The sport of cross country was born in Britain and to this day their team line-ups for the IAAF World Cross Country Championships are always solid with talent, with their most recent team medal coming in 2004 (women’s senior bronze) and the last of Paula Radcliffe’s two victories coming two years before.
Yet as Bydgoszcz looks forward to hosting the IAAF World Cross Country Championships for the second time in three years on 24 March 2013, memories remain sharp of the 25th anniversary edition of the track and field European Cup which this Polish city hosted on 19-20 June 2004. As far as British women’s athletics is concerned, there has rarely been a weekend of such conflicting drama, an ill-fated experience which their runners will not wish to emulate next spring across the country
In terms of the overall result, the 2004 European Cup was a failure for the British women’s team as their performance saw them relegated from the continental top rank – the European Super League – for the first time since 1967.
But that setback paled into relative insignificance in comparison to what befell one of the team’s brightest prospects for the Athens Olympics that were to take place less than eight weeks later – triple jumper Ashia Hansen.
A year earlier, this Birmingham-based Briton had become the darling of that city’s National Indoor Arena as she had won the world indoor title in front of a home crowd, four years after she had first won it in Maebashi. A year before that victory in Japan she had won the European Indoor Championships with a jump of 15.16m which stood as an indoor world record for six years.
As she toed the board on the first day of competition at the Krzyszkowiak stadium, Hansen was looking forward to a season which she hoped would see her add an Olympic medal to her world indoor, European outdoor and indoor and Commonwealth golds. It was not to be. It was never to be.
An awkward landing left her lying agonised in the pit, hands clasping her shattered left knee as if she wanted to keep it together.
Hansen had ruptured a tendon, and it took three operations before she could contemplate returning to competition. It was a tribute to her competitiveness that she did return, but realising she could not reach the heights – or rather, the lengths – she had once commanded, Hansen retired shortly before the Beijing 2008 Olympics.
By the time world marathon record holder Paula Radcliffe took to the track on Sunday, the British women were already relegated. But Radcliffe was working to her own dizzying agenda in what was her first track appearance since winning the European 10,000 metres title in the rain of Munich two years earlier.
A week before winning that title in Munich, Radcliffe had won the Commonwealth Games 5000m title in front of a fervent home crowd in Manchester in a time of 14min 31.42 – not so far away from the world record of 14:28.09 recorded by China’s Jiang Bo at Shanghai in 1997.
In Poland, Radcliffe made it evident from the first moment that this race was a matter of her against the clock, with every other entrant an also-ran. Having seen off all opposition well before the halfway point, she went on to finish in 14min 29.11sec, the third fastest time ever recorded behind Jiang Bo and the World record of 14.24.68 set nine days earlier by Turkey’s adopted Ethiopian, Elvan Abeylegesse.
After 3,000m Radcliffe was a couple of seconds inside schedule to break Abeylegesse’s world record. "I was a little bit annoyed that my pace slowed because I knew I was on target for the record," she said. "But I came here to ask some questions and get some answers, and this tells me I am in good shape."
It was a stupendous performance which showed Radcliffe had recovered from the hernia operation she had undergone two months earlier and promised further riches in Athens later that summer, where she would strive – in vain – to earn her first Olympic medal.
Radcliffe added: "Obviously we are disappointed about being relegated, but I am sure we'll come back up next year. We were hit by a lot of bad luck and late withdrawals, and it's all been overshadowed by what happened to Ashia."
Mike Rowbottom for the IAAF