27th April 2020


Our series of flashbacks to memorable British moments in the sport since the year 2000 steps on to 2002 this week – and what a 2002 it was for one athlete in particular. Move over ‘Plucky Paula’, enter Paula the Great!

Entering 2002 Paula Radcliffe had amassed a nice collection of major honours during her career so far – World Championship 10,000m silver, every colour at the World Cross Country Championships and back-to-back titles at the World Half Marathon Championships.

But, despite all that, the public perception of her was arguably one of an athlete destined to play second fiddle when it mattered most – fifth at the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games, and heart breaking fourths at Athens 2000 and then the World Championships a year later ringing all too loud for some.

However that destiny changed in 2002 as Radcliffe wiped the floor with not only her rivals on all fronts but the clock too, ending the year as a world record holder, European champion, Commonwealth champion, world cross country champion again, IAAF World Athlete of the Year and BBC Sports Personality of the Year.

Radcliffe began 2002 much like she left 2001 by being crowned world champion. At the 2002 World Cross Country Championships in Dublin she once again demonstrated her incredible talent over long distances by retaining her title – the slight snag again being the failure of such an event to capture the public imagination.

Unbowed, from there the London Marathon dawned and a step up to the 26.2-mile distance in front of a huge audience on course and at home. The race could not have gone any better for Radcliffe as she won on debut in 2:18:56 – the world’s best time for a women’s only race and the second quickest women’s marathon in history, just nine second behind the world record.

We all know what would happen to those nine seconds in Chicago in October but in between Radcliffe set about proving that gold on the grass and roads would turn to gold on the track.

A week prior to the Commonwealth Games in Manchester, Radcliffe lowered her own British 3,000m record at a Golden League in Monaco – her time of 8:22.20 hasn’t been beaten by a Brit since.

Nine days later literally on home soil at the Commonwealth Games, Cheshire-born Radcliffe, clearly supremely confident, turned the 5,000m final into a procession – she might as well have been presented with the gold medal at the start line, it was that dominant.

As first career gold medals on the track go, it couldn’t have been better. Instead of being outsprinted by her African rivals at the death, Radcliffe ensured that would never be possible in a technically perfect race.

Leading after the first lap, her rivals couldn’t keep up as she upped the pace – never more apparent than with five laps to go. She would eventually win by 120 metres and more than 22 seconds, lowering her own British record and setting a new Commonwealth record of 14:31.42 to move to then fifth in the world all-time.

Radcliffe would contribute one of 35 medals won by the home nations at those Commonwealth Games, 12 of which were gold, but more on the achievements of the likes of Jonathan Edwards, Kelly Holmes and Steve Backley later.

Nine days after Manchester, it was Munich, but it could well have been Manchester such was the dominance as Radcliffe stepped up to the 10,000m to ensure one would follow two in terms of major track golds as she won the European title at a canter.

With less than half the race run, Radcliffe was lapping the field and, despite torrential rain definitely playing a part in her bid for a sub 30-minute time, she still set a European record of 30:01.09 that still stands to this day.

She would not contest the 5,000m as the British team ended with 12 medals in total including memorable golds for Colin Jackson, Ashia Hansen, Steve Backley and the men’s 4x400m team in addition to Radcliffe.

The reason for not doubling up was the Chicago Marathon which loomed large two months in the distance and for which Radcliffe warmed up for by setting a new British 10km road record of 30:38 less than a month before heading Stateside.

Arriving on the start line in Chicago, Radcliffe quickly took the lead and was roughly a minute inside world record place after ten miles. She had company but that was to fall away as she kept the pace with world record holder at the time, set at the very same marathon the previous year, Kenya’s Catherine Ndereba, the only one going with her.

By mile 19 however Radcliffe moved clear and powered home to clock 2:17:18 – nine seconds shy in London in April turned into 89 seconds better in Chicago as Ndereba trailed a distance second by over two minutes. It capped a truly sensational year for Radcliffe with arguably the best saved until last.

Radcliffe would go on to win the IAAF’s coveted World Athlete of the Year and be crowned BBC Sports Personality of the Year – athletics’ first winner since Jonathan Edwards’ own world record breaking year in 1995.

As eluded to, it was a golden laden year for so many British athletes with the European Championships and Commonwealth Games scheduled days apart. All 12 champions from Munich had warmed up with a medal in Manchester.

Steve Backley and Ashia Hansen were the only athletes to win gold at both. For Backley a hat-trick of Commonwealth titles came relatively easy but a fourth consecutive European javelin crown proved a great challenge even if reigning Olympic and world champion Jan Zelezny failed to register a throw.

Backley trailed Russian leader Sergey Makarov until the fifth round when he launched an 88.54m effort to become the first British athlete to win four successive European golds and the last major title of his truly glittering career.

For Hansen, after a European and world indoor titles, Munich marked her greatest achievement to date as she claimed the outdoor European triple jump crown for the first time. After winning Commonwealth gold in a Games record 14.86m, Hansen improved further in Germany as she won with exactly 15m.

The British and English 4x400m relay teams also completed a double with Jared Deacon, Sean Baldock, Chris Rawlinson and Daniel Caines combining in Manchester. Deacon and Caines, the latter a bronze medallist in the individual 400m in Munich, would join forces with two Commonwealth 4x400m silver medallists for Wales – Jamie Baulch and Matt Elias – to take the European title.

Colin Jackson completes the five British titles won in Munich – and shares an awful lot of similarities with Backley. Unlike Backley, Jackson had to settle for silver by 0.04 to South Africa’s Shaun Bownes in the 110m hurdles final but like Backley would not be denied a fourth successive European title.

Unbeaten, like Backley since 1990, Jackson comfortably won gold in a season’s best 13.11 to become the second British athlete to win four successive European titles, missing out on becoming the first by 24 hours. For Jackson too it would be his last major crown.

Darren Campbell was one of two British silver medallists in Munich – finishing second in the 100m final having claimed bronze over double the distance, a race in which compatriot Marlon Devonish would win silver by 0.02 ahead of him. Jade Johnson was the other European silver medallist in the long jump, repeating the feat from the Commonwealth Games albeit with a better jump, a personal best of 6.73m.

Jonathan Edwards made history at the Commonwealth Games as gold with a Games record 17.86m secured him the grand slam of major triple jump titles but in an overall below par European final he had to settle for bronze with 17.32m – Swede Christian Olsson’s winning mark 17.53m.

Like Campbell, a silver medallist from the Sydney 2000 Olympics Games, Kelly Holmes too returned the major international podium in 2002. She regained her Commonwealth 1500m title in Manchester after settling for silver four years previous and dropped down to pick up bronze in the 800m at the Europeans.

Aforementioned Commonwealth silver medallist in the 200m and 4x100m champion alongside Darren Campbell, Allyn Condon and Jason Gardener in Manchester – Marlon Devonish claimed bronze over the same distance in Munich for his first two major individual medals. The European Championships also marked a memorable first for Lee McConnell in the 400m as she took bronze after silver at the Commonwealth Games.

Elsewhere in Manchester Michael East won the 1500m, Chris Rawlinson the 400m hurdles and Nathan Morgan the long jump and Michael Jones and Lorraine Shaw completed a hammer clean sweep for England. Those Commonwealth Games would also prove significant for Phillips Idowu who claimed silver for his first major international medal.

At the European Indoor Championships at the start of the season, Jason Gardener regained his 60m title in an equal Championship record 6.49 as did Colin Jackson in the 60m hurdles, eight years after winning it in Paris.