Brendan Foster: ‘We’re looking at the two finest female distance runners in the world…the 10,000m champion, the potential 5,000m champion…and Sonia O’Sullivan is moving out nicely. Is this to be Ireland’s first ever female World Champion? The last lap will tell’.
David Coleman: ‘In a moment, they’ll hear the bell. Ribeiro leads, going for a double, she’s won the 10,000. O’Sullivan in second place, the perfect position for her…still O’Sullivan waits…250 to go…O’Sullivan testing, lengthening her stride…and O’Sullivan gradually striding away…nothing dramatic…just increasing the pace…and Sonia O’Sullivan is going to take the world title back to Ireland and her home city of Cobh! O’Sullivan wins the world 5000m title, the first ever 5000m title…’
– The BBC’s David Coleman (with co-commentator Brendan Foster) commentating on the 1995 World Championships (and giving Cobh city status)
There was a point in the 1990s when it seemed like we were all living in Sonia’s World. Or on Planet Sonia. A grand place to live, as long as our emotions could cope! Yeah, Planet Sonia, Sonia’s World, call it what you like…she had some grip on this country and its people.
When I think of Sonia, two things come to mind before even considering the majesty of her actual performances, or her eventual haul of medals and titles.
Firstly, she achieved that pretty unique honour of being instantly recognisable by first name only (instinctively, so far in this article I’ve only referred to Sonia by her first name). Yes, she had the Elvis factor! We did it with Elvis. With Oprah. Gay. Gazza. DJ, as in “Ah, Kilkenny should win, DJ will be the difference…”. In politics, we even did it for a period with Charlie. In the mid-1990s, the headline writers reached only for Sonia, hardly ever needing to add on ‘O’Sullivan’.
The second thing that immediately strikes me about Sonia when reflecting on the scale of her achievements and her place in our hearts is the extraordinary extent to which the Cork woman perfectly symbolises what a communal experience is.
When Sonia was limbering up at the start of a big race, virtually the entire country was watching. We knew that to be true. We didn’t need (or have) Twitter to confirm it. We just knew! When Sonia was on TV, the nation paused, then succumbed to her. We entered Sonia’s World. We placed ourselves into her hands, into the dizzying slipstream of her steps, communally awaiting whatever drama the night would bring. Next day, we asked ‘Did you see Sonia?’ Or ‘What did you think of Sonia?’ Often, the morning radio shows, reading the national mood, dissected the latest twist in her rollercoaster career. Once we had aired and shared our joy or hurt over Sonia’s latest track experience, we moved on…until the next time. Whatever it is that makes some sports personalities divisive, had no place in Sonia’s make-up. She could never split opinion. We simply loved her.
She was magnificent.
Heartbreak and glory…
Why did the Irish public love Sonia so unconditionally? The simple answer might be because, on her best days and nights, she was one of the world’s top athletes, an Irish sportstar who could destroy a world class field.
But our relationship with Sonia went much deeper than that. She was embedded deep in our hearts because of what we saw and felt: that incredible combination of honesty, courage and vulnerability.
This is at the core of our relationship with the Cobh woman, what so endeared her to the public. Running can be a lonely pursuit. Especially when you receive knocks, setbacks…as Sonia did. Rarely have I seen a sportsperson of such persistent courage, such honesty. In every race she ran, that honesty of effort was evident…everything left on the track in the pursuit of doing herself justice – and all over a remarkably long career, one that, let’s not forget, was marked by heartbreaks as well as glory. She never stopped believing, even when she sometimes seemed to be shadowed by cruel fate. She was tough…heroically disciplined, focussed, courageous. Sonia just kept running.
A rollercoaster ride
Sonia was an extraordinary sporting figure…part-champion, part-soap opera in running gear. I hesitate to use the ‘soap opera’ term, for fear it might seem flippant. But I use it because Sonia’s extraordinary career did have many dramatic twists and turns. At times it was a drama. Following Sonia was one long, gripping and emotional rollercoaster ride. Maybe it felt this way with Sonia because we were so invested in her fortunes. While she wore her heart on her sleeve, our hearts were usually in our mouths. There were many great wins, but there were harrowing defeats too…when an expected or hoped for victory wasn’t achieved. Most notably, there was crushing disappointment at the 1996 Olympics, when Sonia collapsed (due to illness) during the 5000m final. At times, you almost wanted to look away, but we were running every step, feeling every emotion, with Sonia. Injuries (inevitable over a long career) sometimes plagued her – often with the cruellest timing. Movies have been made about sportspeople who were much less fascinating!
Humble days, before
the doping escalated
The Olympics Games (and other championships) have lost much of their magic now, tainted by doping and dopes, desperate dreamers who felt they had to embrace the darkness.
In the 1980s, we had no idea that use of performance-enhancing drugs by a minority of athletes was becoming a toxic secret norm in a parallel universe which was unknown to us. For most of us, the revelation came courtesy of the Ben Johnson bombshell in 1988. Now, sadly, as with cycling, we watch and wonder.
In the 1980s – before the sport’s credibility at elite level sadly began to ebb – Irish athletes were prominent during a golden era of middle-distance running. Eamonn Coghlan was my hero, yet he didn’t quite stir the emotions like Sonia would a few years later. John Treacy was remarkable, Marcus O’Sullivan, Frank O’Mara and Ray Flynn completing an impressive cast.
At the time, I was working as a journalist in Cavan. One of my big interviews was with an up and coming athlete called Catherina McKiernan. We chatted over the phone. I’m not sure why I didn’t pop out to Catherina’s home in Cornafean. Maybe I didn’t trust my long-suffering Toyota Starlet, by then increasingly resembling the type of car that disintegrated around the hapless clown in that circus act of old. Our conversation was doubtlessly marked by some shyness (her’s and mine). Catherina was humble and modest and on the brink of a greatness that she carried so lightly. It made for a nice feature in The Cavan Leader, in a county where the O’Neills football ruled!
By then, I’d been doing a bit of humble running of my own. I loved it, but didn’t persevere. I ran in the odd road race, usually finishing in the top three or four, feeling the adrenaline rush, while learning how punishing this sport was. Running was enjoyable, rewarding, satisfying…but competing at any level required ferocious commitment, discipline and heart, as draining mentally as it was physically. Joining Longford AC, I was thrown in at the deep end at the Leinster Athletics Finals, where I was instructed to run in a 2000m steeplechase. It was my first time over hurdles. And last!
Meanwhile, Catherina went on to win four World Cross-Country silver medals!
Silver in Sydney
A little while after the Eamonn Coghlan era, along came Sonia, emerging as a major star in the early 1990s. A glorious decade on Planet Sonia followed! She won gold at the 1994 European Championships (3000m), gold in the 5000m at the 1995 World Championships, and double gold (5000m and 10,000m) at the 1998 European Championships. She’s a two-time World Cross-Country Champion (over 4 km and 8 km, both in 1998). There were many more golds and silvers, world records too.
The highlight of Sonia’s career came at the Sydney Olympics in 2000, when she won silver in the 5000m. It was one of the greatest achievements ever by an Irish sportsperson.
‘And joy was her thing’
Where does she rank in the ‘Ireland’s greatest ever sportsperson’ list, if talk of such things we must! I’d place her in the top three, with Brian O’Driscoll and Padraig Harrington. That is how great she was.
Some sportstars can win – achieve greatness even – without really stirring your heart, lifting a nation’s morale. Sonia stopped the nation, every time.
Ah, the memory of those atmospheric nights at top international meetings. A rainy night in Zurich! Gateshead, Oslo! All eyes on Sonia. Familiar gait, legs limbering, eyes utterly focussed…a portrait of discipline, determination, bravery. Her hunger and our hopes resting on her shoulders. The starting gun, and Sonia’s gone, into her stride, sometimes taking an early and commanding lead, more often playing the waiting game. The bell sounds; our eyes remain on the queen in green. So often she cruised over the line first, the strained expression on her face breaking into a satisfied smile.
Reaching out for an Irish flag, she saunters and smiles, knowing so well that on an athlete’s lonely journey, even the greatest natural talent needs to be moulded with sweat, sacrifice, and tears too. The nights of joy make everything worthwhile.
And joy was her thing. She absolutely loved running, including the unseen sacrifice. On her great days, you felt she could keep running forever, for this is what she was born to do.
Sonia. One word. Sonia. Brilliant, brave, unforgettable. What pride and pleasure she gave to Irish sports fans. Sonia…forever a hero in our hearts.