Sonia O’Sullivan: Memories of running the Diamond League still shine

It’s interesting to see how the race formerly known as the IAAF Grand Prix has evolved

Sonia O’Sullivan and Catherina McKiernan running the women’s 5,000m at the IAAF Grand Prix final in Paris on September 3rd, 1994. Photograph: Pascal Rondeau/ALLSPORT

Sonia O’Sullivan and Catherina McKiernan running the women’s 5,000m at the IAAF Grand Prix final in Paris on September 3rd, 1994. Photograph: Pascal Rondeau/ALLSPORT

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Back on the circuit after all these years, and if some things about a day in the life of the professional athlete have changed, other things have stayed the same.

When I started out it was simply known as the IAAF Grand Prix, featuring various meetings and then a final, before evolving into the Golden Four in the 1990s, when the prize for the winners was actually a gold bar, and after that it became the Golden League. Always big meetings in front of big crowds in some of the best stadiums in the world.

Since then it’s evolved again into the Diamond League, and reaches its climax this Friday in Brussels, before the final at the Weltklasse in Zurich next week for those lucky enough to have garnered enough points to earn a spot in the limited fields; eight athletes in lanes events, 10 in distance races and six in the field events.

The Diamond League was created by World Athletics to showcase the finest athletes on the greatest stages outside the World Championships and Olympics, featuring 13 meetings spread across the world from May to August.

It doesn’t matter if you just scrape in with a few points – once in the final, the race starts over to determine the Diamond League champion in that event, who then takes home $30,000 and the rather large and gaudy-looking Diamond League trophy. The final is also held over two days, with the opportunity for some athletes to run in more than one event, and all events are catered for, where before it was selected events each year.

It’s been fascinating to return to the Diamond League events and see things from the other side

I’m back in my assistant coaching role with the Nike training group, based in Portland, Oregon. The first Diamond League meeting after the Tokyo Olympics was the Prefontaine Classic, in Eugene, Oregon, and it took a few casualties, with a number of US-based athletes ending their season with that.

Most were just unwilling to take the risk of one more race after one of the most difficult flights from the US west coast to Europe, especially when it comes to recovery and overcoming the lethargic sleep-deprived effects of a nine-hour time difference, with the first European post-Olympic event taking place just four days later in Lausanne.

Weather the storm

Some athletes managed to weather the storm better than others, like 1,500m Olympic champion Jakob Ingebrigtsen, who set an American all-comers record in the mile and backed it up with a 3,000m win in Lausanne.

Athletes can be seen walking away for the season as each meet goes by, others taking time to rest and recover and with points already in the bank to aim specifically at the Diamond League final in Zurich.

It’s been fascinating to return to the Diamond League events and see things from the other side. As an athlete all you were focused on was resting, fuelling and preparing for each race. It didn’t really matter too much where the hotel was located apart from maybe a nice park to run around and a nice coffee shop to while away the hours in the days leading up to each new event.

Jakob Ingebrigsten of Norway wins the Bowerman Mile during the Wanda Diamond League Prefontaine Classic at Hayward Field on August 21st in Eugene, Oregon. Photograph: Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images
Jakob Ingebrigsten of Norway wins the Bowerman Mile during the Wanda Diamond League Prefontaine Classic at Hayward Field on August 21st in Eugene, Oregon. Photograph: Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

Not a lot has changed since I first competed on the circuit, as we called it back in the 1990s: many of the same faces circulating around the hotel lobby, some of the same hotels and, just last weekend in Paris, the very same track where I competed in the 1994 Grand Prix final alongside Catherina McKiernan for much of the race.

I had no recollection of where we stayed, but the now-dated stadium was so familiar. Just the newly laid blue track gave the event a bit of a facelift.

Back in the ’90s we would source out a hotel map to find our bearings and where we might run. Now, when you are waiting around to fill the day, Google Maps and city bikes give a new freedom to explore far beyond the event transport between the hotel and stadium.

Staying just 10km from the Eiffel Tower, the bonus of electric bikes made the inclines effortless and added exhilaration, cycling through the city’s well planned-out bike lanes cruising alongside the River Seine.

All invited athletes, coaches and managers are treated equally; transport is arranged from the airport or train station to the hotel and stadium as required for training and on the day of the meeting.

All meals are provided once you receive the welcome pack of meal tickets, and in recent times a packet of face masks to wear while indoors. This seamless checking-in process with the welcome desk is often taken for granted by athletes who arrive early.

Only when you see the arrival of athletes from the previous night’s meeting in Lausanne do you see the tiring side of travel and waiting around that goes with travelling from meet to meet – all part the Diamond League season, with many athletes just hanging on for that one last payday at the final in Zurich on September 8th and 9th this year.

Motivated

Even as the season appears to be dragging on, many athletes remain motivated and full of energy to continue to compete at a high level, setting personal bests, national records, stadium records, and some even closing in on some long-standing world records.

Once in continental Europe, the travel options by train open up and the stress of airport security can easily be avoided. This week I took the Eurostar from London to Paris, then a very comfortable train journey from Paris to Brussels ahead of the Ivo Van Damme meeting this week.

With a few exclusive basic rooms available in the sports science building, it can feel like you are living in a science experiment

Some athletes will arrive early to the meeting hotel, while others will find a low-key base where they can settle into a more relaxed training routine and cook their own meals.

The options are endless now, with online booking available to rent houses and apartments, and some athletes have a European base so that they can return to a more familiar setting between races. Teddington in southwest London had always been my base of choice, only this week I have taken the opportunity to see what else is available, and we are staying at a sports campus at Leuven University.

With a few exclusive basic rooms available in the sports science building, it can feel like you are living in a science experiment; still, the clinical environment is convenient to a track, forest and modern and well-equipped gym.

It’s a chance to recover and reboot before taking the 20-minute train journey to the meeting hotel and enter back into the Diamond League world of mealtimes and bus schedules and maybe even an escape on a city bike to check out the surrounding area.

Even for the non-runners it can be a long day waiting around, with the first races not scheduled to take place until late in the evening. The cooler temperatures and falling leaves also add to the challenges the athletes face to keep motivated as the sun quickly sets on the 2021 Diamond League.

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