Ireland's last Golden Girl: Sonia O'Sullivan
A world champion in 1995, Sonia O'Sullivan competed in four Olympics, won one silver medal and before Ireland’s Chef De Mission headed to London the athletics great sat down to talk to JOE.
By Mark O'Toole
I had just returned home from Athens in 2004 when I watched Sonia run at highest level of athletics one last time...and finished last.
Rather than the joyous scenes of celebration and sense of homecoming that I had experienced on the streets of the Greek capital as the Olympic torch returned to it's ancient home, my abiding memory of that Olympics was watching Sonia run a bittersweet final lap in the 5,000metres and receiving a hero’s reception from the crowd as she crossed the finish line.
Sonia was undoubtedly one of the greatest Irish sports people ever and a legend of athletics, yet there’s a feeling that for all she gave, she deserved more...
More respect from Irish fans at times, more medals such as at the World Championships in 1993 when she finished fourth behind three suspicious Chinese athletes who were barely heard from again, or at the Olympics in 2000 when she was narrowly beaten into second place in that Games' 5,000m by Romanian Gabriela Szabo, of whom concerns regarding doping were later raised.
Despite all my feelings on the matter, Sonia was bubbly, excited and enthusiastic as she prepared for the Olympics, this time in her role as Chef De Mission of the Irish Olympic squad in London. A role she is enjoying and a remarkably shrewd appointment by the Olympic Council of Ireland.
I started by asking her about what she thought she brought to the role.
“I think the one thing that I bring to the team, and it’s not something that you can physically or practically see, it is a positive energy and vibrancy about things, that you can get people moving and excited about stuff, instead of you know...” Sonia slouches her shoulders back, rolls her eyes and starts mumbling impersonating the type of person you meet everyday who is stuck doing a job they don't enjoy, before perking back up and with a smile continuing to talk about a role she clearly enjoys.
“I really love it! When I’m talking to the athletes I am really interested in what they do and how they train and it makes me want to join in! You know from meeting with some of the athletes that I’ve taken up swimming and cycling so now I’m really interested in their sports - more than I ever was before because I was so single-minded, with the blinkers on!”
O’Sullivan was the ideal person to get on board as someone who had experienced the hardship borne of poor administration in the Olympics, notably in 1996 when she was forced to wear Asics ahead of her favoured Reebok. This year the Asics gear for the Olympics was chosen well ahead of time and for Ireland’s 60-plus athletes Sonia was the ideal person to consult in relation to putting them first. As the games approached she began finding the role changing.
“Well it definitely has been an evolving and changing role," she explains "that as we get closer to start of the Olympics has become more realistic and more real and you kinda’ see more of what you actually have to do. We’ve done a lot of preparation to ensure that everything is right for the training camps and for the Olympic village."
“It doesn’t really start properly for me until I’m in the village because you can do all this planning and preparation but until you’re in the place you need to be, that’s when you manage things and make things work.”
O’Sullivan goes on to say that her role will be to ensure that athletes “go to their events as prepared as they possibly can be. “
Sonia also says she’ll get to know the athletes better when they hit the Olympic village. For youngsters like 19-year-old Gráinne Murphy coming into her first Olympics, what will the former athlete and current Chef De Mission be able to do for the less experienced athletes?
“I mean physically they’ll be prepared," says Sonia "but mentally is where you can really help people and sometimes it doesn’t take much – you just need to be relaxed about the whole thing and encouraging and, you know, make the athletes realise that as much expectation and hope that people have of them, that really there is so much going on that they’re just a small little part of the jigsaw and if they do it well, they’ll be recognised for it.”
Sonia was ever the perfectionist when she was competing and like a lot of Corkonians, a fierce competitor. She was relaxed and chilled-out when chatting to JOE, so she is perhaps changed from Atlanta in 1996 when the weight of a nation was on her shoulders, similar to the weight that will be on Ireland’s current golden girl, Katie Taylor.
Sonia's gold medal dreams imploded through a mixture of nerves and illness in 1996. Despite her driven nature did she need someone around her to let her know that the Olympics isn’t the end of the world?
“Yeah well I did have people that said that to me and people that I was a lot more relaxed around. I think that’s what athletes need, they need somebody they can be relaxed around and I’d hope that I can be someone they can be relaxed around after they get to know me first.
“Sometimes people, because they respect you and look up to you, there can be a bit of a wall between you and them for a while but I think when you break that wall down, I think I can be quite a relaxed, easy-going normal person that’s quite happy to go for a walk or a coffee. Just do things normally and break things down into the smallest pieces and make them simple.”
Are you aware that many of the younger athletes, especially in track and field, which is now stronger than ever, would have been inspired to take up their sports to emulate you?
“I am aware that there are a lot of young athletes who, I suppose as kids, would have watched me on TV and they’re in a lot of different sports now. I suppose I don’t really think about it too much, because I don’t like to dwell in the past for too long, but I am happy to see so many top Irish performers across the board and we have seen some very good success. I mean, in international sports, Ireland is really well recognised so why not in the Olympics?”
The strive for excellence is clearly still there, as well as a belief in herself and other Irish sportspeople, but it is tempered now, less ferocious. Sonia was engaged and smiling the whole time, but does the competitive Sonia still make an appearance when she is watching her own children Ciara and Sophie compete these days?
“Ah I’d be fairly quiet now, but I’d still get excited without trying to make too much of a show of myself!” she answers.
Do you get to go to many events with them?
“Oh absolutely! I get a buzz taking them to sporting events and my youngest daughter quite enjoys athletics events and I take her along and we have a bit of fun. I think she just likes the idea of being around other kids and she’s always up for a chat and a laugh,” she says with pride.
As the next few weeks unfold Sonia will get to know the athletes even better in her role, but does she think she’ll miss the competitive action?
“Ah I think I’ve gone past that now at this stage, but there are times when you would love to be competing because it’s a hell of a lot easier than not competing and it’s a lot of fun too!
“For me training was such good fun, now I have to squeeze in training in between things and I still love to train and to do things. Like I can’t run as fast I used to, but I love to swim and cycle and do other things and I really have to because otherwise I wouldn’t have the energy I need to get out there and inspire people.
"So I’ll definitely need time to get out there and have a race with someone or do something silly!”
So if you’re at the Olympics or touring around London over the next few days, you might not need to go to the stadium to see Ireland’s greatest Olympian, she may just run past, this time just to enjoy herself.