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16 for 16: The most important Irish athletes of the last 100 years - Sonia O'Sullivan

Despite her successes, the Cork athlete could well still wonder what might have been in her career.

Sonia O'Sullivan in 1995 after winning gold.
Sonia O'Sullivan in 1995 after winning gold.
Image: Tom Honan/INPHO

SONIA O’SULLIVAN IS the ninth subject in our series of articles focusing on the most important Irish sportspeople of the last 100 years. The list will include GAA players, Olympians, boxers, golfers and more who dared to dream.

The first race Sonia O’Sullivan remembers running was for the Community Games. A far cry from World Championship gold medals, the prize may have have been just a lollipop from Sister Rosario but, as she says in her autobiography, it was at that moment she realised that racing itself was its own reward.

O’Sullivan was born on 28 November 1969, to Mary and John. Alongside her brother Tony and sister Gillian, she grew up in Cobh and it was in the Co Cork town that she first learned to love running.

It helped that she was consistently late for school so was always forced to run the half mile from her family home. The geography of Cobh is also particularly suited to running training and, even if she wasn’t aware of it at the time, the terrain was building a super athlete.

O’Sullivan ran her first cross-country event at the age of 13 in Middleton and while it wasn’t an easy race, she was soon crowned East Cork cross-country champion.

After realising she had something that made her different from the girls she was racing against, O’Sullivan sought out a coach and Sean Kennedy was the man for the job. Kennedy would print out training plans for O’Sullivan that the youngster would photocopy and use, not realising they could be reprinted.

She told Kennedy she wanted to be the best in the world, he told her it could happen. In her autobiography O’Sullivan said:

“Running soaked into my being until it was a part of me. I would run home in the dark from anywhere I might be because I felt safer. I’d disguise colds and even flu within the house in case I would be prevented from going out for a run.”

Sonia O'Sullivan 1988 O'Sullivan win the World Cross Country Champioships 1998. Source: Allsport/INPHO

The dream of becoming the world’s best saw O’Sullivan take her first tentative steps on the international track stage at the 1990 European Championships in Croatia where she finished 11th in the 3000m.

The following January, at the age of 21, the world really sat up and took notice of the Cork athlete when she set a new indoor world record for the 5000m, beating the previous best by more than five seconds.

That July, she won gold in the 15oom and silver in the 3000m at the World University Games and her performances over the following year ensured she qualified for the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona.

O’Sullivan was leading the 3000m final in Spain around the last bend and a nation stood poised to celebrate a first Olympic athletics gold since Ronnie Delany in 1956.

However, she was overtaken by Yelena Romanova and Tetyana Dorovskikh — representing a Unified Russia — in the home straight leaving O’Sullivan to battle it out with Angela Chalmers of Canada.

The Cork woman finished an agonising fourth, a result made all the worse by the news a year later that Dorovskikh had tested positive for steroids. The Russian athlete was also allowed keep her Olympic medal as retrospective bans didn’t exist.

Unperturbed, by the time the 1993 World Athletics Championships in Stuttgart rolled around, O’Sullivan was the clear favourite for both the 1500m and 3000m titles. However, over the longer distance, she once again had to settle for fourth after being beaten by three previously unheralded Chinese athletes Qu Yunxia, Zhang Linli and Zhang Lirong.

She bounced back in the 1500m to claim a silver but, once more, it was a Chinese athlete — Liu Dong – who denied her top spot on the podium.

Again though, all was not what it seemed. According to Chinese state media reports this year, all nine of the so-called ‘Ma’s Army’ who ran at the World Championships were forced to take “large doses of illegal drugs over the years”; a doping regime that was exposed by one of their leading runners – Wang Junxia –who won the 10,000m in Stuttgart.

Determined to prove herself the best in the world, O’Sullivan ran world-leading times across nearly all the middle distance events but, at the Gothenburg World Championships in 1995, she knew she had to win a gold to be truly regarded as great.

In Sweden, O’Sullivan was forced to choose between the 1500m and 5000m and though she was unbeaten in the longer distance, she knew she’d have to face off with Portugal’s Fernanda Ribeiro who had just set a new world record.

With two laps left, O’Sullivan was guaranteed a medal as she sat on the shoulder of the Portuguese athlete but everyone, not least the athlete herself, knew that was not good enough.

With 250m to go, all those hours running late to school, the countless miles put in training up and down the hills of Cobh, came to fruition as she strode like a colossus to the front of the field and to the top of the world, the first ever women’s 5000m world champion.

Sonia O'Sullivan with her gold medal 1995 O'Sullivan finally takes the top spot on the podium. Source: Tom Honan/INPHO

There would be disappointment for O’Sullivan at the 1996 Olympic Games as illness put paid to her chances but she bounced back with gold in both the 5000m and 10,000m at the European Athletics Championships in 1998 and was agonisingly close to finally winning an Olympic gold in 2000 only to be denied by Gabriela Szabo who, while she never failed a doping test, was found to have a banned substance in her car by French police in 2003.

Still, few would argue that O’Sullivan was not the finest female distance athlete of her generation and her legacy will be the countless Irish athletes of both sexes heading to Rio this August who name-check the Cork woman as an inspiration.

Over the next three months, in association with Allianz Insurance, we’ll be profiling the 16 most important Irish athletes of the last 100 years. 

Allianz Insurance — The world belongs to those who dare.

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