Saturday 18 November 2017

Eamonn Sweeney: I admire Sonia O'Sullivan (Athlete)

Ireland's Sonia O'Sullivan (67) comes down the finishing straight ahead of Ethiopia's Merima Denboba (42) during the Women's Long Race (8080m). World Cross Country Athletics Championship
Ireland's Sonia O'Sullivan (67) comes down the finishing straight ahead of Ethiopia's Merima Denboba (42) during the Women's Long Race (8080m). World Cross Country Athletics Championship

It has to be Sonia O'Sullivan. For one thing, her 1995 performances represented the best year ever put in by an Irish sportsperson. She was the fastest in the world that year over 1,500m, 2,000m and 3,000m and unbeaten in the 3,000m and 5,000m.

It culminated gloriously with a world title in the 5,000m in Gothenburg where she defeated world record holder Fernanda Ribeiro of Portugal. The magnitude of the achievement was recognised by Track and Field News, the sport's bible, who made her their world female athlete of the year.

Think about that. It's fallen to very few Irish performers to be recognised as the best in the world at their sport. Rory McIlroy occupies that lofty position in golf at the moment and Seán Kelly was top of the pile in cycling for a remarkable five years. They would be my second and third choices. But neither cycling nor golf has the global reach of athletics. Nothing does except perhaps soccer. Major titles are harder won in athletics than anywhere else yet Sonia O'Sullivan won a bagful of them.

She was probably the best female athlete in the world in 1994 as well, but there was no World Championships to confirm it. There was, merely, a European gold in the 3,000m, world leading marks in the 1,500m, 2,000m and 5,000m and utter dominance on the Grand Prix circuit.

And 1993 could possibly have been her greatest year of all. Take away the trio of Chinese athletes who practically came out of nowhere, set times as unfeasibly fast as those of the now discredited East German stars of the 1970s and 80s and then disappeared entirely from the sport and O'Sullivan would have won double gold at the World Championships at Stuttgart. Instead she had to be content with silver in the 1,500m and fourth in the 3,000m. I'd be tempted to describe it as a sporting tragedy were it not for what happened in 1996 when the Cobh athlete seemed at the peak of her powers.

O'Sullivan's utter loss of form at that year's Olympics remains one of the great mysteries of Irish sport. Her obvious pain at both the meltdown in Atlanta and her subsequent failure to recover her old form in 1997 was hard to look at. The reduction of a once awesome athlete to a beaten docket really did have something tragic about it.

But great performers are often defined by what they overcome as much as by what they accomplish. And the vulnerability we had observed in a performer who had previously seemed almost machine-like in her efficiency made the great displays of her second flowering even more compelling. It began, almost under the radar, at the 1998 World Cross Country Championships in Morocco when she won the short course title by what would remain a record margin, beating the best African runners in their own backyard. The following day she added the long course title. The peerless Kenenisa Bekele is the only other athlete to have accomplished this double.

Closing in on 30 she appeared to have developed a taste for the unlikely, as in that year's European Championships she doubled up in the 5,000m and 10,000m, despite never having run the latter event before. It didn't matter, a stunning 28-second final 200m gave her victory in the longer race while in the 5,000m she outkicked world champ Gabriela Szabo to take her second gold.

You know what? O'Sullivan's 1998 is probably the second greatest year ever produced by an Irish sportsperson.

Szabo got her revenge over O'Sullivan at the 2000 Olympics, edging her out for the gold in the 5,000m, but the Cork runner was coming back from a break from the sport after giving birth to her daughter Ciara and silver was a remarkable result in the circumstances.

Then again, pretty much everything about Sonia O'Sullivan was remarkable. She won the RTE Sports Personality of the Year award five times when only two other people, Pádraig Harrington (3) and Rory McIlroy (2), have won it more than once. That's important because it shows that, without the distortions of hindsight, during her career Sonia O'Sullivan was regarded as the towering colossus of Irish sport.

She was our greatest. Or as they'd say in her native county, dowtcha Sonia.

Sunday Independent

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