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Gillian O'Sullivan on watching her sister become an Irish legend

‘I think my mother is still genuinely waiting for her to get a real job.’

Updated Nov 26th 2019, 9:31 PM

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Updated at 14.41

IRELAND IN THE 1980s was not an especially upbeat place.

Unemployment was high, the Troubles had people on edge, the Catholic church dominated society, homosexuality had not yet been decriminalised and many people still supported the infamous reference in the constitution to “a woman’s place being in the home”.

Morale was low, so to be a renowned world-class athlete was something not many Irish people seriously aspired to. To be a renowned world-class Irish athlete who was female was virtually unheard of.

Yet amidst this backdrop, Sonia O’Sullivan achieved the, seemingly, impossible.

Her father John had been in the Irish Navy and played as a goalkeeper for Cobh Ramblers. Her mother never played competitive sport, but was a keen tennis and badminton player in her spare time. Her sister Gillian enjoyed hockey while football and rugby were the activities of choice for brother John.

The family would walk or cycle everywhere, while Sonia ran. She ran all the time. Her siblings did too, but lacked their elder sister’s immense discipline.

She joined Ballymore Cobh Athletic Club, working under trainer Pat O’Halloran, and gradually, a hobby became something more serious.

She just loved it,” Gillian tells The42. “I don’t think any of us could have imagined that she could have a career of it. I think my mother is still genuinely waiting for her to get a real job. It’s surreal to think she did so well. She used to run around the track, she used to run around the town. Everyone [in Cobh] saw her and everyone knew she was there.”

Achieving fame and success, however, did not necessarily seem like a natural next step.

“I think now there are a lot of things that are more attainable and people think and believe that they can do stuff. Back then, this was a huge dream and something not a lot of people thought was achievable.”

Her parents were encouraging without being pushy. They never failed to provide her with the cheque required to pay the entry fee for races.

In her late teens, O’Sullivan left Cobh and went to Villanova University in Pennsylvania on a sports scholarship, studying accountancy there.

While she has travelled the world since and is based in Australia currently, leaving Ireland was not an easy experience for the young athlete.

“It was very tough and I don’t think we realised how tough it was,” Gillian remembers. “Hindsight’s a great thing and she went to America in crutches with her leg in a cast because she had a stress fracture. That was back in the time when there was no internet, no mobile phones and basically we put her on the plane. We didn’t see her again until the holidays.

“It’s just so different now. I don’t think people can comprehend how big a step it was to leave your family and go and live in the dorms. There were very few people that she knew and she was injured for a lot of the time and a lot of people who wouldn’t have as strong a character as her, they would have come home.”

sonia-osullivan-14122003 Sonia O'Sullivan with her father John at the 2003 European Cross Country Championships. Source: INPHO

The grit she displayed during that difficult time in America would be a recurring feature throughout her career and would ultimately prove the making of her.

Yet further obstacles lay ahead. Shy by nature, the sudden fame Sonia attained following a series of remarkable performances was not always easy for her to deal with.

I don’t think she was comfortable at all,” Gillian says. “I still don’t think she’s very comfortable with it. I think she’s most comfortable when she’s running or when she’s talking to kids or when she’s helping. I think she’s quite good at speaking to people, but she can get quite uncomfortable when people come up to her. And it’s not anything to do with the people, it’s just her nature. She would be a reasonably quiet, shy person really. So I think she struggled with it a lot.”

And what about the family in general? Did the attention they received ever feel intrusive?

“My dad would have probably coped with it a lot better than my mum. And again, it was different times. Cameras were just thrown in our faces. There were rooftop buses and you’d get off airplanes and there were cameras there — you never had a chance to look at yourself. It was full-on and there were some fabulous photographers and journalists, really good friends that we made over the years, and they would look out for you and take care of her and take care of my parents, which was really important. It was a lot to take on and there was certainly no one to look after us or to prep us. It was a different time.

“We would regularly be doorstepped. We didn’t know how to deal with it. We just dealt with it as we could, on the fly really.”

On a related note, O’Sullivan is not someone who normally tends to attract controversy. Yet perhaps the one exception was during the 1995 World Championships in Gothenburg. She had been asked to carry the Irish tricolour, but declined on the basis that she didn’t want any distractions from her events and neglected to do so again at the 1996 Olympics, describing flags as “silly and inconvenient”.

sonia-osullivan Sonia O'Sullivan of Ireland carries the tricolour and leads the team into Stadium Australia at the Olympic Games in 2000. Source: Patrick Bolger/INPHO

Some people reacted angrily to this decision and she received hate mail and accusations of being a “traitor” as a result.

She would later walk out of an RTÉ interview when questioned on the issue and explained: “It was about defending myself rather than explaining. I had nothing to apologise for.

“Flags are just too much trouble.”

Reflecting on the issue now, Gillian says: “For the most part, the media were always very supportive of her throughout her career. But the one thing that would come to mind was the World Championships and that flag issue. And that was really hard to see, because you could see she was so upset, and you know her. She’s your sister. I can hear her talking to Daddy and saying ‘I don’t want to take it, it’s too hard.’ I’m going to get something that’s lighter, my arms will be sore and you know what’s going through her head. You know how she’s feeling and for people to come out and say those things about her, that wasn’t very pleasant. But I guess when you’re living in the limelight like that, some times these things are going to happen.”

Gillian and her family would often travel the world with Sonia. They went to the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, where O’Sullivan had not been expected to win a medal, but ultimately narrowly missed out on one, finishing fourth in the 3,000m final. The silver medalist in that race, Ukraine’s Tatyana Dorovskikh, tested positive for a banned substance the following year.

1996 at the Atlanta Olympics was frustrating for different reasons. Having been a strong contender for a medal in both the 5000m and 1500m events, a stomach upset badly affected her preparations. Consequently, in the 5000m, she failed to finish, and in the 1500m, she was second last. It was a cruel blow for someone who had been so consistently successful up to that point.

It was gut-wrenching,” Gillian says. “She was at the peak of her career. Everyone had her winning two gold medals and to not even finish the race [was hard]. And you’re in the stands and you don’t know what’s going on, and it was devastating for us, so I can’t imagine what it was like for her.

“As much as you don’t want to believe what people are saying, she had such a good lead up to it, people had two gold medals around her neck, you would believe some of it.” 

O’Sullivan, though, was no stranger to setbacks and she demonstrated her resilience once again. 

1998 was an especially pivotal year, as she won two gold medals, in the 4km and 8km events at the World Cross Country Championships in Marrakech, Morocco.

Later that year, she would win two more gold medals at the European Championships in Budapest in the 5,000m and 10,000m.

In 2000, she would finally get her Olympics medal, winning silver in the 5000m at the Sydney Games.

“That smile on her face then, the relief and the release, you can’t describe the feeling as the sibling of someone who’s going through that, it’s amazing, you’re so proud.” 

sonia-osullivan-2231998 Sonia O'Sullivan receives a gold medal at the 1998 World Cross Country Championships in Marrakech. Source: Allsport/INPHO

Of course, O’Sullivan could potentially have been more successful. Some of her opponents’ victories have looked highly dubious with the passing of time, with evidence emerging in 2017 suggesting she was cheated out of medals owing to the widespread doping of Chinese athletes.

“To be honest, I think her fans and family were more upset than she ever was with things like that. So many things have come out and really that story about the Chinese was horrendous, what came out. 

“While, yes, she was absolutely robbed, it’s devastating what they went through and it was out of their hands. What they and their families were going through, it was an absolute regime. And you feel for those people as well.

“All through her career, right up to now, she never would say that anyone shouldn’t get a medal, or anyone was tainted with drugs. She somehow always took the higher ground. She would do that because she was certainly the bigger, better person for it. The rest of us were not like that, we would have been bitter. 

“My dad more than anyone [was disappointed]. If I recall, and this was the most exciting thing for him, whoever came first at Stuttgart received a Mercedes-Benz. There would have been two Mercedes that year and he was a car man. He would have loved a Mercedes. To this day, I think he’s ruing the fact that he never got a car. It’s not something that Sonia has ever dwelled on. She knows herself, she’s got this inner strength. She knows what she’s capable of and she knows what she’s done.”

Gillian watched on from her home in Australia, as O’Sullivan competed in the Athens Olympics. Again suffering from an illness, she came last of 14 athletes who finished in the 5,000m final amid a moment that felt like the end of an era.

Now retired, when asked about O’Sullivan adjusting to life after competing in elite sport, Gillian says: “I think she’s still trying to figure that out.”

While she may not be competing at the Olympics, O’Sullivan’s competitive instincts remain strong. She still regularly runs, cycles and swims at home in Melbourne.

Whether it’s with a Fitbit and how many steps you’re getting done today and she’s competing against me, she’s someone who can’t stop, she needs to move. And I understand that, because I am a person that needs to move and needs exercise and likes to do it.

“But I think while [retiring from elite sport] was very difficult initially, she has found her place and was very much involved, she knows what level she’s at.

“I think the surprising thing, which really made me laugh, I’ve run all my life as well, fun runs, half marathons and the like. But she didn’t realise that we existed. She would turn up to these road races. She was very successful at it. They would drop her off at the start line, the gun would go and she’d run. She would finish and then they would pick her up and she’d be gone. So she didn’t know that there were tens of thousands of people behind her.

“Then when she started to make appearances at these events to help people out or whatever, she would run and it just blew her mind that people were talking. You’re running along and people are trying to talk to you. She just couldn’t believe all these people were here and was so shocked at all the different shapes, sizes, ages, and it took her a long time to realise that actually, this is what it’s about.”

sophie-osullivan-is-presented-with-her-silver-medal-by-her-mother-sonia-osullivan Ireland's Sophie O'Sullivan is presented with her silver medal by her mother Sonia O'Sullivan at last year's European Athletics U18 Championships in Gyor, Hungary. Source: Sasa Pahic Szabo/INPHO

Aside from running, O’Sullivan is increasingly a sports fan too, particularly when her daughter Sophie, a promising young athlete in her own right, is competing. There must be great excitement about her future prospects?

“Yes, there is,” Gillian says. “And it’s lovely to see, because Sophie is a very different person to Sonia. Sonia is very straight and disciplined, head down and studious. Whereas Sophie is quite a fun personality — not that Sonia is not, they’re just different people. She’s quite athletic and she is very much doing this for the love of it. She’s very natural, she works hard, she knows what she’s doing.

“But it’s a joy to watch her go through with it. It’s a bit of karma for us watching Sonia watch her, because she’s now knowing what we went through with her [in terms of nerves].

“But Sophie tries her hand at everything. When she was younger, she was playing soccer and basketball, and never did structured training, which was a really good thing. Sonia has never pushed her.

“They walk everywhere, they cycle and it was all incidental-type training. Now obviously that she’s older and she’s serious, she does have quite a bit of structured training.”

Of course, following in her mother’s footsteps is a big ask, and if Sophie can come anywhere close to matching what Sonia achieved, she would be doing extraordinarily well.

Gillian puts her sister’s legacy into perspective.

She clearly had a belief in herself and a sheer determination that she was going to do it. She also worked very hard. It doesn’t come without a price. She was single-minded for a long time. She did what she wanted to do to achieve what she did. I think that you need to sacrifice some things if you do that. People’s lives are different and people’s lives will turn out differently depending on what they’re willing to sacrifice.

“And also, failure is not always a bad thing. She is someone who learned from her mistakes and learned from failing and moved on and it made her a better person. I think she’s stronger [as a result]. I don’t know anyone who is as strong as her mentally. She’s my sister and I will tease her as much as any sister has teased her siblings. I can say things to her that other people can’t. But she’s always been an inspiration to me. I’ve always had her back. And if I need support for anything, I know I can always ask her. She’ll help me and she’ll find something out, or she’ll guide me in some direction.

“And she’s never judged me. I’m clearly not an athlete. But I’m very athletic and very involved in what I do. And she would always support me and understand that my goals are very different to hers, but they’re still goals, and I think that’s important.”

- First published today at 15.46

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Paul Fennessy

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