John Treacy and Sonia O’Sullivan: World-beaters who became lasting icons of Irish sport

‘The tide is definitely rising around women’s sport, and long may that continue’

John Treacy remembers exactly where he was when he first took notice of Sonia O'Sullivan.

Cork City Sports, July 1987, spectators three or four deep around the perimeter of the track at the Mardyke, and out of the proverbial nowhere a 17-year-old from nearby Ballymore Cobh AC comes from some distance down to win the 3,000 metres.

“I would have been warming up for the 5,000m later on, and seeing Sonia win that race we all knew then, even as a teenager, she had just done something sensational. Running an Irish junior record too, which I believe still stands. I think that was the night we all took notice.”

Sonia O’Sullivan can’t remember exactly where she was when she first took notice of John Treacy, although she does remember the first few times she went running with him.


Teddington, southwest London, sometime in the autumn of 1993, when Treacy stopped off at O’Sullivan’s training base before coming home to win the Dublin Marathon.

“I still remember these runs, nearly even what we were talking about, like it was yesterday, running up the towpath near Hampton Court Palace. I was flying, and John was trying to slow me down. I was used to doing every run hard, John liked his easy days easy. He was that age maybe when it took a little longer to warm up.”

They were born in neighbouring counties, 12 years apart, and by the time of their retirements would share a lot more than just the winning of their Olympic silver medals – Treacy in the marathon in Los Angeles 1984, O'Sullivan in the 5,000m in Sydney in 2000.

Treacy was already a two-time world cross-country champion, in Glasgow 1978 and Limerick 1979, before O'Sullivan turned 10; in 1998 O'Sullivan become the only other Irish athlete in history to win gold in that event, completing a long/short course double in Marrakesh.

They both set numerous Irish records across a range of distances, and became lasting icons of Irish sport not because of their male or female domination but simply because they were absolute world-beaters, among the very best in the world at what they did.

They also both chose to pursue their early running careers on the US scholarship trail, to some considerable success, which is a neat starting point too for this conversation.

No regrets about that, presumably?

JT: "No, though I've always believed it's horses for courses, and some athletes are more suited to staying at home, others to the more competitive American environment, and Sonia certainly proved that too. Not just in terms of training with runners of equal ability, but getting high level competition on a consistent basis.

“In my time in college in the US I became a world-class athlete, and so Sonia did the exact same. That’s because of the nature of Sonia too, she’s highly competitive, tough as nails, and has a real desire and inner drive to achieve. She had all the right mentality, which is something I think you are born with, really.”

SO'S: "At that stage there weren't very many other options – going to America is what most people did – and I'd made my mind up early about going to Villanova. I always saw it as a great opportunity.

"I do remember John would have talked to me around that time about going to Providence College, where he went, and where his brother Ray was the head coach. I don't remember exactly what the conversation was except that John was very well known, and to have his brother coaching in Providence was a big deal. But it didn't change my mind, I wanted to go to Villanova."

When or where did your careers first begin to cross paths?

JT: "When Sonia was in Teddington, and I used pass through there as well, and by then she was very close to Marcus O'Sullivan and Frank O'Mara as well, who would always be talking about her. But this was the latter half of my career, and the start of her career, when we'd be going off to some of the same meetings.

“She might occasionally come to me for some advice, only Sonia would make up her own mind on things. That’s the way she was. You could advise her, and she might take the advice on, but ultimately she’d stick to her own decision.”

SO'S: "Before the Barcelona Olympics, in 1992, we were at a training camp in South of France, John was running the marathon, on the last day, and he came in fairly late, and I remember we used to joke 'well, we have to beat John over 300m, he's a marathon runner'. But he was quite fast, actually. Marcus and Frank would joke about that, messing like bit. John was a bit more serious, at a different level to me really, he was very focused on winning a medal, had all his preparations down to a T. It being my first Olympics, I was having a bit more fun, a bit more relaxed. They were definitely the most memorable Olympics for me."

What are your respective memories of each other’s Olympic silver medal wins?

JT: "Well I was in Sydney, somewhere up in the stand, with a few other Irish around me. I remember around 3,000m too, watching it and getting the fright of my life. I thought she was gone. Suddenly she gets back into it again, with four laps to go. I knew she'd be there at the end.

"That last 100m we're just roaring our heads off. We were all so drawn into the moment. I think initially there is some disappointment, when Szabo just beats her on the line, but then you're elated that she wins silver.

“Later that evening we all realised the enormity of her achievement. I knew it would stand to her because it is a fantastic achievement to get a silver medal in the Olympic Games. Especially when you remember it looked like she was out of it, then emerges with a silver medal. It was a phenomenal run. And in some ways typical of Sonia it wasn’t always straightforward.”

SO'S: "I can certainly remember watching LA the following morning. I don't know what time it went out live here, but we had this small little television in the kitchen and I can remember the marathon being on there when we got up. But we didn't stay up that night, that wasn't really the thing in our house, to be staying up late watching stuff.

“So 1984 I was what, 14? So I was starting to get into a running a little bit. And I can remember reading and looking at pictures of John Treacy in The Irish Runner magazine, coming back from LA, all the crowds of people around him. But it wasn’t until years later that I learnt anything about his world cross-country wins or anything like that.”

"So I was certainly aware of the Olympics at that point. Carl Lewis was really big in LA 84, and I also remember listening to the radio commentary of Marcus O'Sullivan, running in the 1,500m heats, when we were coming back from summer holidays. Then with John winning his silver medal, all these little things, without being a huge influence, and you may not realise at the time, but I would remember those moments a lot more than Cork hurling or football, things like that."

You both had overcome some considerable adversity before winning those Olympic medals, Treacy enduring a chronic back injury in 1983, before uprooting to the US again, O’Sullivan the breakdown in Atlanta. Did that create any lasting doubts?

JT: "No, because that's all part of the belief. After 1983, I still had the belief I could get back there, compete on the world stage. And Sonia the same after 1996. She just started doing the right things again, put the past behind. Ability will always manifest itself if you give it the room.

“In distance running there’s no easy way, only one way, and that’s hard work. You have to live the sport, day and night. Some balance, yes, but you have to be fixated at the same time. I always believed if anything got in the way of my training I wasn’t going it, simple as that. Sonia had that same mentality, centring every day around what she needed to do.

“You just train incredibly hard. We certainly ran some easy miles, on the recovery days, but when the hard sessions come around, there wouldn’t be too many people who could live with you.”

SO'S: "Definitely I had the same mentality. I never once thought about giving up, or throwing it away. Not once. You may not have all that old belief but you know you can find it again at some point. It's still out there somewhere. So I never lost hope for any length of time.

“I do remember in the mid-1990s, after Atlanta, John might call up and request a meeting. I can’t remember anything specific, it was just about giving me a bit more belief and hope, because he still had that in me. When that comes from someone as good as John, who’s been there, done that, it does add a bit of reassurance that you’re still doing the right thing. So I never really doubted myself even though maybe some other people did. You are out there on your own for a lot of time, so after 1996, when he retired, we would occasionally meet, I’d stay in his house once or twice, and he’d always have a reassuring word.”

Athletics is fairly unique sport in that for a long time now men and women have competed on equal footing, without some of the gender imbalances that still exist in some other sports.

JT: "As long as I've been running, cross-country or on the track men and women were always celebrated equally. Sonia came just after me, and then look too at Catherina McKiernan, and the way she was celebrated in cross-country. That was always second to none. In the sport of athletics that whole gender issue didn't really exist. Not like it existed in other sports.

“If you look at what’s happened in recent times with women’s rugby, women’s soccer, the progress has been phenomenal. All players need to feel respected, and there shouldn’t be any difference between men and women. It’s kicked on very substantially.”

SO'S: "It's one of the reasons I've always had trouble being very vocal about women in sport, because it took me a long while to realise so many other sports didn't have it the same as athletics did. I didn't always want to be comparing either, but I definitely felt I was always valued, never had anything to complain about. I realise it's not always the same.

“And I’m always amazed the number of women when they take about women in sport, I’m one of the names they call out, someone who they saw was the leading the way for women in sport, when I never knew that at the time. I’m more aware of that now, can maybe use that voice and platform now a little more. Maybe I was more insular, was doing my own thing, and nothing else was important.”

Over the courses of your careers you also both almost certainly lost out to athletes who were taking drugs, O’Sullivan especially when you think of the infamous Chinese in 1993. Does that still get to you?

JT: "That's a sad reality, for Sonia definitely, she certainly has missed out on a lot of major medals. For her own sanity you can't dwell on that. All you can do at the end of your career is reflect on what you did, the wins you got. It would drive you nuts if you start to think about it."

SO'S: "It doesn't creep any more into me, but I do get some younger athletes now, athletes 22, 23 that I'm coaching, they're looking up my career, and they say 'you could have been double world champion, or world record holder'. But honestly right now it wouldn't change anything, maybe back then it would, but maybe then I wouldn't have kept fighting for a long as did, kept banging on trying to do better. I think some of that makes you stronger,

You must both realise how special an achievement it is to win an Olympic silver medal in athletics, especially given it may be a very long time before Ireland wins another, if at all.

JT: "When Sonia was at her peak I said then we'd never see her likes again, at least not too often. The way she dominated the Grand Prix circuit, she was unbeatable, 1,500, 3,000m, the best in the world by a long way.

“In future I do think more of our Olympic medal-winners will be women, in women’s teams also. The tide is definitely rising around women’s sport and long may that continue. I’d love to see it in track and field, but making that transition from junior to senior is extremely difficult. I certainly believe there is another Sonia O’Sullivan in some country town or village in Ireland, and hopefully the time will come when we see her on the Olympic stage.”

SO'S: "Every time the Olympics come round again you realise just how hard it is to win a medal in athletics. I'm not sure at the time I fully appreciated that. I suppose I knew how to do it, I just needed to get everything right on the day.

“And I think that’s the difference with a lot of the athletes we have going to the Olympics now, they don’t know how to do it. I think John was the same, he knew what was required. He trained really hard and specific, and I would have been the same, but you just knew in your head how to do this. The hard part was getting it all right on the day, have everything fall into place at the right time.

“We’ve always felt that. I don’t know John really well, but whenever we meet up it feels like we do. He’s a slightly different era, but when you’re growing up and you see these great athletes, you think there might be something different about them. Then you meet then, John, Frank and Marcus, and you realise how normal they are. You didn’t have to be any different. I hope that message still gets out to our younger athletes, that you don’t have to be different in any way, you can be normal, and still do extraordinary things.”