Marathon a race vs. inhumanity

Athens Olympics

August 23, 2004|By LAURA VECSEY

ATHENS - To understand the moment of triumph, one must understand the 2 hours, 26 minutes, 20 seconds of cruelty.

The favorite, the world-record holder in the women's marathon, Paula Radcliffe, led a pack of seven runners for the first 35 kilometers not along a coastal route from Marathon to Athens, but on the burning road to Hades.

In the stadium where the race would finish, a quarter of the 40,000 spectators were from Britain, watching the giant screen that obscured the view of the Acropolis.

They were draped in British flags, tattooed, too. They were dancing to the amplified sounds of Chaka Khan and the Village People, eager to cheer Radcliffe home.

Paula's People, they called themselves with glee. "Radcliffe on a Rampage," it said on a banner.

She bobbed and strode from first place to second to first, fighting the Japanese, the Kenyan and the Ethiopians until her form broke down, her head snapping herky-jerky on her neck, her arms opening, palms open.

She never made it.

At the 36-kilometer mark, the woman whose world record is more than seven minutes better than the best time of any of her competitors suddenly stopped. Radcliffe doubled over, put her hands on her knees, stood up again, ran her hands through her hair and contorted her face into the desperate expression of a woman on the verge of extinction.

The famous painting called "The Scream" was stolen this weekend in Oslo, Norway, but that face nearly describes Radcliffe's horror. She collected herself, started to run again, but only for a minute. Once she fell from third to fourth, she knew.

She stopped, even as spectators along the railing encouraged her. But she was done, her crumpled body down on the 100-degree asphalt, hands over her face, sobbing.

This was not merely an Olympic marathon, it was a descent into hell.

Actually, it was worse. It was an ascent into hell.

Nine miles out of Marathon, the road to Athens was up, up, up. And here is where it really started. Not a race, but a severe, inhuman, bitter test.

How anyone completed this race is a testament to something. What? That can't be measured. It can't be accurately described, even by witnesses such as this faithful scribe whose job it is to watch and interpret.

What words can possibly decode the 2004 Athens marathon? Of all the games and competitions I have witnessed, I honestly cannot compare one of them to the epic race run by the women yesterday.

It was an amazing 2 1/2 hours of Greek drama that unfolded as dusk fell over Athens. The only telltale sign of the sun that had turned the belly of Greece into a furnace was a dull, hazy glow over the Acropolis.

No wonder the myth of the original run tells the tale of a messenger who, having reached his destination in Athens to tell of the Greek victory in battle, died on the spot from exhaustion.

If these are the Olympics that have brought the Games home, what a wrenching place this is. Ancient Olympia is a fertile valley kissed by the gods. But this rock-hard stadium first carved into a hill in Athens 2,300 years ago? Unforgiving, even on this day when the Games came home in earnest, with women leading the way.

Here was the time - smoldering dusk along the marathon route of mainland Greece - and here was the place where athletic quest bordered on sadism.

How did they do this? Why? The winner, Mizuki Noguchi from Japan, reached the stadium wall, bent over and quietly vomited.

Seconds later, she unbent her lithe, tiny frame and thanked her family, thanked God, then fell silent, wobbling away. I can no longer speak, she said.

The silver medalist, Catherine Ndereba, was smiling from either joy or momentary mental incapacity. She, too, succumbed to the dry heaves in her abdominal muscles - the body rebelling where the mind did not.

Soon after, the Kenyan was wrapped in a foil blanket in an effort to restore some sense of normalcy to her topsy-turvy body temperature and led away, waving to the heat-stroked crowd.

The bronze medalist, Deena Kastor of the United States, was confused as she entered the mouth of the mammoth, white marble Panathinaiko Stadium, where 108 years ago the modern Olympics were reborn.

Was she third or fourth? Kastor did not know, even after picking off runner after runner in an astounding two-kilometer surge during which Kastor advanced from eighth to fourth to a medal. When she realized what she had done, she cried.

"I couldn't control myself. With the course and the history, it's all just wonderful," she said.

Then Kastor, too, was whisked away to doping control, where it took hours for her rail-thin and dehydrated body to produce enough urine to complete the requisite drug test for Olympic medalists.

Twenty years ago, when the women's marathon debuted at the Summer Games in Los Angeles, American Joan Benoit delivered an Olympic first and broke down another barrier for female athletes.

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