Olympians converge on Loughrea for rematch

 

Martin Collins couldn't believe his good fortune. The Loughrea Athletic Club official had just popped in to a friend's house for a glass of water when he found not one, but two, Olympian women at his shoulder. British athlete Paula Radcliffe and Irish silver medallist Sonia O'Sullivan were both looking for a loo.

Over the road, several young girls were shrieking with delight. They had just caught a glimpse of Nick Bideau, O'Sullivan's partner, complete with Australian tan, wheeling their daughter, Ciara, by the lakeside in a royal blue jogging buggy.

It was that sort of atmosphere in the town yesterday, when its population trebled for the Loughrea Athletic Club's annual five-mile road race. Named after its "grey lake" (Baile Locha Riach) and famous for hanging a man named Stoney Brennan who was convicted of stealing a turnip, it is used to sports celebrities: Britain's Sebastian Coe, Ireland's Eamon Coghlan and Olympic silver medallist John Treacy have all left footprints on its narrow streets.

However, the confirmation of both Paula Radcliffe and Sonia O'Sullivan for this year's BUPA Ireland event was regarded as something of a coup. Not everyone was that enthusiastic. Elite athletes attract "elite" media coverage, muttered one local sports official, and the usual megaphone race commentary by the organisers had to be curtailed to facilitate live television coverage. The start was stage-managed, with the faster women setting off two minutes before the mass event.

Even the route was changed, to facilitate international standards. Paula Radcliffe holds the official world record for the distance, at 24 minutes 47 seconds. Last year, however, Sonia O'Sullivan ran the race just three months after her baby was born, and set a time of 27 minutes, 27 seconds. It was not given official approval as the downhill stretch of the course breached IAAF gradient rules.

If O'Sullivan had any second thoughts about her promise to return, she didn't show it after finishing two minutes behind Radcliffe, who cruised in, head bobbing and plait flying, to loud hoots and cheers. O'Sullivan said she had a "good run around", loved the crowd, enjoyed the sun, but admitted: "I just couldn't do it today." A strong southerly gale didn't help, but she wasn't letting herself off the hook.

Minutes later, she was besieged by enthusiastic young autograph hunters and had to be rescued by Sgt Fiachra McGrath and his team. "A fantastic day for Loughrea," Sgt McGrath said, adding that five months of planning had paid off.