Thursday 5 December 2019

Cathal Dennehy: 'From our living rooms we all ran with Sonia, through the greatest career in Irish sport'

WINNERS: Sports stars like Sonia O’Sullivan have done much to lift Ireland’s spirits
WINNERS: Sports stars like Sonia O’Sullivan have done much to lift Ireland’s spirits

Cathal Dennehy

'The older I get, the better I used to be.'

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For retired sportspeople, the words of golfing great Lee Trevino have a familiar resonance. The passage of time tends to elevate our past self, erasing the all-too-real limitations and imbuing our achievements – no matter how mediocre – with a fake, nostalgic filter.

It is, of course, a great fallacy, but one that allows us re-tell battle stories in delightful delusion. But the thing about genuine sporting greatness: it has no need to exaggerate, its perpetrators content that their performances speak louder than words ever could.

That's how it is with Sonia, and if her surname is needed then chances are you're too young to remember the '90s.

Back when she hitched the nation's interest to her juggernauting career. From our living rooms, we ran those races with her, feeling some of what she did when it all came together and sharing the visceral, visible pain when it all went wrong.

Everyone has a story. She didn't even have to be there. On that magic Monday at the Sydney Olympics, my first-year classmates at Ardscoil Rís in Limerick sat at their desks and cheered as the commentary from the 5,000m final blasted over the intercom. They went ballistic on the final lap, or so I was told. I wasn't with them and, 19 years on, I think it's safe to admit I didn't have a dentist's appointment that afternoon – just a need not to miss that race.

On Friday, on her 50th birthday, Sonia will be inducted into the Hall of Fame at the Athletics Ireland Awards in Blanchardstown. The whole afternoon could be gone by the time they list her achievements, a body of work no Irish athlete has come close to.

In recent weeks Pierce O'Callaghan dug up the stats of what is, to my mind, the greatest career in Irish sport: 33 international caps spanning 18 years, before Sonia so poignantly waved goodbye to the Olympic stage during the 5,000m at Athens 2004.

Indoors, outdoors, cross-country; European, Worlds, Olympics; she 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.

For a career so decorated, it seems sacrilege to mention what-might-have-beens, but the truth is if it weren't for ill-health in Atlanta 1996 or rampant doping ahead of her in Barcelona 1992, she would have at least another two Olympic medals alongside her Sydney silver.

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 – like a formula one champion turning to rallying and proving just as indomitable.

In 1994, she was the fastest in the world over 1,500m, mile, 2,000m and 3,000m, and set a world record of 5:25.36 for 2,000m, which has never been beaten outdoors. In 1995, she won the world title over 5,000m in customary fashion: coasting with the leaders before destroying them with an explosive finishing kick.

The tall, gangly kid from Cobh had grown up to become not just the world's best middle-distance runner, but the world's best female athlete.

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.

Best of all, it was always believable. Trace her progression curve and you'll see it never took the wild jump that causes followers of the sport to furrow their brows. Her performances were astonishing but credible, her form subject to fluctuations that showed she was distinctly human. Perhaps that’s why she connected so well. Sonia had that vulnerability, as likely as the rest of us to have a howler on any given day.

But back to those words of Trevino. For Sonia, unlike the rest of us, they have a sense of legitimacy. Truth is, time has made her even better than she used to be given that we know now exactly what she was up against.

Her career operated within a realistic realm yet it offered us all a sense of escapism. As we watched her win on the world stage there was a sense of wonder, like kids gazing up at a night sky illuminated by fireworks. A star forever singed in our memories.

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