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Radcliffe, Montgomery race ahead of rest

Paris: Remember when Paula Radcliffe was the nearly girl of world athletics' In 2002 she smashed that image forever.

After a career of being pipped at the post, the Briton emerged as a female star of the sport to rival American superstar Marion Jones.

Radcliffe made an amazing marathon debut in London, collected the first two track titles of her career and in November became the fastest woman marathon runner of all time with an imperious two hours 17 minutes and 18 seconds in Chicago.

It made Jones’ unbeaten season look strangely average and deservedly earned Radcliffe the Woman Athlete of the Year award from the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF).

With an eye on the Athens Olympics, Radcliffe will return to the marathon in London next year but she says she will not be satisfied with this year’s haul on the track — the 5,000m gold medal at the Commonwealth Games and a new European 10,000m record amid rain at the European Championships in Munich.

And what about the anti-doping campaign she waged in 2001' Conscious she has made herself a target with her stance, Radcliffe urged the IAAF to freeze her samples so they can be tested again when more sophisticated techniques become available. If Radcliffe’s past as an also-ran now seems lost in the sands of time, the same is true of Maurice Greene’s aura of invincibility.

The reigning world and Olympic champion was beaten again and again, offered different excuses each week, and finally had his 100m world record stripped by Tim Montgomery. ‘Tiny Tim’ had been in fine form, but at the IAAF Grand Prix final in Paris in September, there was little to suggest he was about to produce a run of 9.78sec, shaving one hundredth off Greene’s three-year-old mark.

Montgomery sealed his achievement with a passionate kiss for Jones, confirming they were more than training partners. “I have been waiting for the day when I could show I was the fastest,” said Montgomery. “Now I have got to come back out and do it much better.”

As for Greene, his approach left many wondering whether he really cared or, more likely, that he was taking a rest in a season without any major championships for American athletes and the way he reacted to being dubbed ‘slow-mo’ showed there is plenty of pride and fire in his belly.

Whatever, he faces a struggle to retain his 100m world title at Paris in August.

Britain’s Dwain Chambers impressively won the European title after pulling up with cramp in an anti-climactic Commonwealth final and his second place behind Montgomery in the world record-breaking run makes him an outside contender. In an intriguing footnote to the season, Jones parted company with Trevor Graham, the long-time coach she shares with Montgomery, and will work instead with Canadian biomechanics expert Derek Hansen.

The decision could be linked to her intention to make another attempt on the long jump, her weakest event, in 2003.

Unlike the uncontested outcome of the women’s accolade, some observers felt Montgomery deserved the men’s Athlete of the Year award which went instead to Hicham el Guerrouj. The Moroccan’s dominance is so great that even in a season in which he ran four of the ten fastest 1,500m times in history, his failure to break his own world record of 3:26.00 was viewed as a disappointment.

With El Guerrouj, Felix Sanchez is probably the hottest favourite for the world championships after an awesome unbeaten season in 400m hurdles and at just 25 the New York-born Dominican Republic athlete looks capable of a reign in the event not seen since the retirement of the great Ed Moses.Sanchez is so good he even beat all the world’s best one-lap specialists on the flat at the London Grand Prix.

The inevitable doping stain on the season was provided by Moroccan steeplechaser Brahim Boulami, who tested positive for the endurance-boosting substance EPO after breaking his own world record in Zurich.

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