Paula Radcliffe's reign as running's unlucky Princess Valiant ended in a glorious mud bath last Saturday when the 27-year-old Briton won the women's long-course (8-km) race at the World Cross-Country Championships in soggy Ostend, Belgium. Radcliffe led for most of the race, was passed with 200 meters to go by two-time champion Gete Wami of Ethiopia and then passed Wami in the final 50 meters to break the tape in 27 minutes, 49 seconds.
Radcliffe, a popular athlete who insisted that her four-year, $214,000 promotional contract with Nike include $21,000 in grants to young female athletes in Great Britain, had built a reputation as a courageous front-runner forever disappointed at the finish. At the 1997 world cross-country meet in Turin, Italy, Ethiopia's Derartu Tulu outkicked Radcliffe, leaving her with a silver medal. She was second again in '98. In the 4-km race at the 2000 worlds in Vilamoura, Portugal, an exhausted Radcliffe watched Wami and two others go by her in the last 200 meters and collapsed across the line to finish fourth. In the 10,000-meter final at the Sydney Olympics, Radcliffe led for 24 of 25 laps before being passed by eventual medalists Tulu, Wami and Fernanda Ribeiro of Portugal. Eschewing a courtesy victors often pay to pacesetters, Wami and Tulu then walked right by Radcliffe, who was slumped on a chair, without acknowledging her on their way to a victory lap.
On Sunday, Radcliffe found herself back in a familiar place, taking second in the short course race, one second behind Wami. But even that close defeat wasn't enough to put a damper on Radcliffe's triumphant weekend. Her victory last Saturday was, after all, her first major championship since she won the world junior cross-country title on snow and ice in Boston nine years ago. "Winning this," she said, "is as good as winning the Olympics."