A one-track mind no moreThroughout a glittering career, Sonia O’Sullivan won the hearts of the nation and transcended Irish sport. Though she left athletics with far more memories than medals, the Cobh woman left it with few regrets.
THE EWAN MacKENNA INTERVIEW
Tick. Some mornings her body hurts so much from a lifetime of tortuous training that she gives the jog a miss, instead opting for a gentle cycle or a relaxing swim. Tock. When she does make it out on the roads though, she’s claims her muscles decided quite a while back that she could no longer be any faster than the rest of the social runners that are out and about.
Tick. She doesn’t care much for the professional side of athletics any more, having once ingested and digested names and times like a spreadsheet. Tock. She can’t tell you who most of the current world champions are as a crusty cynicism formed over the years and left her wondering how badly track and field was contaminated by those that lacked her natural will to win.
“In a way it ruled my life before,” sighs Sonia O’Sullivan looking back on it all. “But now it just fits in. I still go for a run and I feel better if I’m doing that but it’s not the be-all and end-all that it once was. If something else comes up, that goes ahead of running. I just try and do something and feel fit and healthy and try and keep up with my kids. But I’d never think back or look back on any of the races — the only time would be if I go to a school or do some talks and they show a video. That’s it. I’d never sit myself and watch any of it or think about any of it because I live in the present, not in the past.”
Her words make you realise that large chunks of time have washed away since she carried a nation with her. Many who will show up at the Mardyke today at 1pm to see the track named after O’Sullivan will never even have experienced how she dragged us all along with her every stride, lap after lap, time and again. After all, it’s 21 years since she was controversially denied bronze in Barcelona, 17 years since her world crumbled in Atlanta, 13 years since she rebuilt it in Sydney, and nine years since it all came to an end in Athens with a final lap of honour in front of 60,000 standing souls that suggested it wasn’t just us that had taken her into our hearts.
“People were always speculating that there were athletes cheating and I’m sure there were plenty, but what can you do about it?” O’Sullivan asks. “To me, if you don’t cross that finish line first, no matter what someone has done wrong, it’s not going to change how you feel about that race because the moment has gone.
“Even if people return medals and exchange medals and you get bumped up, that’s only a statistic. Your moment has been ruined and has been taken away from you forever. So I never really thought much about her and about what happened. The only time was when I was sitting in that testing room in Barcelona. I thought, ‘Imagine if one of these was positive,’ but then I wanted it to happen right then and be down the track celebrating.
“But I suppose you had a feeling with some athletes and you wondered how they could always get it right and without difficulty. You think why were they allowed to get away with it and I think people didn’t want to own up that the sport was in trouble. In a way it’s helped me move on and it shows you there are more important things in life.
“Nowadays, I’d rather read about someone out there doing the best they can, regardless of whether they get near a medal or not. It means I don’t watch it the way I used to. I’m more interested in kids’ sport because you see the most natural form of athletics when kids are competing against one another. I take far more joy from that.”
Even so, she recently read a host of cycling books and it got her thinking about the different types of doping. Some athletes she feels sorry for because they were snared by their own associations and had little knowledge of what was really going on. And while she doesn’t say it, you feel she’s talking about the Chinese at the 1993 World Championships. There was the trio that pushed her down to fourth in the 3,000m and Liu Dong who denied her gold in the 1,500, before all of them disappeared back to the shadows. Besides, she has warmer memories of that time, when her late friend Kim McDonald pulled her aside at a meet and gave her something no training ever instilled.
“He taught me confidence and to challenge people I’d have seen as better than me. If he told me to go out and lead a race, set a pace, not worry about a result, then I did it. I clearly remember him telling me that in 1993 because he said he was sick of seeing me sitting at the back of fields and coming through in the last 200m. He said there was no point in me giving everyone a head start, to keep up and I could still sprint at the end.
“He made me believe I belonged and in that sense, I think it takes a long time to understand what you are doing. I’d be a lot more confident about things now than I was as an athlete. When on the track, you are in some ways a bit of a science experiment. It’s just the way it is, I understand it all now, or at least I think I do. Back then I didn’t understand much.”
As she talks, you can’t help but remember. Some of her words remind you of the athlete that always seemed too cerebral in a strange and rare way. At times O’Sullivan was like a guitar strung too tightly, where one strum could tear a chord and the whole room would hear the horrible noise.
She denies that, suggesting the athletes nowadays over analyse whereas she used to come home from training, sit in the ice bath, call her coach Alan Storey for five minutes to review the session and that was it. But you feel she’s doing herself a disservice and denying her hidden depths. In fact her talent should have made her flawless but those same flaws made the journey all the more emotional.
To illustrate it, you mention Atlanta. Not so much what we saw, but what we didn’t see once the microphones were pulled away and she escaped from the sound and the fury and there were no more tears left to drop.
“Expectation,” is the first word from her lips. “I would never watch that. If I see a picture of that time I say, ‘Why did you pick that’? They should burn all of them because Atlanta never totally made sense to me.
“When you know where things go wrong, you rationalise, put issues in perspective and learn. When you can’t do that, it’s hard and I tried to run away from it, for a long, long time. I kept running and running because I didn’t want to face what had happened. It was always this unknown following you.
“But I eventually realised I’ve got to stop here and start all over again. That’s exactly what I did and as soon as I did that, I put behind what happened and it’s like a renewed career. Before that I wasn’t sure what I was doing. I was neither here nor there and wasn’t going to achieve anything. Stopping and starting all over allowed me to have a second career, a second chance at going after an Olympic medal.
“By the time I overcame all that, it was such a challenge for me to dig myself out of a big hole, that when I saw the light at the end of the tunnel, I was really appreciating what I had. All I wanted to do was run well, and it meant I didn’t go to Sydney in 2000 expecting to win a medal. I just wanted to run as well as I could.”
She did run well. Her finest 14 minutes and 41 seconds, yet still there was one person ahead of her on the track that balmy night and you produce some clippings from an interview done with Gabriela Szabo a decade ago. Her great rival was so fixated with O’Sullivan that she cancelled her honeymoon a year before those Games. Her coach and husband Zsolt Gyongyossy was so obsessed with and convinced that O’Sullivan was doing more, that he drove Szabo to new levels.
By then, the Romanian’s seven-stone frame was being pushed so hard, she was forced to sleep 16 hours a day for recovery purposes. It appeared to be a necessity too because at the finishing line there were just a few stands of bleached blonde hair between them after 12-and-a-half laps.
“The first thing that happened at the end was I asked myself a question,” remembers O’Sullivan of her silver. “‘Are you happy?’ I put my hands on my knees and put my head down and I definitely had to think about it and kind of decided that I was. I had a quick think about things, it’s very difficult because you are in this emotional state and how you react is how you are always going to feel about that moment. I realised though that I’d done the best I could in that race and on the day probably got the best possible result I could’ve got.
“My coach Alan Storey was up in the stands and he could see what was happening and he was just praying that I’d be smiling when I straightened up.
“But I didn’t go there expecting it so in a way it was a huge bonus. In some ways it was a surprise to me. I’m not sure I believed beforehand I would win that race and beat Szabo. Maybe it was because I had a bit of time out the year before and had a lack of races. But I trained as hard as I could and the only expectation was to have a good run. After Atlanta, I just wanted a positive Olympic experience and to enjoy it. And I did. I wasn’t just focused on the race, I was part of the team, carried the flag, I wanted to be there and remember every little detail about an Olympics. I can say now that I can.”
You’re not yet done with that 5,000m final though. When you look at O’Sullivan’s career, her own pure-white innocence only served to highlight the darker shades around her at times and if her first Olympic experience could have seen her come a position higher were everyone running on a flat track, then there are questions about Szabo too.
In 2003, a bizarre-but-not-insignificant incident unfolded when the Romanian’s Ford Mondeo was stopped by French border police outside Monaco. In the boot was a package containing Actovegin, a derivative of calf serum that increases the blood’s oxygen-carrying capacity in the same way as EPO.
The car was being driven by Daniel Vlad, a friend of Zsolt Gyongyossy, and though Szabo wasn’t there, she was on her way to France for a training camp to prepare for the World Championships in Paris. In the end, Mihaela Botezan, her 5,000m and 10,000m team-mate, threw up a hand and said the drugs were for her and while Szabo was cleared, she quickly retired, skipping the Olympics in 2004. You put the incident to O’Sullivan given that her and Szabo seemed conjoined at the front of fields for so many years.
“The opportunistic side of me was thinking about it after that,” says O’Sullivan.
“When you’ve won a silver medal and there’s the chance that someone who won gold was cheating, then you’d like to know the truth. As it turns out there was nothing ever done and you just have to accept the way things are. But I don’t know, it was all very strange, and very quickly she stopped competing and you have to think why did she stop like that? It’s not like she was running badly, so why not carry on?
“Then at the same time, look at the flipside and I’d ask why didn’t Michelle Smith walk away?
“She didn’t have to keep competing; she never tested positive at the Olympics but a year later things happened and there was controversy so why would you keep going? It’s hard to understand the mind of people who go beyond the normal methods of training though,” she continues, switching her talk to more general terms and away from Szabo and Smith.
“I don’t understand how athletes can do that and live with themselves. But unless there is evidence you have to accept it and I’m not going to dwell on things that might have been. I’m happy how things turned out. And I got that medal in the end.”
You ask O’Sullivan where she keeps it and all the others she won in her career and the answer shows all the ticks and tocks that have passed by in the time since.
“I’m waiting to organise a display at the University of Cork,” she answers. “I’d rather have them out there for people to see and enjoy because they are getting old now and would just be collecting dust if I held on to them. My career is a race that’s long been run,” she adds.
But one which we’ll never forget.