The natural: From Cobh to top of the world with Sonia O'Sullivan

The natural: From Cobh to top of the world with Sonia O'Sullivan
Womens 5000 metres final Olympics Sydney 25/9/2000 Sonia O'Sullivan grimaces as Gabriela Szabo crosses the line to win (©INPHO/Billy Stickland)

Safi, a port city on Morocco’s Atlantic coast, is not the kind of place you expect to be reminded of the seismic and lasting impact of an athlete from Cobh.

But there I was, sitting in a restaurant on the eve of a half marathon when in walked Hicham El Guerrouj, a two-time Olympic champion, four-time world champion and the fastest mile/1500m runner of all time. A mutual friend soon made some introductions and when El Guerrouj flagged my clear and obvious Irishness, he turned to his friend: “We were just talking about Sonia O’Sullivan an hour ago!”

It says much about the stratospheric altitudes Sonia once reached that two decades on from her peak, she was still a topic of conversation on a random Saturday night between two Moroccans, one of them the most successful miler in history.

But that’s Sonia, an athlete whose dominance was once so dictatorial that it’s hard to fathom for the current generation. How to describe the astronomical odds that a kid from Cobh would grow up to become not just the world’s best middle-distance runner, but the world’s best female athlete — in any event?

In 1995, that’s what she was deemed by Track & Field News, the so-called bible of the sport. Ethiopian great Haile Gebrselassie won the men’s award, an illustration of the company with whom she held equal footing.

Those years, in the mid-90s, were O’Sullivan’s greatest — an era when the concept of defeat was as outrageous for her as it was years later for Usain Bolt or Eliud Kipchoge.

Hers was a talent that bloomed early and grew steadily. Best of all, it was always believable. Trace the curve of Sonia’s progression and you’ll see it never took the unexpected twist in performance that causes followers of the sport to raise eyebrows for all the wrong reasons.

The performances were astonishing but within the realm of realistic, subject to fluctuations that made her distinctly human. She was as vulnerable and as likely as the rest of us to have a howler on any given day. Many times she did.

At 22, she finished fourth in the Olympic 1500m final in Barcelona and the following year she won silver in the World Championships over 1500m and finished fourth behind a trio of Chinese athletes in the 3000m.

Of course, we now know that Chinese athletes of that time were knocking back something a whole lot stronger than the turtle blood to which their coach, Ma Junren, attributed their results.

In 1994, Sonia was the fastest in the world over 1500m, the mile, 2000m and 3000m, and set a world record of 5:25.36 for 2000m, which has never been beaten outdoors. In 1995 she won the world title over 5000m in her customary fashion: coasting with the leaders until the final lap before destroying them with an explosive finishing kick.

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)
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 Atlanta Olympics in 1996 should have been her coronation, but O’Sullivan learned a harsh truth of the five-ringed circus: if you’re not right on that one week, you’ll be four long years waiting for atonement.

There’s no doubting she was at her best on a track, but her class was not limited to synthetic surfaces. On consecutive days in 1998, she defeated the world’s best to take double gold at the World Cross Country Championships in Marrakech — sort of like a Formula One champion turning his attention to rallying and proving just as indomitable.

At the Sydney Olympics in 2000, the nation took a collective 15-minute time-out from their working day — I bunked off school — to watch her 5000m final. Whatever the pressure in Barcelona or Atlanta, she must have dealt with all sorts of demons that day, knowing this was her last genuine shot at an Olympic medal, one that had been denied by bad luck, dopers or a combination of both in the years before. If there was any hint of deflation about the silver she took behind Romania’s Gabriela Szabo, it was only a by-product of her consistent greatness.

For a career so decorated, it may be sacrilege to bring up what-might-have-beens, but the truth is if it weren’t for ill-health in Atlanta or rampant doping ahead of her in Barcelona, O’Sullivan would have at least another two Olympic medals alongside her Sydney silver.

The numbers that define her career are breathtaking, compiled in forensic detail by Pierce O’Callaghan: 33 international caps between 1987 and 2004, before she so gracefully and poignantly waved goodbye to the Olympic stage during the 5000m at the Athens Games.

Indoors, outdoors, cross country; European, Worlds, Olympics; Sonia has medals from them all: 13 individually, three with Irish teams. She set 31 Irish records in total, one world record, one European record and one world indoor best. A body of work no Irish athlete has come close to.

She will be in Santry today for the Irish Athletics Awards, where she will enter the Hall of Fame on what is her 50th birthday. For a woman who will only ever need to be known by her first name, it’s been a half-century lived like no other.

An athlete whose depth of brilliance remains unrivalled in Irish athletics, quite possibly in Irish sport. So many memories that she gifted to the nation. So many jewels, forever glistening in her crown.

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