Paula Radcliffe, English long-distance runner, is delighted with the direction athletics is going in Image Credit: Virendra Saklani/Gulf News

Dubai: Great Britain’s Paula Radcliffe, former world champion in the marathon, half marathon and cross country, has insisted athletics has taken the right direction in listening to athletes’ before postponing the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Radcliffe, who was held women’s marathon world record with a time of 2:15.25 for more than 16 years (from 2003 to 2019) until it was broken by Brigid Kosgei, admitted that her sport has taken a different direction in the recent past during the coronavirus pandemic.

“The IOC [International Olympic Committee] was probably one of the worst when it came to listening to athletes’ voices. They were among the worst when it came to considering the athletes as one of the most important stakeholders in the sport,” Radcliffe said in the opening episode of Right Formula’s ‘The Winning Formula’ conducted by former Dubai resident Ben Nichols — a one-time Director of Communications and Public Affairs at the Commonwealth Games Federation.

“But, it is good that they [the IOC and World Athletics] are finally listening. It is good that with this whole coronavirus situation, things have worked out the way they should. It was very, very difficult for any governing body and even governments to react in the right way. We are very much still learning and finding the best way and routing for it to find the best way in handling this unprecedented situation,” Radcliffe added.

“There were also a large number of national federations calling [for a postponement] from a humanity perspective. And for the athlete, that event which was meant to be the most important one for 2020, was no longer the most important one this year. At the end of the day that decision [to postpone Tokyo 2020] had to be made.”

A man wears a protective mask in front of a banner for the upcoming Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
This summer's Tokyo 2020 Olympics were postponed until next year

Radcliffe, who is presently living in the South of France with her family, had to handle the tragedy of her inspirational dad Peter passing away following heart failure in the UK on April 8. She insisted that the IOC and the organisers of Tokyo 2020 finally arrived at the correct decision, but only after hearing athletes from across the globe.

“We had to put the health of so many people all across the globe in front of anything sporting or any individual’s goals and aims for this year,” she said.

“I think finally the right decision was made, and this probably should have been made quicker. But, I am not sure if we can criticise the IOC for that, but I still feel across the board, people should have reacted quicker. The important thing is that athletes are being listened to a lot more now than before.”.

The 46-year-old further asserted that the future of her sport is at stake in case the authorities do not act quickly enough to make athletics more appealing to younger generations.

“The key to the future of our sport is to engage that younger generation, find ways how to make it more popular while competing with not just other sports, but also modern-day hobbies like kids’ screen time. It’s a tricky dilemma to be in, and we’ve got to all find that balance about making our sport more appealing to youngsters, perhaps with a bit more fun, a bit lively, but without losing sight of the core elements of our sport, namely the history of our sport and what makes it so great,” Radcliffe said.

“We will also need to incorporate additional features into our sport, things like protecting our environment or breathing clean air. Maybe there aren’t too many youngsters interested in athletics, but we’ve got to make sure that we are reaching out to those who are interested while showing them what they can get out of a career in athletics. We need to communicate the values one gets while meeting people, growing as a person and learning about oneself. It’s not just about the money.”

Radcliffe, a three-time London Marathon and New York Marathon champion and a former BBC Sports Personality of the Year, hailed the evolution of the London Marathon that was first held in 1981. Today, considered one of Great Britain’s sporting legends for her achievements, Radcliffe observed that London transcends every sporting event because it is one race that brings together the entire country.

Paula Radcliffe is a multiple marathon winner and former world record holder.
Paula Radcliffe is a multiple marathon winner and former world record holder. Image Credit: AP

Radcliffe set the marathon world record on debut in London in 2002 when she ran in a time of 2:18.55 making her time the second quickest in women’s marathon history behind the world record of 2:18.47 set by Kenya’s Catherine Ndereba, in Chicago. Radcliffe successfully defended her title in 2003 before adding a third crown in 2005.

“The London Marathon is a festival. The impact that the event has across so many platforms, including various charities touches a number of people and their lives. It is really tough to put all that down in words,” she said.

“The London Marathon has grown because people love to get involved in it. It gives everyone a target. Nobody gets to the finish line of any marathon without having learnt something and without having become a stronger person and without experiencing that magic camaraderie that is marathon running. That is all fortified in London and that is making a difference to so many people.”

Although sad to have the 40th running of the event moved to October 4 this year, Radcliffe is confident the London Marathon will keep its spot of being among the best. “I know there are a lot of people getting ready for that day in October. This kind of proves the good elements of the event and the place,” she said.

Robin Fenwick, founder and CEO of Right Formula, charted a course that displayed how athletes could stay relevant. “Athletes shouldn’t turn their backs on media. They should stay in touch as that’s one of the ways they [athletes] can remain relevant even after they step away from their sport,” he said.

“Today we have people like Gary Lineker (footballer) and David Coulthard (Formula 1 driver) who are prime examples of athletes who have finished their sporting careers, but they are still staying current in our lives. That’s one sure way of leaving behind a lasting legacy in one’s sport.”