O'Sullivan's Atlanta wounds have yet to heal


SONIA O'SULLIVAN was addressing the latest problem in a difficult phase of her career after finishing out of the medals, and out of sorts, in the World Cross Country Championship.

It is, sadly, an all too familiar exercise these days for a gifted athlete who rebuilt her career with spectacular success after being run over by a troupe of mysterious Chinese athletes in the 1993 World Championships at Stuttgart.

That was until a misadventure of truly Olympian proportions in Atlanta last summer, stripped her of that aura of invincibility and ate into her self-confidence, to the point where even the basics were being questioned.

Now the soul searching has been resumed and old, unanswered questions are in the public domain again after she had drifted off the pace in inexplicable fashion on the last lap of Sunday's race in Turin.

The first thing which needs to be said, perhaps, is that this latest mishap, scarcely warranted the pessimism which O'Sullivan herself generated in her post-race interview.

To finish in the top 10 in a race of this quality after five years away from, cross country running, was certainly not the disaster which she described.

Part of the problem, it seems, is that her fixation for rehabilitation is such that every blip is exaggerated, every error magnified in the search for the formula which deserted her in Atlanta.

That point made, there is, unquestionably, a need for her to sit down with her advisers and look again at the options open to her this summer. There is a theory that this kind of challenge is best handled through competition and that if she continues to run at the top level, she will eventually emerge renewed.

The counter argument is that it would be advisable for her even in World Championship year, to take time out to appraise her situation, to discover where she's at and where she hopes to go.

If the monetary rewards in international sport been never been greater, neither have the pressures which go with them. And after seven years of non-stop competition at the highest level, it may be that O'Sullivan can benefit from a break.

Now, some honest questioning and valid answers are called for. The scars of last year's Olympic Games are, perhaps, even more painful for her than we had imagined and this at a remove of almost nine months.

Her assertion that her problems in Turin were more psychological than physical, reinforced a theory that was first articulated in Atlanta. That belated admission could be the start of the process of full rehabilitation, but for the moment, at least, the tribulations of our finest athlete are on-going.

Meanwhile, the showpiece of the cross country season is to be given a new sense of direction in Morocco next year when, for the first time, it will be expanded into a two-day event.

A men's 5,000 metres championship and a women's race over 4,000 metres are to be added to the programme, according to Primo Nebiola, the IAAF's controversial president, who says that the survival of the championships as one of the most important events on the athletics calendar rests in their ability to adapt to change.

The move, one imagines, is driven, in the first instance, by television demands and by extension, the dictates of sponsors and advertisers and is designed to present a more marketable package to those with commercial interests in the sport.

The appeal of the changes is that they will entice 1,500-metres and others with similar to embrace a facet of the sport which many of them have shunned in the past. The prospect of such attractive programming will make the television moguls even more receptive.

Among those who listened to the proposal with some misgiving, were officials of the Northern Ireland AAA who, led by the former, Olympic champion, Mary Peters, who were in Turin on a fact finding mission.

Their original budget was based on a one-day festival and the sums will now need to be re-examined as they prepare to stage the World Championships for the first time in 1998.

Matthew Douglas has been given a three months drug ban by the International Amateur Athletics Federation.

The Milton Keynes runner tested positive for the banned stimulant ephedrine after the Scottish Indoor Athletics Championships at Glasgow's Kelvin Hall in January.

Douglas had finished second to Jamie Baulch in the 400 metres.