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Sonia O’Sullivan: It’s not about the medals any more

Latest revelation of Chinese athletes doping confirms I was the best in the world in 1993

Sonia O’Sullivan on her way to finishing second in the 1500m at the 1993 World Championships in Stuttgart. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

When you’re rushing around in the morning, trying to get your oldest daughter to school for her final exams, there isn’t much time to worry about the doping of Chinese athletes. Life goes on. 

Ciara needed to be there an hour early and, with pressure like that, you get up and go when you say you will. No time to scroll through the phone and read some of the overnight emails and text messages.

I did have one quick glance as we raced out the door, and noticed a few similar messages . . . “breaking news about Chinese athletes”.

Then I made sure we had all we needed: school bags, lunches, sports gear, drinks, and Snowy, the dog. Once you’re out in the Melbourne traffic there’s no coming back

Only after the girls were safely dropped off on time and I let Snowy out for a sniff around the park did I begin to scroll through some of the messages and open some of the links. And the first thing I thought was – ‘here we go again’. 

I’d a few emails from John Treacy, and only had to read one to get the story. More revelations about the Chinese athletes, this time from a former team doctor, Xue Yinxian, who told German broadcaster ARD over the weekend that all medals won by the Chinese athletes in the 1980s and 1990s should be handed back, such was the systematic level of doping within the country at the time. 

To me it sounded no different to the story earlier last year and the revelations of doping in a letter signed by the group of Chinese athletes that I raced against in 1993, nearly 25 years ago already. But still there’s been no update in the months since. 

At the time, I received two very similar emails to what I received this weekend. In one there was an official comment from the IAAF stating that the next step was to verify the existence of such a letter. They were, they said, looking into it. 

Only now I find it hard to believe there was much digging to unearth the letter or indeed the truth. Even if there was, surely there should be some update, whether that is positive or negative at this stage.

People sometimes stop me in the street and ask about those Chinese revelations and the medals from 1993. What do I think about it now?

Illegal means

To me it’s not about the medals anymore, but the satisfaction of knowing that I ran the best I could on the day. And that, in my mind, I was the best in the world over 3,000m and 1,500m at those Stuttgart World Championships in 1993, that those in front of me were aided by illegal means, and as a result should be disqualified.

It’s not really much different to what we thought all those years ago. It’s just people are more willing to talk now and speak out and search for answers.

There was actually no elation watching that Chinese doctor give her interview to German TV, just contentment to see some of the relief on her face, acknowledging the wrong that had been done and was silenced all this time, free now to tell her story and not feel bound by others, even so late in life.

At the same time the governors of sport have a lot to answer for and need to start lifting up that rug and clean out everything that’s been swept underneath. There is a great big IAAF annual statistics book that needs to be taken off the shelf and a thick black marker put to work.

Back in 1993, people were afraid to open up. We were still mostly trusting in the sport, that everyone was running fair until proven otherwise, mostly content to put our livelihoods in the hands of the drug testers.

Once again I feel athletes that have cheated down through the years have been better looked after than the clean athletes, who so often lost out on that moment of glory which can never be given back.

Still, when you were completely focused on trying to be the best distance runner in the world, you couldn’t stop and dwell on what might, or might not be, going on. That was not my job. My job was to train hard, run fast, and try to enjoy the sport.

Enjoyment is one of the main reasons I still run, although running along the gravel path in the park on Monday I didn’t feel any different. There was no spring in my step or extra joy in my day. It doesn’t always work that way.

In fact I drifted back to thoughts of the weekend, and the Australian schools athletics carnival I had attended all day on Saturday. The girls’ schools competed in the morning, the boys in the afternoon. There was two cups up for grabs for the best school, so every race, every jump, every throw counted in the points tally.

It was a long day at the track, and I dropped my youngest daughter Sophie off early for her school team warm-up, just before 8am. After that Snowy and I could get our few thousand steps in for the day at the local parkrun, around Albert Park lake, conveniently located alongside Lakeside Stadium, the venue for the schools athletics carnival.

Non-stop action

It was non-stop action, with every girl and boy important to their team, doing as much as they could to score the most points. Some schools also had compulsory attendance in the stands for the non-competing students, in school uniforms and all, so there was plenty of cheering and noise from the stands.

This is what the sport is all about, a brilliant buzz, and why to me athletics still is and always will be relevant.

As the day went on I felt like I had run a few races myself, supporting Sophie and her team-mates. Then when coaching a boys’ team in the afternoon I ran a few more in my head, trying to inspire and generate the best result from every runner.

It all felt a world away from what went on in 1993 and all those Chinese whispers. This was all about the simplicity and pureness of sport, young children racing and having fun. It was all about racing and scoring points. Some ran fast, but that was not the priority.

Then I started to wonder where does it all go wrong? When an athlete comes to a fork in the road, why does he or she take the easy option? One of those easy options will always be to cheat.

I never thought there was any way other than hard work, miles and miles of running, hours in the gym. The hardest part was actually when not running, recovering from injury. No short cuts there either, just time to heal.

I believe it’s more important than ever now to empower athletes so that they can make their own decisions, take advice and discuss the options with a coach. Ability, hard work and belief can still match most that try to cut the corners.

Coaches also need to be challenged, because it is a working partnership. Depending on a single person can also lead an athlete down the wrong path. And once you go too far down and there is no way back.

There is a natural progression for athletes to improve and progress, years upon years of training. There are many different ways of achieving greatness, but without doubt the worn trail of hard work is the most gratifying.

Achieving personal success and satisfaction is always far greater than any medals or records derived from cheating, no matter how one justifies their actions.