The year belonged to Paula Radcliffe


THIS was Paula Radcliffe's year. On the road, on the track and off the track, too. The Briton, of the famous bobbing head, won almost everything she could have imagined and by the end of the year was voted the `Woman Athlete of the Year' by a horde of organisations including the International Athletic Foundation (IAF) and the Track and Field News. Not just that; she was conferred with the MBE in the Queen's birthday honours list and chosen the BBC's `Sports Personality of the Year'.

Britain's Paula Radcliffe (right) and Moroccan Hicham El Guerrouj hold their `Athlete of the Year' awards during the 2002 World Athletics Gala in Monaco, organised by the International Athletic Foundation (IAF). Radcliffe, who won almost everything she could have imagined, was also conferred with the MBE in the Queen's birthday honours list and chosen the BBC's `Sports Personality of the Year', while El Guerrouj became the first man to retain the IAF `Athlete of the Year' award.

Hicham El Guerrouj also had the distinction of being named the `male athlete of the year' by the IAF and T&FN. The Moroccan, in fact, had the rare honour of winning the T&FN honour for the third year in a row, a feat achieved by only one athlete in the past, the peerless Carl Lewis. He also became the first man to retain the IAF `athlete of the year' award since the awards were instituted in 1988.

In a non-Olympic, non-World championships year it is not easy to receive such all-round acceptance as Paula Radcliffe achieved in winning the accolades she so richly deserved. For long the bridesmaid of international athletics, Radcliffe began the year by retaining her World cross-country crown, then won the London marathon, on her debut over the distance, and claimed the Commonwealth Games 5000 metres and the European 10,000 metres.

But her best came in Chicago. Radcliffe went back to the road and smashed the world marathon record with a 2:17:18 while winning the Chicago marathon, the first woman to clock under 2:18. To put her record in the right perspective, we have to measure it on the IAAF tables. A whopping 1302 points is the answer and that is better than any other current women's world record in a running event.

``It has been a fabulous year in which I have managed to achieve all the goals I set myself,'' said Radcliffe at the World Athletics Gala in Monte Carlo as she received the IAF's AOY award from Ingrid Kristiansen, former world record holder and four-time winner of the London marathon.

A leading anti-dope campaigner, Radcliffe has plans to go for the 10,000m at the World championships in Paris next year and the marathon in the Athens Olympics in 2004. The 28-year-old Briton is yet to win a title on track at the global level.

Hicham El Guerrouj was no less impressive. The Moroccan who seemed to have bid adieu to the 1500m after a stunning defeat by Kenyan Noah Ngeny at the Sydney Olympics, continued in the same vein as in 2001, at his imperious best over the distance he has monopolised the past five years. He was unbeaten in 11 races over the 1500 metres or the mile and he clocked the world's best for the year at both the distances, 3:26.89 and 3:48.48.

Three-time Olympic champion Marion Jones (left) had a fabulous season and remained unbeaten in 18 races over 100, 200 and 400m, including the Golden League meetings, and was deservedly the overall Grand Prix champion. Jones' boyfriend Tim Montgomery (right) pipped El Guerrouj at the post for the men's overall Grand Prix title. The American sprinter came up with the surprise of the Paris finals with a world record of 9.78s in the 100m.

El Guerrouj looked set to win the overall Grand Prix title when he was beaten by Tim Montgomery at the post. The American sprinter came up with the surprise of the Paris finals, a world record of 9.78 seconds that provided him with the additional points (18) needed to tie with El Guerrouj and intermediate hurdler Felix Sanchez of the Dominican Republic for the overall title.

El Guerrouj's 3:29.27 was better on the IAAF tables when compared with Sanchez's 47.62, but Montgomery's 9.78 outscored both and he was adjudged the overall winner. A hundredth of a second, that separated him from Maurice Greene's previous world record, brought Montgomery a pay cheque of $2,50,000 in the GP final, $10,0000 coming for the world record alone.

Montgomery's world record brought him instant fame and of course doubts in its wake. His new girlfriend, Marion Jones, was on hand to defend him when questions, mainly related to doping, were hurled at the soft-spoken sprinter from South Carolina.

It was a keenly-fought race in which Briton Dwain Chambers, four times winner over Maurice Greene during the season, pushed Montgomery all the way to the wire. Chambers tied Linford Christie's European record of 9.87s, coming second, while Jon Drummond clocked a season best 9.97 for third. It was the best season for Chambers.

Greene was not there, of course. He had pulled out, citing injury. The former world record holder had his worst season since shooting into prominence in 1995. He lost practically to everyone and rounded off with a fifth-place finish at Yokohama, where team-mate Bernard Williams and Japanese Nobuharu Asahara took the first two spots. "My body feels asleep. I just wanted to finish the season healthy and I did that. Now I have to be ready to defend my World title next year. The world record belongs to me, it will come home," said the Kansas man.

Among the young contenders, Sweden's triple jumper Christian Olsson stood out, scoring four times over world record holder Jonathan Edwards, including at the European championships.

Even as Greene was struggling to find his form, another world record holder was coming right back into top gear after a four-year gap. Wilson Kipketer topped the season's 800m charts with a 1:42.34 in his final race of 2002 in the Italian town of Rieti. The Dane, of Kenyan origin, won eight races outdoors including the European championship in Munich.

The Kenyans continued to dominate the distance events, though Moroccan Salah Hissou, coming back from injury lay-off, topped the 5000m lists. Sammy Kipketer, better known for his pace-setting exploits, was the outstanding distance runner from Kenya, winning a clutch of titles and heading the charts in several events including the 10,000 metres.

Felix Sanchez also topped the lists in his pet event, the 400m hurdles. The Dominican Republic's world champion was unbeaten through nine races including seven Golden League races. Thus he shared the bonus of 50kg gold with El Guerrouj, Marion Jones and Mexican Ana Guevara. He also had a successful shy at the flat 400 metres and should be a threat over the lap as well to some of the better-rated runners in the future.

Talking about young contenders, Christian Olsson should be in the forefront for the season. The 22-year-old Swedish triple jumper scored four times over world record holder Jonathan Edwards of Britain including at the European championships. The 36-year-old Vicar's son, however had the edge, the top three marks for the season, including a best of 17.86m, and five victories over Olsson.

Another Swede, this one a female high jumper, who made a tremendous impression during the year was Kajsa Bergqvist. She had five jumps over 2.00 metres and another five at 2.00m. Only South African Hestrie Cloette crossed 2.00m among others. She did that in Madrid to tie with Bergqvist at 2.02 and win the World Cup gold on a countback.

But the sensation of the year, in the women's section, was the Turk, Sureyya Ayhan. The 24-year-old 2001 World Student Games champion, remained unbeaten in four races over 1500 metres, including in the European championships and the World Cup and topped the season with a 3:57.75. Of course, many raised more than an eyebrow over such awesome feats by a relatively unknown youngster.

Even as the Turks were delighted at having found a potential world-beater in Ayhan, in faraway Mexico, another woman runner was being installed as a sporting icon. In a country where football remains the passion of the masses, Ana Guevara seems to have made inroads into the popularity charts.

This was a superb season for the 25-year-old Mexican, 11 wins out of 11 races over one lap including a sweep of the Golden League meets. Guevara became the first Latin American athlete, along with Felix Sanchez, to ever share the Golden League jackpot. She had a best of 49.16 for the 400 metres, in Zurich, the 11th best on the all-time list.

Marion Jones did not disturb the all-time lists, though she had a fabulous season. At the end of it, the queen of sprinting was deservedly the overall Grand Prix champion, having remained unbeaten in 18 races over 100m, 200m and 400m, including all the Golden League meetings. Significantly, Jones beat Zhanna Pintusevich-Block, her conqueror in the Edmonton Worlds, on both the occasions they met. Significantly again, Pintusevich had the best timing for the season, a 10.83. Jones' best for the year was a hundredth of a second slower.

Apart from Montgomery's feat in the 100 metres, there was a world record in the women's 3000m steeplechase (9:16.51 by Alesya Turova of Bulgaria) and two in the junior section, by Swedish world junior champion Carolina Kluft of Sweden in heptathlon (6542) and Chinese Liu Xiang in the men's 110m hurdles (13.12s).

Moroccan Brahim Boulami, who set a world record in the men's 3000m steeplechase, tested positive for EPO during IAAF's pre-competition testing programme. The case has not been resolved yet, but if and when it does get confirmed by the IAAF this will be the biggest `fish' to fall into the anti-doping net in recent times.

It was not Radcliffe alone who set a world best in marathon. Khalid Khannouchi, the American of Moroccan origin, beat Haile Gebrselassie and Paul Tergat, among others, in winning the London marathon, in 2:05:38. Having bettered his own record, he went on to clock another superb timing, 2:05.56, the fourth fastest in history, in winning the Chicago marathon.

A world best was also set by Robert Korzeniowski, the double Olympic gold medal winner from Poland. The 34-year-old Pole, one of the all-time greats of race walking, clocked 3:36:39 in winning the 50km at the European championships in Munich.

A world record came about in the men's 3000m steeplechase but the Moroccan who set it came under a doping cloud. A day before he clocked a 7:53.17 at Zurich, on August 16, Brahim Boulami was tested for EPO during IAAF's pre-competition testing programme. He turned in a positive. The case has not been resolved yet, but if and when it does get confirmed by the IAAF this will be the biggest `fish' to fall into the anti-doping net in recent times.

Boulami held the previous world record as well, that of 7:55.28 clocked at Brussels in 2001.

Sureyya Ayhan of Turkey was the sensation of the year in the women's section. The 24-year-old 2001 World Student Games champion, remained unbeaten in four races over 1500m, including the European championships and the World Cup.

Now, to the lesser actors. Robert Fazekas of Hungary threw the disc to 71.70 in Szombathely to occupy the fourth place on the all-time lists. The 27-year-old Hungarian won 16 of the 18 contests in which he figured including the European championships.

At the ripe age of 36, Gail Devers showed that she had not lost any of her touch, winning 14 of the 17 competitions. She had the top three timings as well, with her best of 12.40s coming in Lausanne.

Czech Roman Sebrle also had the top three decathlon marks of 2002, compiling 8800 at Gotzis and Munich, the latter for the European title, and 8701 at Ratingen. He was, needless to say, in a class of his own in the multis.

Heptathlete Carolina Kluft, after her World junior triumph at Kingston, also won the European title, with a tally of 6542 points that topped the charts for the season.

Konstadinos Kenteris who shot into fame at the Sydney Olympics completed the rare treble, winning the European 200m gold in 19.85s. The Greek now has the Olympic, World and European crowns. But then, before the year was out, the IAAF Secretary-General, Istvan Gyulai, complained that there had been problems with the IAAF's out-of-competition testing programme in Greece. The matter was put to rest quickly enough, but it only added to the mounting controversy regarding the `phenomenal' rise in Greek athletics standards.

Obviously, the focus in 2003 will be on out-of-competition testing, as the IAAF has stated. But that can only be successful if National federations co-operate with the IAAF and its anti-doping squads. The point should not be lost sight of in the Indian context.