Thursday 16 August 2018

Vincent Hogan meets Sonia O'Sullivan: 'We'd look over at Szabo and her doctor's big, black bag, wondering why did she need a doctor?'

In the most candid interview she has ever given, Ireland's greatest athlete, Sonia O'Sullivan, talks about drugs in her sport and feeling 'used' by the OCI at the London Olympics in 2012

Sonia O’Sullivan in The Croke Park before being inducted into the Irish Independent Hall of Fame. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Sonia O’Sullivan in The Croke Park before being inducted into the Irish Independent Hall of Fame. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

She disappoints us, Sonia. She frustrates us in her resistance to the cliché of the cheated, the obligation to be angry. We want her to spew vitriol upon the resilient lies of history, the ghost records, the secretive champions, the unexplained glories of a time when nobody ran with more thrilling grace than she did on the great flashbulb nights of Track and Field.

But Sonia just guides us around the barbed-wire reflex. Instead of delivering a sermon, she gently introduces us to a girl.

Remember Liu Dong? Chances are you don't, given our memories of Stuttgart '93 have remained largely unspecific.

Over time, the Chinese of those World Championships acquired an almost inanimate quality in our minds, one indistinguishable from another. An army of robots almost. Cold. Mechanical. Doll-like.

Well, Liu Dong was the girl who won 1,500 metres gold, ahead of Sonia's silver. She lives in Spain now and they've met a few times in recent years, first at the '97 World Indoor Championships but, more recently, at the 2015 World Cross-Country Championships in Guiyang.

And Dong always asks Sonia for a photograph when they meet. She comes across as warm, respectful, likeable.

Sonia O’Sullivan with David Matthews, Niamh Matthews and Gerard Hartmann at the Irish Independent Sportstar of the Year awards in association with The Croke Park Hotel, where she was inducted into the Irish Independent Hall of Fame. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Sonia O’Sullivan with David Matthews, Niamh Matthews and Gerard Hartmann at the Irish Independent Sportstar of the Year awards in association with The Croke Park Hotel, where she was inducted into the Irish Independent Hall of Fame. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

Once, she even wrote her address on the back of an envelope and Sonia remembers promising herself that she'd send a Christmas card. But she never did.

So Dong is still a fading mystery today. A rumour in human form. After winning that gold in Stuttgart, she completed a lap of honour to almost stony silence. Then O'Sullivan and bronze medalist, Hassiba Boulmerka, returned to the track, circling to a wild ovation.

Sonia remembers wondering at the time if this might be the ultimate conceit, a lap of honour for finishing second? It was unheard of back then, but - somehow - the crowd demanded it. They were delivering a statement then that they imagined might make a difference. It never did.

A quarter of a century on, Sonia meets people on an almost daily basis lamenting the so-called 'Chinese Takeaway' of those Championships. After all, she finished fourth in the 3,000 metres final behind three of Ma Junren's army too. The medallists ran like soldiers.

Recently, at home in Cobh, she dusted down an old photo album the Irish team manager Fr Liam Kelleher had given her from those Championships. She'd never really paid much heed to it before, but some of his close-up pictures of the Chinese now startled her.

Their faces especially. Blank. Compliant. Empty-eyed.

And it set her thinking how she wished she'd sent that Christmas card, maybe opening a line of communication to Liu Dong that might have led at some point in the distance to having the conversation she now knows will never happen.

Asking the unending question: "What were you doing back then?"

     

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Want to know the thing that grates? More than the cheats? More than the state-sponsored thieving? More than the endless pharmaceutical arms race?

It's the lazy consensus. The way history becomes disfigured, rewritten through the narrow lens of those with dirt beneath their fingernails. When Sonia runs now, she listens to podcasts, a recent favourite being that of the reformed alcoholic turned American endurance athlete, Rich Roll.

A couple of weeks back, Roll interviewed Bryan Fogel, director of 'Icarus', the documentary that morphed into an exploration of Russian state-sponsored doping.

During the interview, Fogel recalls his first meeting with the central character of the story, Dr Grigory Rodchenkov, director of Moscow's anti-doping centre.

Fogel asks Rodchenkov if he believes it is possible to win an Olympic medal without taking performance-enhancing drugs.

The Russian's response is: "I should believe, I try to believe, but I do not believe . . . " Then he pauses briefly, before adding: "I don't know. Maybe I'm a bad man!"

Listening, Sonia experienced a quiet fury rise up inside of her. The way Fogel's conversation with Roll was beginning to unspool seemed to be slipping into the trap again of somehow normalising drug use. Of writing the honest athlete out of history. "It really got to me," she acknowledges now.

"I remember thinking, 'You can't say that!' Because I know it isn't true."

But this is the recurring betrayal of those who run clean. The cheats' assumption that they don't.

When Sonia was in her pomp, she was acquainted with the boyfriend of a Russian athlete whose training diaries openly documented her ingestion of drugs.

"I'd met her a couple of times," Sonia remembers now. "And she told her boyfriend that they assumed, of course, that I was cheating too.

"How could you possibly run that well if you weren't cheating?"

In 1994, Sonia finished second in the 1,500m at the Goodwill Games behind Russian, Yekaterina Podkopayeva. Officially, the winner's age was documented as 42. She reckons Podkopayeva was nearer 45. "You'd be looking at her, thinking, 'How can she be doing this, running four minutes for the 1,500 metres?'" she remembers now.

She was almost seen as this old lady back then, but she'd come up to you after and be really friendly. She'd always want to greet you when she'd see you in the hotel and I'd be thinking, 'I don't want to be anywhere near you'."

So the shadow has always been there. Maybe the innocence has been in trusting officialdom's appetite to remove it.

In believing the blazers. In underestimating how politics, when unchecked, reduces everything to yokel.

She thinks, for example, about the IAAF's 100th anniversary celebrations in 2012 and Wang Junxia's induction into their Hall of Fame.

Beijing had hosted the Olympics with the World Championships and World Cross-Country Championships soon to follow. The IAAF had recently announced a new sponsorship deal with the China Petroleum and Chemical Corporation.

And now the entire room stood and applauded Junxia as she came to get her award. Wang Junxia, who broke the women's 10,000m record by 42 seconds when running at her National Championships in 1993. Who ran the second half of that race 11 seconds faster than the existing world record for the 5,000m. Who ran the final 3,000m five seconds faster than the world record for that distance. Whose previous best 10,000m time before '93 had been roughly three minutes slower.

Wang Junxia who, at those same championships in Beijing, would carve more than 16 seconds off a world 3,000m record that had stood for the previous decade.

That IAAF evening in Monte Carlo was hosted by its president, Lamine Diack, a man currently under house arrest in Paris over allegations that he accepted bribes for covering up doping violations for Russian athletes.

And it was around the time Diack's arrest took place that Sonia O'Sullivan began to decommission her own interest in an administrative role within international athletics.

She'd been nominated by Athletics Ireland in 2015 for a seat on the IAAF Council, but the story of Diack broke just as she was travelling to the World Championships in Beijing.

"I remember reading it and thinking, 'Do I really want to be a part of something that is as corrupt as that?'" she recalls now.

"You're supposed to be protecting the athletes, but this is going on, decisions are being made and you probably don't even know about them. So I went there and I wasn't really that committed to pushing my name forward anymore. I just wasn't sure about it at all."

How on earth could she be?

Last year, a story broke that Wang Junxia was one of nine signatories to a letter admitting the ingestion of "a large dose of illegal drugs" during their time under Junren's tutelage.

The IAAF confirmed at the time that they had launched a probe into those claims. In October, a former doctor of the Chinese Olympic team admitted to a systemic doping programme in the country across all sports during the '80s and '90s, suggesting that every Chinese medal won in that period was tainted.

The week that story broke, Sonia was attending an IAAF road-running conference in Germany. Asking an official for some update on the story now trending wildly on social media, he seemed blissfully unaware of it.

"It hadn't even registered," she reflects incredulously. "So he said, 'Oh, there's an Integrity Unit dealing with all that!' Apparently, they're working from now backwards. It'll be a long time before they get to '93!'

So anger? If you light that match, what exactly is it that you end up gaining from the fire?

Sonia still runs most days of the week, sometimes hard and solitary, other times just a gentle jog with fellow mothers on the school run.

She coaches bits and pieces. Her younger daughter, Sophie, has a talent (high-jump and middle-distance) that looks like it might flower into something around which a career might even form.

But Sophie runs, not because her Mum was - arguably - the greatest female athlete on the planet in her day. Sonia has never coached her, never wants to. No, Sophie runs for the simple joy of it. That feeling of camaraderie and, on occasion, blissful weightlessness. The simplicity of finding a day when, as Sonia puts it beautifully, "it's like you're nearly dancing".

The rest of it? The putrid stuff? The shameless subterfuge? The Kenyans running as Turks? The chronic asthmatics? The curious heart conditions? The odd sicknesses that assail the fastest, strongest, biggest athletes in the world? The language of chicanery?

Sonia tells a story.

During the Sydney Olympics, she stayed on an island - Couran Cove - with husband, Nick, and daughter, Ciara. To get to the track, they'd take a boat and, often, Gabriella Szabo would be in the boat with them.

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Sonia with Gabriela Szabo after finishing second to the Romanian in the women’s 5000m final at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. Photo: Darren England/Allsport

"She had her coach with her and she had a doctor," Sonia remembers. "And the doctor would always have this big, black bag. We'd be looking over, wondering why did she need a doctor? You know it was way beyond anything that I could comprehend. Like, I didn't even have a physio.

"So you're looking at this big, black bag, wondering what on earth was inside it.

I remember we did a training session one night at this Runaway Bay and drove down the Gold Coast immediately after to where the British team was based. Gerard Hartmann was working with them as a physio and he'd agreed to see me in secret, just to give me one session. So that's how basic it was for me."

Three years after those Games, Szabo's Ford Mondeo would be stopped by French border police outside Monaco and a package containing Actovegin, a derivative of calf serum that increases the blood's oxygen-carrying capacity in the same way as EPO, found in the boot.

Szabo was not present, the car being driven by a friend of her husband. And when one of her team-mates at that year's World Championships in Paris subsequently took responsibility for the drugs, Szabo was cleared, retiring almost immediately.

So does Sonia imagine she was robbed of gold in Sydney? Not exactly. In her own mind, she blew it. Yes, there were a lot of things about Szabo that made her "wonder".

But that 5,000m final and the seven stone wraith holding her off on the home straight? No, this wasn't about feeling cheated.

In one sense, she was blessed that the two Ethiopians, Gete Wami and Ayelech Worku, began arguing at the front. Their coach, Jos Hermens, would be livid afterwards, given their prior tactical agreement to push the pace hard enough to lose O'Sullivan.

"That was the whole thing, to get rid of me," remembers Sonia.

Briefly, they succeeded only for their argument to then start. "Faster, Faster," bellowed Wami, only to discover that Worku had medal ambitions of her own. So, crucially, the field came back to O'Sullivan. And that's when she knew she had a real shot at gold.

After finishing fourth in Barcelona and suffering a wipe-out in Atlanta, Sonia had a decision to make 200 metres from home. "If I watch Sydney now, I should have won that race," she says flatly. "If I had been a little more patient, if I had a little more belief in myself . . . not panicked and not gone for it.

"Not tried to match Szabo on the outside. Why didn't I just sit in behind her? I might just have had that little bit of extra stuff at the end . . . "

After crossing the line, she took a few seconds hunkered down to assemble her thoughts before rising with a smile. "If you lose a race, your first instinct is to be disappointed, you're annoyed," she reveals. "But then you have to remind yourself that this is the Olympics. All your life you've been trying to get to this moment of winning an Olympic medal.

"If you ran the race again, maybe the medals would be distributed differently. You could have been first, you could have been fourth. But it's over. I ran as best I could."

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If there's a pebble in her shoe left over from Sydney today, maybe it's to do with the medal presentation.

It was Pat Hickey who put the silver around her neck that night and, eight years later, it would be largely through his encouragement that she'd take up a place on the Olympic Council of Ireland board. What did she know of him then? Little enough beyond the garrulous nature of his personality, the uncommon weight of his self-regard.

But, when the Rio ticket scandal was erupting 16 months ago, she found herself on Olympic duty in a Montrose TV studio, her phone ringing daily from people in the RTé News Department. As a member of the OCI board, she was coming under pressure to provide answers she simply did not have access to.

"It was kind of assumed you knew everything that was going on, but you didn't," she explains now. "You couldn't explain to people that you had no idea. Because people would say, 'Well, why didn't you? You should have known!' And, to be fair, I would be the same looking at the IAAF when all of that blew up. Surely if you're on the IAAF board, attending all these meetings . . . ,

"So I'd be out in RTé getting all these phone calls from their news department wanting me to go on the News. It was really weird. Nobody (in the sports department) said that they were or weren't going to ask me about it. So I was always a bit on edge. There was a lot of criticism of them for not asking me about it, but they had decided not to because they didn't want to put me in that position.

"Because I wasn't there to discuss being on the Olympic Council board. So they just kind of skirted around it."

What wouldn't have been known then was just how easily Sonia might have been out in Rio herself and, potentially, open to arbitrary arrest.

As all manner of OCI personnel suddenly found themselves in custody, O'Sullivan was thankful that she'd turned down Hickey's invitation to reprise the Chef de Mission's role she'd undertaken at the London Games. That invitation, essentially, came too late for Sonia to prepare properly and, given she'd had little or no prior involvement with the athletes going to Brazil, "I kind of felt it was just going to be another publicity stunt."

Another?

O'Sullivan admits now that she believes her appointment to the OCI board in 2008 was "just a publicity thing". She did, it's true, have an input into the London Games and, most of it, rewarding. But post-2012, she reckons she attended - at best - three board meetings. "You'd kind of think surely my position on the board would have been questioned by somebody," she suggests. "If you can't come to those meetings, why are you on the board?"

As to the London Olympics, she recalls a few "rocky moments" towards the end of those Games that, in hindsight, maybe should have been educational.

Sonia explains: "I remember when Katie Taylor won her medal, I had to bring her to this Irish House and it was the last place on earth that she wanted to go. You know she's just not into pubs or anything like that, but I was getting constant phone calls, 'Where is she? Where is she?'

"I remember being in the back of the car going down there, saying to her, 'I know that this is the last thing you want to do . . . ' I would have been exactly the same, going into a crowd full of people who are totally drunk. They mean well, but it wasn't done properly for someone who had just achieved what she had achieved.

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Ireland's Katie Taylor. Photo: Getty

"And Katie was telling me that all she wanted to do was go to McDonald's, have some time for herself and her family to just reflect on the whole thing. But, at that moment, it's like you're owned by the Olympic Council I suppose.

"We went there and they had this small stage roped off. There was a bit of security there, but not much. It was around midnight, this heaving crowd, the place absolutely packed. All these people pushing in on top of everybody. Katie came in and everybody was cheering. Most people couldn't actually see her, they just knew she was there and seemed happy enough with that.

"So when Katie left, I became the next best thing. It took ages to get out of there but, when we did, I remember walking down the road, Pat Hickey and Willie O'Brien walking in front of me. And I just felt, 'They don't even care!'

"The thing was to get Katie there, they didn't care what I did. And that was one moment when I began to ask myself, 'Why are you doing all this?' It was just a photo-opportunity for them. And that's when you kind of realise it's all a game. Because nothing was properly organised, everything was kind of last-minute."

O'Sullivan's suspicion today is that, at the highest level of the Council, her name was always going to be more important than her input. She came under pressure in London to commit all of the medallists to a formal OCI homecoming when none had been pre-arranged. With most athletes having already made their own, individual arrangements, the OCI event had to eventually be postponed.

Did she feel used?

"At the end of 2012? Yeah. We never discussed it. Like I had a role to play, but it wasn't an administrative role. It was more a connecting role with the athletes. And I felt good about that role because I wasn't that far away from being an athlete myself, so I understood everything they needed. I got really positive feedback from the athletes.

"But that's one of the reasons, I decided against doing it in Rio. I just felt I hadn't been involved up to that point and, all of a sudden, you get thrown in.

"The athletes don't need that. It's just a distraction really. Then they just feel obliged to talk to you and it's one extra thing they don't need to be dealing with.

"Like in London, I hardly spoke to Katie before the Olympics. She had this whole routine she followed before her fights and I often saw her with her mother, early in the morning, coming into the Village as I was going for a run. You know you'd wave, but you knew she was in the zone, doing her own thing. So I was, 'I don't need to be bothering her here . . . '

I would be the same. I'm not going over there to try to speak to her, just because I'm Chef de Mission. It's this small-talk stuff... you don't need that extra thing in your day."

As a compromise, O'Sullivan offered to go to Rio for the first week only, then return to Dublin to fulfil broadcast commitments with RTé. The offer, much to her relief in hindsight, was rejected.

The truth is she never did get to know Pat Hickey on anything but the most superficial of levels. Yet, during recent filming in RTé for 'Ireland's Greatest Sporting Moment', footage came on screen of Sonia's medal presentation in Sydney. And the identity of the man handing over that silver left her feeling conflicted.

"There's a little voice in your head," she acknowledges now. "And it's asking, 'Are you really happy about that?'"

 

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So how do you stay in love with a sport that keeps unravelling before your eyes?

Maybe by remembering that sunrise of a smile Thomas Barr brought to Rio? Maybe by looking at the young Irish juniors now running so hard and so fearlessly in wait of that magical day when they, too, might just run outside of their imaginations. Maybe by looking into your own daughter's eyes and remembering that not everything is poison.

Sonia admits that a small part of her felt dead watching the Rio Games last year, sensing the broad absence of innocence, the joylessness in so many.

It's clearly harder now, she understands that. So many athletes feel they're just running into stone walls. They see stuff like the Oregon Project looking to create the perfect athlete while pushing the concept of legality as far as it will stretch.

They see the epidemic of TUEs. They see Africans winning European titles. They see the very institutions meant to police all this bad stuff caught up in incriminating business of their own.

And there's a trap in all of that. The trap is that you stop remembering who you're truest opponent will always be.

In her pomp, she never saw Olympic qualification as a challenge so it was impossible for her to empathise with those who did. Then the ageing process brought her back to the field.

"Like I had this run of winning 20 races in a row and I never thought about it," she remembers now. "Sometimes, it was almost as if I stepped outside myself during those races.

"Like there were so many races I'd look back thinking, 'How did I do that?' I never thought there'd be a day I wouldn't be able to get a qualifying time for an Olympics. I'd be thinking, 'Well I'll never not be able to do that . . . ' And then you can't. You find yourself running so slow and you're thinking how did I ever run so fast? It doesn't make sense."

Not long before Páidí ó Sé died, Sonia was on a bike ride in Dingle with Gerard Hartmann when they decided to call into his Ventry pub. During their conversation, ó Sé pulled this biscuit tin from behind the bar, in it his eight All-Ireland medals.

That moment set her thinking. None of this, you see, is really about medals in the end.

It is, ultimately, about people being the best that they can be. It is about courage, moral and physical. About honour. The rest? It becomes just noise. Theatre and noise.

And for as long as we are alive, there will always be a mirror in the next room.

Irish Independent

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