya’s Rose Cheruiyot among those pushing to the front of proceedings.
As a group of a dozen athletes became a group of three, the race started to hot up during the third lap as Radcliffe and Drossin did the damage to break up the field, and ultimately make it a two-horse race on the final lap.
Drossin (later, Kastor) – who would go on the win Olympic bronze over the marathon in 2004 – applied the pressure on the Briton heading into the final lap, but as it unfolded, the downhill section over the far side of the course was where the Briton would make her most significant move, opening a substantial lead over Drossin as they turned towards the long pull up to the finish line.
In contrast to the late sprint for the line to confirm victory 12 months prior, Radcliffe, with her trademark running style, extended her lead and cruised away from Drossin in the closing stages to successfully reclaim the world cross title, making her Britain’s most successful female athlete in the championships’ history.
At the time, she said to World Athletics: “I was very confident, but that made it my race to lose.
“Towards the end of the race, in the last half mile I wasn’t sure of how much of a lead I had as I was getting conflicting messages from the crowd.
“I always wanted to win here, even if my marathon debut in London has been my main focus for this season. I am glad that it hasn’t cost me the chance to win this race.
“The wind was very strong, but the course suited my style perfectly. Thank you, Ireland.”
She joined a list of previous British medallists in the senior women’s long race, including Zola Budd who had won twice for England in 1985 and 1986; Angela Tooby who won silver in 1988 for Great Britain & Northern Ireland, Liz Nuttall (nee McColgan) in 1987 for Scotland and 1991 for GB & NI (silver and bronze respectively), Joyce Smith who won silver at the very first edition, for England, back in 1973, and Rita Ridley who won bronze in 1974.
The 2002 edition was Radcliffe’s final competitive appearance at the World Cross Country Championships. However, she did return to the terrain in 2003, a few months after breaking the marathon world record in London, to win individual and team gold – alongside Hayley Yelling, Liz Yelling and Hayley Tullett – at the European Cross Country Championships in Edinburgh.