Radcliffe’s Greek tragedy

We go to the Panathenaico together to see end of Women Marathon. The entry is a bit chaotic, with contradicting directions being given – entry by the stadium, where tickets are still distributed at the official boot, or through a special entrance at the National Gardens, linked to stadium through a walled corridor. At these entrance lots of people waiting, then we are told to move away, as we cannot get in without tickets. Most of us have them, so it is a useless remark that confuses people. It takes a while to make it through the corridor – constantly stopped to be checked out, with lots of police. We catch a glimpse of two ‘Greek philosophers’ at a bench behind the fences, in the park, looking in on us. (Isn’t alcohol a banned substance at the Games?)

Most of the crowd are Brits carrying flags. Every British person in Athens seems to be here, benefiting from the 10 euro ticket. Not difficult to get good seats near the finishing line – the stadium is large and we are early. We are just next to the media seats, which are indeed always the best (better than the VIPs designated area on the side). While we sit, we see Bridget McConnell and her husband the first Minister of Scotland Jack McConnell. A happy coincidence. We had a chance to say hello to them both. With them is the well known former British athlete Dame Mary Peters, creating a fuss as fans ask her for a signature. Japanese fans do not know what is happening (they ask us who she is) but also ask for a signature.

The stadium is in full swing with the British fans dancing and flashing their flags. A smaller contingent of Japanese fans is also visible. The race starts and Paula Radcliffe is leading, which brings cheers around the stadium. But she stops, unexpectedly, in the 23 mile mark – just 3 miles to go. She is in tears, and the stadium in disbelief. The Japanese runner wins the race, with all Japanese of a sudden getting prominence. We all cheer for the runners as they arrive, especially for Liz Yelling. When she arrives, Andy spots her husband Martin, an old friend from Bedford, and has a chance to talk with him.

It is nice to stay until the very end – the race started at 6pm and the final runner arrives around 9.45pm – almost 10pm. It feels like this is the real Olympic spirit. It is inspiring to see the reactions and appreciation of the runners who arrive exhausted and still have the strength to smile or send kisses to the crowd while they run the final lap. Several of them collapse after the finishing line and must be taken out in a stretcher. The Japanese winner, though, after a moment of rest, is unstoppable, running around everywhere, carrying the Japanese flag, talking to the media and then, after receiving flowers – one hour or so after winning – running up and down the seating area, mingling with the fans that follow her around. Andy manages to shake her hand. It is so funny! Like a Benny Hill show, says Chris, as we look at the Japanese running around after her, some of them in funny costumes, a group of them all dressed in bright pink. What a strange sight, in this so beautiful and solemn stadium! It is a nice feeling throughout, despite the sad end to Paula’s race.

We go for dinner in the Italian restaurant that is team Japan’s house after submerging our feet in the Kiatsu bath at the entrance. It consists of hot water and stones for massaging the soles of your feet. It is an initiative of the Japanese to promote healthy practices during the Games, and it works!