Leeside Legends: Sonia O'Sullivan was simply born to run

Dave Hannigan looks at the incredible career of a true sporting icon
Leeside Legends: Sonia O'Sullivan was simply born to run

Sonia O’Sullivan, Ballymore/Cobh, wins the Women’s BLE National Inter-Club Cross Country Championships at Killenaule, Tipperary in 1987. 

AT Stuttgart’s Gottlieb Daimler Stadium in the summer of 1993, three Chinese women finished ahead of Sonia O’Sullivan in the 3000m final of the World Athletics Championships.

Supposedly fuelled by nothing stronger than some highly-secret concoction of caterpillar fungus and turtle blood, Qu Junxia, Zhang Linli and Zhang Lirong denied her what had seemed a certain medal over the last lap, and a nation harrumphed at the injustice of it all.

O’Sullivan had performed brilliantly to finish fourth at the Barcelona Olympics a year earlier, but this was about the point when she started on her way to becoming one of the national sporting obsessions.

Coached by a mysterious figure called Ma Junren, the Chinese contingent had never really been heard from before, and that particular trio were rarely seen on the international stage again.

But O’Sullivan’s response to the whole brouhaha about alleged cheaters in her midst was telling.

She knuckled down, returned to the track six days later, and grittily took silver in the 1500m.

Resisting the urge to echo the chorus of people claiming her opponents were doping, and to possibly seek excuses for her defeat, she simply got on with the task of becoming the first Irishwoman to medal at the championships.

Very soon, Sonia O’Sullivan would be just Sonia, on first-name terms with the entire population

The way O’Sullivan handled herself, on and off the track, that week in Germany catapulted her into the public imagination.

For the next 11 years, she remained there and so many of her races became appointment television.

In the same manner that they did for international soccer or rugby matches or All-Ireland finals, people with no interest in track and field made sure to be near a screen when she ran.

Ireland’s Sonia O’Sullivan with the silver medal she won in the Women’s 10,000m in 2002.  Picture: Brendan Moran/SPORTSFILE
Ireland’s Sonia O’Sullivan with the silver medal she won in the Women’s 10,000m in 2002.  Picture: Brendan Moran/SPORTSFILE

They followed her progress from Stuttgart to Sydney, Atlanta to Athens. That the journey wasn’t always smooth simply made her more compelling still.

With every dramatic failure, she took on another layer of fascination and became an even bigger icon.

“Did you see Sonia?”

“That was terrible what happened to Sonia?”

“Will she do it the next day?”

Born on November 28, 1969, Sonia was the eldest of John and Mary’s three children.

Her athletic endeavours began with the daily run between the family home and St Mary’s primary, and led her on a familiar path through the Community Games.

Once she arrived in Cobh Vocational School, sport took on an even more competitive flavour under the aegis of a teacher called Jim Hennessy.

Although she dabbled in basketball, camogie, and volleyball, athletics began to predominate from the moment in first year when she took her first Munster Colleges’ cross-country title.

She couldn’t sprint like the others but over the longer distances she always seemed to endure.

“I used to run to school all the time and when I was coming home from school I’d run between the light posts and race the cars coming behind,” said O’Sullivan in 2002.

“It’s difficult to think that kids will go out and run around the fields like I used to because there are so many other things to do.

“Now I think it’s a bit more scary out there for people and they don’t like their kids to walk to school or to walk home from school.

“Most kids get driven to school and picked up every day. I make Ciara (her eldest daughter) walk places all the time. My big thing was that she’d go somewhere where I could walk her to school.

“It’s only 400 metres but we’ll walk there every day. Then I’ll go off and do my run and come back and get her at lunchtime.

“You can definitely see how it’s much easier to drive them but you’ve just got to make the effort and take the time.”

MOTIVATION:

Despite the obvious promise she was showing at schools’ level, the most remarkable thing about her career may have been her initial motivation for joining Ballymore Cobh AC, her local club.

She was one of a group of teenage girls who signed up principally because they wanted to be allowed entry to the club’s weekly discos.

Although there are conflicting accounts of how talented she looked at that stage, the fact she seriously improved once under the remit of local coach Sean Kennedy is not at issue.

In her final year in school, she shocked a star-studded field to win the BLE national senior cross-country.

By then, an athletics scholarship to America had already become the next logical step. In picking Villanova University, she had chosen to follow in the footsteps of Delaney, Coghlan and more recently, another Cork exile.

“Donie Walsh called me up and said this little girl from Cobh, same name as yourself,” said Marcus O’Sullivan, “this girl will be the greatest thing that ever hit the women’s scene.”

She arrived in Pennsylvania in 1987 carrying a stress fracture. Not the best of starts and it got worse from there.

Her first couple of years were injury-prone and difficult. Unable to get fit enough for long enough to measure herself against her American peers, she repeatedly butted heads with the college coach Marty Stern about his training methods.

Their fractious relationship was such that more than once she resolved to go back home. Eventually, a peace deal was struck between them that involved her being allowed to train on grass, and crucially, in the midst of her most troubled spell, Ronnie Delaney had visited the campus and sat her down for a private chat.

“He told her he thought she could emulate him and be Ireland’s next great Olympic runner,” said Stern.

“He told her if she could stay injury-free for two years she could be the best. What a prophecy.”

In time, a prolonged period of fitness ensued and the talent began to shine through.

Having annexed a slew of American collegiate titles, she set a world 5000m indoor record in January, 1991.

The first real international benchmark of her progress. Later that year, she won the 3000m at the World Student Games in Sheffield and suddenly started to be regarded as a potential contender rather than just a competitor at the following summer’s Barcelona Olympics.

Her subsequent fourth-place finish at those Games was disappointing yet also positively construed as evidence of a great career in prospect.

That much certainly proved true.

Her suffering at the feet of Ma’s Army in Stuttgart might have depressed any other athlete trying to compete at the elite level.

In O’Sullivan, it sparked something different because it prompted two years of utter brilliance when her legend gained real lustre.

At the World Championships in Gothenburg on August 12, 1995, she carved out a unique slice of athletic history by winning the first-ever running of the women’s 5000m.

Sonia at the World Athletic Championships in 1995. Picture: INPHO
Sonia at the World Athletic Championships in 1995. Picture: INPHO

She ran the last lap around the Ullevi Stadium in 61.5 seconds as she outstripped Portugal’s Fernanda Ribeiro down the back straight to prevail quite handily by the finish.

“Success has been seized at last and her achievement has been tailored to her own specifications,” wrote The Irish Times about her victory in Sweden.

“After Barcelona, we hailed her as a heroine for her brave running, leading a field of Olympians all the way to the home straight. While we were basking, O’Sullivan was spending the rest of the summer slowly picking off the three runners who had finished in front of her in that 3,000 metres final. By September she had beaten them all. She’s a slow burning obsessive, fierce and prickly.

“In the past week her excellence, her discipline and her competitiveness have been a thrill to watch. Already she is looking forward with laser concentration to the Olympics of next year, talking about how the timetable suits her, how she is heading with confidence for an attempt on the 1,500 metres and 5,000 metres double.

“Her determination is so deep, her character so singular, it’s hard for anyone who loves sport not to look forward with her.

“Sonia O’Sullivan doesn’t give us the open top bus ride, and she doesn’t stand to attention when somebody sings ‘you’ll never beat the Irish’. She gives us more than that. She gives everything.”

The Atlanta Olympics couldn’t come soon enough for O’Sullivan or for a nation growing increasingly besotted by her feats.

The anticipation in the twelve months between Gothenburg and her trip to Georgia only made what transpired all the more difficult to handle.

The details are embedded in the national psyche. The stomach bug that thieved her strength, ran her off the track in the 5,000m final and left her languishing in her 1500m heat.

The ignominy of the row about what gear she was allowed to wear, the politicking of amateurs infringing on the ambition of the ultimate professional.

The crazed hyperbole that infected so much of the media and public reaction to the events.

“Nobody has died,” said John O’Sullivan famously to RTÉ’s Tony O’Donoghue at one point in the melodrama.

Her father won seven Munster Senior League titles as a goalkeeper with Cobh Ramblers. He knew competitive sport at a high level.

He also knew how a country was going a little bit too over the top about his daughter and her travails. He was one of the few to retain a genuine measure of perspective.

REBIRTH:

In typical style, the Atlanta farce — and the inevitably Irish bureaucratic sideshow that would have drained the will of a lesser person — was followed by another rebirth; winning the short and long course titles at the 1998 World cross-country championships in Marrakesh before bagging the 5000m and 10000m golds at the Europeans in Budapest that summer.

Her narrative has always been more enthralling than all others because every cameo in which she departed sobbing appeared to be counterbalanced by an equally poignant episode where the tears are of joy.

The victories seemed to come freighted with extra significance because every perceived failure was layered with so much emotion.

It’s not that she didn’t seem to take any defeat easy, it’s that, for a long time, she didn’t seem to be able to take defeat at all.

The restorative triumphs of 1998 segued into a different type of drama.

A few weeks after the birth of Ciara, her first child with her partner Nick Bideau, a priest in County Leitrim denounced O’Sullivan from the pulpit for giving birth out of wedlock.

The public and the media were so outraged that both Father Seamus Duffy and the hierarchy of the Catholic Church issued apologies.

The vociferous reaction to this scurrilous attack on her character was one more demonstration of the cherished position she held in Irish society. The cleric may have figured he was calling out a celebrity athlete. He was actually insulting the nation’s favourite daughter.

“The response to her birth by the people of Ireland, and the people of Cork in particular, has been unbelievable,” said O’Sullivan at the time.

“The house was filled with cards and presents for weeks. She certainly got more cards than I ever got when I won a race.”

Fourteen months after Ciara’s arrival, her mother lined up for the start of the 5000m final in Sydney and a nation held its collective breath.

“Right before the start,” said O’Sullivan.

“I wasn’t sure how I felt. It was definitely one of those situations where as soon as the gun went off I’d know how I was feeling.

“The gun went off and I was feeling really good. I was surprised at how good I felt.”

The pace was slow but on the third lap she dropped back a little and by the fifth she was in trouble, 12th in the field, three from the back. It was early in the race but things did not look good.

To the casual fan, this appeared an ominous development except for one crucial factor. She would tell reporters later that even though she’d slipped down the field, she was running well and feeling fine.

With seven laps left, she moved up to sixth place and back into contention. Panic over.

Alongside her, the Ethiopians Geta Wami and Ayelech Worku were pushing the pace but their incessant talking to each other eventually took an argumentative turn.

As the last lap loomed, Wami and Worku had failed to break away from the sprinters in the field. It had come down to a straight contest between the two fastest finishers, O’Sullivan and Gabriela Szabo.

The Romanian runner had once postponed her own honeymoon because she feared taking time off would allow her Irish rival to gain an advantage over her.

“When I came up on her shoulder,” said O’Sullivan, “I felt she’d gone as well as she could and I thought I had it. Then she glanced over and she just moved up a little bit and that was it.

“There’s a point when you’re going as fast as you possibly can and you’ve run for so long and you’re tired that you just can’t get over the top of the person in front of you. It felt like the end of an 800m race where you’re just getting to the line as quick as you can.”

That the colour of her medal was silver rather than gold scarcely mattered. At the finish, it was only important that she had finally reached the podium at an Olympics. The nature of the contest made the achievement all the more remarkable.

An Olympic record for Szabo; an Irish record for O’Sullivan, nearly 20 seconds inside the old Olympic record; seven runners under 14:50; 12 runners under 15 minutes: To that point in history, there had never been a better women’s 5,000m race.

Athens brought closure of a different sort. The sight of O’Sullivan trudging the last lap of the final of the same event in which she’d left her mark four years earlier was sad and yet inscrutably noble.

Way off the pace, she could have been forgiven for stepping off the track and slipping away from the spotlight. Instead, she chose the more difficult option, to plough on regardless.

And as that crowd began acknowledging her lone effort with more and more applause, we suddenly realised that over the years she’d been charming fans all over the world.

They might not have lived and died with her races like the Irish people, but they saw what she gave to the sport.

This is why they so vociferously cheered the contender turned backmarker. They knew this was a woman who’d travelled a long Olympic road and now that time had finally caught up with her in her fourth Games, the applause was an outpouring of respect and gratitude and solidarity.

We expect people to celebrate the winners, but the way that the crowd treated her in defeat that night offered a revealing glimpse of the place she held in their hearts.

“I didn’t know that you could actually earn a living being a runner, didn’t know that you could be a professional runner.

Sonia O’Sullivan in action at the 1987 Cork City Sports.
Sonia O’Sullivan in action at the 1987 Cork City Sports.

“Now I think people know a lot more, younger kids, I think it’s one of the problems. They see people earn money running and they think about that before they actually think about being a good runner.

“It took me two years to even think that I could be in the Olympics and then when I was in the Olympics and finished fourth (in Barcelona), that was when I started to believe I really belong here, I can be competitive in these races, I can maybe even win these races.

“And that was when I really started to think that I could run for a living and become the best in the world.”

The privilege was watching her try.

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