Friday 18 August 2017

Athletics: O'Sullivan's new mission

Cliona Foley

Cliona Foley

EYEBROWS were raised in some quarters when Sonia O'Sullivan was announced this time two years ago as Ireland's 'chef de mission' for next summer's London Olympics.

She may be a four-time Olympian and a silver medallist from Sydney in 2000 but this, traditionally, was a plum job given to a different Olympic Council 'suit' every four years.

A recently-retired elite athlete who, by her own admission, concentrated only on herself when competing was certainly not the obvious choice to manage 'Team Ireland' -- not least because O'Sullivan, whose eldest daughter is about to start secondary school, now largely calls Melbourne home.

But Hickey bucked tradition by producing the Cobh legend out of his hat and she is now regularly travelling across continents to fulfil her new sporting mission.

Nibbling on an after-dinner mint next door to London's Excel Arena, which will host Ireland's boxers next summer, the 42-year-old has rarely looked so relaxed and is clearly re-energised by her new role.

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Leading the multi-sport Irish challenge in London 2012 has been a steep learning curve but the OCI gave O'Sullivan a team of teenagers at the 2009 World Youth Olympics on which to cut her managerial teeth.

And a key factor in her accepting this onerous role was her realisation, finally, that her own running career was over.

"When I didn't run in Beijing, that was the end, that broke the chain," she reveals. "I didn't think that Athens would be the last time I'd run at the Olympic Games.

"A lot of people thought it was, with that thing that happened in the last lap where I waved to everybody. I don't know why I did that at the time but now I think I was probably saying goodbye but didn't know it."

She jokes that running the marathon in London next summer would be easier than her new managerial role.

"I don't enjoy sitting in meetings," she confesses. "As an athlete, you get the feedback quicker, but in this job you do stuff but won't know the result until this time next year when it's all over. That's the hard thing.

"But, now and then, there's a bit of magic," she says, describing this week's visit to London's Olympic Park in Stratford as the latest.

"To be on the bus there with Seb Coe and feel the positive energy he has, it really hammers home that this is the Olympics. That this is really special and I can play a part of it, though not as an athlete."

Few Irish sports legends know more about the burden of individually shouldering a nation's medal hopes, or the vicissitudes of the Olympics in particular.

For all her records and World and European titles, O'Sullivan was undone by a triumvirate of Chinese unknowns at the 1993 World Championships and Sydney proved her only Olympic redemption after finishing fourth in Barcelona ('92) and the ignominy of that running gear controversy in Atlanta ('96).

So, how can her experiences help Ireland's sports stars to maximise their potential ahead of, and during, the pressure cooker situation that will be London 2012?

Bagging St Mary's University ('Strawberry Hill') in Twickenham for Ireland's pre-Olympic training camp was an impressive start.

Situated in a leafy suburb near her own London residence in Teddington, its elite endurance training centre and sports science department is one of the best in Britain.

It is noticeable (if not ironic) that China's endurance athletes (including their world-class walkers), as well as Japan's and some of the South African team, have also chosen St Mary's as their pre-Games training centre.

O'Sullivan's choice of Lensbury, a secluded hotel and private sports club nearby, is also significant. It straddles Bushy and Richmond Parks, where Mo Farah and many of the world's top Kenyans regularly train, and should provide an ideally secluded holding camp at the other end of the Thames from the Olympic Village.

This weekend O'Sullivan is meeting 30 of Ireland's prospective Olympians in Tollymore Park in Co Down, an adventure centre she's been using to prepare athletes and team managements.

"The key is to make the Olympics as simple and small a thing as you can, rather than as big a thing as it is," she says. "The simpler you can make it, the easier it is to deal with.

"It depends how you define pressure and how you deal with it.

"Even Roy Keane, in his book, talked of satisfying the need for tickets and stuff as his biggest worry.

"When I was in the Olympics, I never got tickets for my parents. I never organised their travel, never knew where they were staying, I just didn't want to know about it.

"It's our job to talk (to athletes) about the things that sometimes don't get talked about, to get inside the minds of some who are worried about things they shouldn't be and to make sure they are just concentrating on what is really important."

Irish Independent

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