A pioneer and superstar we all know simply as ‘Sonia’

A pioneer and superstar we all know simply as ‘Sonia’
Ireland's Sonia O'Sullivan holds aloft the Irish national flag after winning the gold medal in the Women's 10,000 meters at the European Track and Field Championships at the Nep Stadium in Budapest on Wednesday Aug. 19, 1998. (AP Photo/Thomas Kienzle)

The shortlist for Ireland’s greatest sportsperson has few permanent cast members, but Sonia O’Sullivan has always featured on it.

The CV is awesome, with an Olympic silver medal, World and European Championships and two World Cross-Country titles just the bullet points. Today, her 50th birthday, she enters the Hall of Fame at the Irish Life Health Athletics Awards. Jerry Kiernan, an Olympian himself, is glad O’Sullivan’s achievements are acknowledged in her home country.

“I’d think that someone like Eamonn Coghlan is underappreciated, but I think Sonia has always gotten her just reward.

“Her standing in Ireland is huge, when you consider she hasn’t really competed in 15 years or so. There are people who’ve achieved great things in sport but when the moment passes, they’re forgotten.

“I think Sonia’s name is still on everyone’s lips.”

Olympic Games 2000 Sydney, Australia 19/9/2000Sonia O'Sullivan with Ciara in the days before her first race. (©INPHO/Patrick Bolger)
Olympic Games 2000 Sydney, Australia 19/9/2000Sonia O'Sullivan with Ciara in the days before her first race. (©INPHO/Patrick Bolger)

Olive Loughnane was an Olympic teammate of O’Sullivan’s and points to the familiarity Irish sports fans show towards the Cobh native.

“That’s something in and of itself, the fact that we all refer to her as Sonia, we all relate to her and feel that we’ve been with her through the ups and downs of her own career.

“Personally, as an athlete I followed her through the Grand Prix arena of the 90s, and watched her in the Olympics of 1992 and 1996 — as I say, we all lived through those experiences with her.

“I was lucky enough to be in the Olympic Stadium in 2000, and as an athlete going to my first Olympics it was wonderful to be there when she won the silver medal. One of the first things she did after the race was to wave up to us, where we were sitting — the noise we were making, she had to hear us. That was special.”

What, then, made O’Sullivan so good? Kiernan credits her parents: “Anyone who’s good at running, it’s down to their genetic disposition. You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

“The basis of Sonia’s athletic excellence — of everyone’s, really — is being born lucky. You have the mental component, but that’s part of it also, realising you have a talent and driving yourself to use that, which means having to train hard. And in athletics, which is by far the most competitive individual sport in the world, you really have to train hard.

“Then you have to accept that there will be setbacks along the way — but you have to accept those and plough on anyway.

“Sonia was able to do all of those things, but she wouldn’t have had to do any of those things if she didn’t have the basic genetic package.”

Loughnane points to O’Sullivan’s immense resilience.

“She was a pioneer — in athletics, we’re lucky in that the male-female divide isn’t as much of an issue. She’s just a great sportsperson.

“Everyone has their setbacks, but when it comes to bouncebackability, resilience, she’s the absolute top example of that.”

The cloud that lingers over O’Sullivan’s career isn’t one of her own making. She lost out on a gold medal in 2000 to Gabriela Szabo, but banned drugs were later found in the Romanian’s car.

Sophie O’Sullivan of Ballymore/Cobh AC, Co. Cork, is presented with a gold medal by her mother Sonia O'Sullivan after her team won the Sonia 3k Challenge Relay during the Cork City Sports event at CIT in Co. Cork. Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Sophie O’Sullivan of Ballymore/Cobh AC, Co. Cork, is presented with a gold medal by her mother Sonia O'Sullivan after her team won the Sonia 3k Challenge Relay during the Cork City Sports event at CIT in Co. Cork. Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

Seven years before that, O’Sullivan lost out to Chinese runners at the World Championships, all of whom were tainted by later revelations from the Chinese team doctor that they had made extensive use of doping substances.

“I think it only strengthens our admiration for her, for someone who achieved so much,” says Loughnane.

“And there are other successes that a lot of the general public wouldn’t be as familiar with, such as the cross-country double.

“For someone like me, who’s been in the world of athletics, it’s not just about the silver medal or the World Championships. I was a late developer in athletics, so I remember being on my J-1 in 1995 and trying to find somewhere to watch her (World Championships) race in the States, so being on the team with her five years later was fantastic.”

Kiernan goes further: “I’d know Sonia reasonably well, I don’t think it’s a particular hang-up of hers. After all, she had a stellar career. Olympic silver medal, European Championship gold, World Championship gold, two World Cross-Country Championship titles.

“Putting Szabo and the Chinese to one side, that’s still a stellar career. If you let those kinds of things get to you, then they could eat away at you.

“Eamonn Coghlan could say the same, don’t forget. He was fourth in Moscow in the 5000 metres and the man who came third, Kaarlo Maaninka, admitted later that he had been blood doping. That cost Eamonn a medal.

“That’s a feature of most runners’ careers — when they look back they’ll feel those careers could have been better, and some of them would drive you mad because they can’t let it go. But I don’t think Sonia is like that.”

Kiernan agrees with Loughnane when it comes to that Olympic silver as a career highlight.

“I remember watching that with the class I was teaching at the time — we had the TV hooked up in the classroom to watch the race, and at one stage, maybe the sixth or seventh lap, when she went to the back of the pack, it looked like she’d be cut adrift.

“But she fought her way back and got back into contention, and from two laps out, I knew she was going to win a medal. I was hoping she’d win it, but (Gabriela) Szabo won.”

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)

That 2000 win was a poignant moment for Kiernan, who could recall an inexperienced teenager taking her first steps in the world of high performance athletics over a dozen years before that Olympics.

“Sonia resonates for me because I saw her coming up. She’s 16 years younger than me but I can remember being on an Irish training trip to Portugal in 1987 as one of the senior members of the team, and she was only a young one.

“The potential was always there. To me there were three people in Irish athletics who always stood out as though they were going to do something: Eamonn Coghlan, John Treacy, and Sonia O’Sullivan. I saw Treacy run at U13 level and I ran against Eamonn in schools competition, and there was something about them.

“To me those are the three greatest people in Irish sport — in all of Irish sport, actually, but I’d probably say that anyway. There were others who had that potential but didn’t realise it.

“Those three ... I remember Sonia winning a national cross-country title at the age of 17, on a muddy course which wouldn’t have suited her at all. So at a very young age she was demonstrating that potential.”

Sonia O'Sullivan, Ballymore/Cobh winning the Women's BLE National Inter-Club Cross Country Championships at Killenaule, Tipperary in 1987. Pic: Maurice O'Mahony.
Sonia O'Sullivan, Ballymore/Cobh winning the Women's BLE National Inter-Club Cross Country Championships at Killenaule, Tipperary in 1987. Pic: Maurice O'Mahony.

At the other end of her career, O’Sullivan was helping other athletes. Loughnane can recall advice and direction at a crucial point in her own running days: “I wouldn’t have known her all that well, I admired her from a distance, but when I was expecting my first child I got in touch with Sonia because she’d stayed so fit during her maternity period.

“She was so generous with her time and advice at that point, it was hugely encouraging to me.

“That meant an awful lot to me at the time. But she was very good to us as a group as well. She had a wealth of experience to offer.

“Remember, in an ideal world your career follows this amazing trajectory of success, you win all the time and your career only ever goes in one direction.

“But Sonia had seen and done it all and seen it from both sides. As team manager in London in 2012 she would have been under a lot of pressure, but she handled that very well and was very good to the team.”

The award O’Sullivan receives today underlines her reputation in the world of Irish sport. Kiernan believes satisfaction with a glittering career may count for more.

“Look, I think we’re all forgotten, ultimately. The newer athletes might have to look her up on YouTube to get an idea of her achievements, but the important thing for me is that she’s happy with what she did and all she achieved. That’s more important than considering other people’s opinions of what you did.”

Loughnane makes an educated guess at how O’Sullivan might celebrate her latest trophy.

“Something that people may not realise, and which strikes me when I meet her now and chat to her, is her absolute love of running.

“I can’t think of a time when Sonia wouldn’t run; I’m pretty active myself but I wouldn’t be as active as her, she’s so passionate about running and it’s such a part of her.

“She really, genuinely loves it. I love sport myself but it’s nice when the weather’s bad that you don’t have to go out. I don’t think Sonia would ever be thinking like that.”

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