Sonia O'Sullivan's failure to finish race shocks fans

JOHN O'Sullivan, from whose gentle stoic face his daughter draws her features, stood in the thick of the storm. Cameras

JOHN O'Sullivan, from whose gentle stoic face his daughter draws her features, stood in the thick of the storm. Cameras. Recorders. Officials. Questions. Questions. Questions.

"Lads", said John quietly, "nobody died tonight."

Nobody died. Yet there were the tears and keenly felt grief of a wake as Sonia O'Sullivan's career came apart at the seams on the (night which was supposed to mark her coronation as the world's greatest middle distance runner.

In one of the most astonishing and poignant twists of these Olympic games, she failed to finish her 5,000 metres final, vanishing quickly and in tears into the Georgia night.


"She'll be back," said John O'Sullivan. "We'll all talk tomorrow."

The shock has scarcely registered. Sonia O'Sullivan, the indomitable force in her field for three years had just left the track with two laps of the 5,000 metres Olympic final left.

The principal drama of the night had been robbed of its most scintillating character. The world looked for answers rather than track times or winners quotes.

Shock and disbelief. Tears streaming down her face, she packed her gear into a small black rucksack, slipped into a white tee shirt and black leggings and fell into the embraces of her loved ones.

Quick whispered words with her physio, Ger Hartmann, and then she just vanished beyond the eyes of the press. These wounds will take some healing.

The nature of those wounds remains a mystery. No explanation was left behind. The forensic examination of the race revealed little either. There had appeared to be bumping in the field on the fourth or fifth lap, but no incident more robust than the sort which O'Sullivan usually takes in her stride. Nothing else.

Following the pattern of the heats, the early running last eight had been made by Sara Wedlund, the mono paced Swedish runner.

Olympic finals aren't occasions for frail hearts, however. By the 1,000 metre mark, O'Sullivan's friend and sometime training partner, Pauline Konga, was taking the field through in 3:06.15 and O'Sullivan was looking safe and comfortable.

With six laps to go after much shuffling, Konga still led as the field suddenly strung out. Alarmingly, O'Sullivan, looking heavy limbed and sluggish, found her self trailing the field badly. The deficit opened up further and further over the following 400 metres and when Sonia O'Sullivan's face shot up on the huge videotrons in the Olympic stadium there was no doubt that she was struggling.

With four laps to go, running as if on a floor of glue, pale and wreathed in sweat, she was some 100 metres off the pace being set by Pauline Konga and the Chinese runner Wang Junxia.

The cluster of Irish flags which brightened the elegant stadium hung limp and redundant.

With two laps remaining, O'Sullivan came around the bend and slipped straight out of the stadium down the exit tunnel, leaving 83,000 spectators and a worldwide television audience baffled and mystified. Her departure left Wang Junxia of China and Pauline Konga of Kenya to take the gold and silver medals respectively.

It was a night when the fates had appeared to be conspiring approvingly with the Cobh woman's ambition. The much feared Atlanta humidity never materialised, a balmy Georgia evening freshened by a light breeze providing the backdrop for one of the games set pieces. Regardless of the pace, it was whispered, O'Sullivan was never going to want for kick in the closing stages.

We never got to see the closing stages.

"I don't know what's wrong," said John O Sullivan, forced in a time of pain to answer a million hasty questions. "We spoke today and she was in top form. She went driving around at about 4 o clock and she was in feeling great. I just don't know. It must have been bad to make her quit a race.

It was at a children's party in John O'Sullivan's Cobh workplace when she was five years old that Sonia O'Sullivan's running life began, a life which brought her numerous national school championships, a Villanova university scholarship and a fourth place in the 3,000 metres event in the Barcelona Olympics four years ago.

Sonia O'Sullivan' has hit setbacks before, but none as shocking or as debilitating as this. The possibility of recovery and rehabilitation in time for the 1,500 metres race later this week will depend on the precise nature of whatever affliction befell her last night.

If her record of fighting against the odds is anything to go by, we will see her running again this, week. Encouragingly, as she left the Olympic stadium the signs of distress were emotional rather than physical.

Nobody died. The sun will rise this morning. So will Sonia O'Sullivan.

. In the boxing ring, there were, mixed fortunes. Francis Barrett fought a game fight, but was well beaten by the Tunisian Fathi Missaqui. Barrett took the fight to Missaqui, but was out foxed by" his more experienced opponent, who eventually won out 18-6.

There was success, however, for Ireland's main boxing medal hope, Damaen Kelly. The Belfast boxer beat the Australian, Hussain Hussein, 27-20.