Tommy Martin: Driven by an internal flame, Sonia got it all out of herself

Tommy Martin: Driven by an internal flame, Sonia got it all out of herself
Olympic Games 2000 Sydney, Australia 19/9/2000Sonia O'Sullivan with Ciara in the days before her first race. (©INPHO/Patrick Bolger)

Sonia at 50, then.

With the times we live in there’s the urge to reassess Sonia as she passes this significant lap marker, to place the scale of her achievements in some kind of historical context.

Is she the origin story for Ireland’s women in sport movement, the torchbearer who lit the flame for Katie, Annalise, Derval and all the rest? Do we politicise Sonia, see in the ruthless drive of her dominant years the very definition of a barrier-breaker?

Do we go all pop-sociology on it and dump her in as part of Ireland’s 1990s awakening, alongside Italia ’90 and Riverdance and all that, an expression of a newly confident people ready to take on the world?

Do we see in the sometimes sour reaction to her perceived emotional distance back then a needy nation not yet comfortable with the idea of individualistic self-advancement? And in a woman too? Take the flag, Sonia!

Is she the last icon of athletics’ golden age, a fading memory of a time when big meetings were on TV every Friday night and it was possible to have a fingers-in-my-ears-I-can’t-hear-you position on drugs in the sport?

But Sonia escapes easy definition. She is one of those characters in our public consciousness who is known only by her first name, a simplification only given to those with sufficient complexity to deserve it.

Shy but playful. Strong yet vulnerable. The girl from Cobh but also the globe-trotting superstar. Thoughtful and deep yet straight and common-sense.

We saw the bashful smile and the little wave as she lined up for big races in steamy summer stadiums, then we watched her kill her rivals on the final bend, crush them into the dirt with that vicious, merciless kick.

We saw her tears when everything went wrong in Atlanta and we scratched our heads and made jokes and wondered what was going on with her at all. What was the story with her? But we didn’t understand until Sydney and the smile on her face with that silver.

And we smiled too.

You smile again when you think back to the early years. In those pre-digital times stars like Sonia O’Sullivan just sort of popped up out of nowhere, unless you were close to the grassroots athletics scene and had been aware of her smashing records as a teenage cross-country tearaway.

Sonia O'Sullivan and Roy Keane with the Lord Mayor of Cork, Cllr.Sean Martin at the conferring of the freedom of Cork at City Hall.Picture Dan Linehan
Sonia O'Sullivan and Roy Keane with the Lord Mayor of Cork, Cllr.Sean Martin at the conferring of the freedom of Cork at City Hall.Picture Dan Linehan

It was like when you suddenly saw Roy Keane scoring a goal at Anfield for Nottingham Forest and knew that nothing would ever be the same again. There was a clip on the news of this girl from Cork winning gold at the 1991 World Student Games and then there she was in Barcelona, hitting the front in the last lap of the Olympic 3000 metre final, giddily going too early and being squeezed out of the medals — one of those who beat her, Tetyana Dorovskikh, tested positive for steroids a year later.

They were similar in ways, Sonia and Roy. Both from the same corner of the country, both working off an open disdain for the clannish Dublin-based administration of their sport, neither given to suffering fools. Both were driven through their 1990s heyday by a voracious hunger to win, some internal flame that kept firing them on to keep bettering themselves and bettering those they competed against.

Although it requires no words, sport is a form of self-expression. Its greatest practitioners can use their bodies as a language to tell the world who they are. If it felt that Roy never fully got everything out, Sonia found the answers eventually.

She wrote in her autobiography about being a tall and gawky teenager, how she would be all elbows on the dancefloor of kiddie discos around Cobh. “A body like mine seemed to make best sense when I was running,” she wrote.

“I had all the usual bits and pieces but they seemed best configured for running. Running is when I am most comfortable in my skin.”

She probably didn’t think much about why she was running back in those days. She probably didn’t see herself as a trailblazer for women in sport, or for Irish national self-confidence or for clean sport. She became obsessed by the Chinese who beat her at the 1993 World Championships, the mysterious squadron who arrived in Stuttgart under the tutelage of Ma Junren and swept the medals and then disappeared again.

Sonia never threw her hands up in frustration at what happened in Stuttgart. Instead she took it as a challenge and wondered if she could drive herself to match their times. That relentless quest took her to her world 5000 metre title in 1995 but it also broke her body in Atlanta. After that there was pain, loneliness, then rejuvenation and return.

Womens 5000 metres final Olympics Sydney 25/9/2000 Sonia O'Sullivan grimaces as Gabriela Szabo crosses the line to win (©INPHO/Billy Stickland)
Womens 5000 metres final Olympics Sydney 25/9/2000 Sonia O'Sullivan grimaces as Gabriela Szabo crosses the line to win (©INPHO/Billy Stickland)

Her first daughter was a year old when Sonia crossed the line just behind Gabriela Szabo in Sydney.

“Nic [Bideau, her partner] and Ciara are here suddenly,” she wrote in her book.

“They knot themselves around me. Happy. Happy. Happy.”

We knew that she had run her race and gotten everything out of herself and that was what it had been about all along. No wonder she smiled.

And now? Now she is a regal figure. Her natural reserve and bearing lends itself to queenliness. She dispenses common-sense views on the craziness of athletics from a newspaper column. She still lives outside Ireland but is a prominent figure here, promoting events, commentating on TV. She did her bit in administration in London 2012 but felt used by the Olympic Council, especially when the shit hit the fan in Rio.

Still, the image of her shepherding Katie Taylor around in the manic hours after her London gold medal has a nice circularity. She can be your icon, why not? A woman, Irish, clean and a world-beater.

Her story is the human struggle, the quest to find limits and overcome adversity, even if you are only a mortal lining up in the sort of 10k races which she has to settle for nowadays.

She did it all before anyone knew it had to be done.

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