Sonia O’Sullivan: Olympic debutants have nothing to lose and everything to gain

What’s most important is that athletes leave a mark that they are satisfied with

Sonia O’Sullivan running in the 1,500m at the 1996 Olympics. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Sonia O’Sullivan running in the 1,500m at the 1996 Olympics. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

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The Tokyo athletics programme finally gets under way in the early hours of Friday morning and of the 27 Irish athletes that qualified, 17 will be taking part in their first Olympic Games.

For some more than others this will be a very big deal. It may even seem daunting for some but in many ways it’s how you step into the unknown and make the most of the opportunity.

As many veterans of multiple Olympics will tell you it doesn’t get any easier on the return trip to the Olympic stage and many wish they had taken more advantage of the fearlessness and naivety one can have as a debutant at the Games.

As an athlete at your first Olympics, there is nothing to lose and everything to gain

I can remember well my first Olympic experience in Barcelona in 1992, in truth more clearly than Atlanta, Athens or even Sydney.

It was all so new and exciting and I wanted to see and do as much as I could not for one second thinking that I would be back again just living the moment and every day as it came.

Irish athletes seem to generate more local support than any other nation I have experienced. The ownership of the athletes by their local communities is embraced and promoted.

The positive energy and support can seem overwhelming at times but it can also be a driving force of responsibility to represent your local town and club and school as best you can on the Olympic stage.

Caught off guard

In 1992, I was at home in Cobh and training at the Mardyke track at UCC. I would walk to the station in Cobh, take the train to Cork, walk through the city and pick up a running magazine in Eason to check on my competition while stopping for a coffee and scone at Bewley’s Cafe.

Then I would walk out to the Mardyke and start my session in the afternoon.

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Along the way I would often be stopped and asked “When are you going?”

It always made me laugh as when caught off guard I would reply “Going where?”, forgetting that the whole town of Cobh and people of Cork were behind me as the first and still only Olympian from Cobh had everyone excited and looking forward to watching me step on to the Olympic track.

We have seen it already this week with Mona McSharry in the swimming pool, going all the way to the final of the 100m breaststroke – the first Irish swimmer to reach a final since Michelle Smith in 1996. In her first Olympics, Mona is demonstrating the youthful exuberance and energy you see when an athlete never wants to stop and keep going until they succeed in the final race.

There is no pecking order to adhere to, respect your competitors as you line up but once the gun goes off its game on

As an athlete at your first Olympics, there is nothing to lose and everything to gain, the most important is that you leave a mark that you are satisfied with and could live with if you were never to return to the Olympic stage again.

The time is now to produce the performance of your life, to raise the bar and reach heights that you might not yet believe possible.

There is no greater stage than the Olympic Games and there is no need to be afraid if you have prepared for the competition and the conditions. Of course there also needs to be a sense of realism and with that the ability to relax and deliver a satisfying result that will propel you on to the next level.

In 1992, I took part in the 3,000m, going in to the Games I had set a national record and knew how to win.

That’s the thing with the Olympics; times are irrelevant once you are qualified when you stand on the start line. It’s all about placing to get through each round and on to the next, who doesn’t want to get back out and race again.

Irish athletes need to be desperate to progress further through the rounds and run each race like it’s the final. In the heats in 1992, I won convincingly. I wasn’t saving anything as I wanted to be certain I would be back out on the track for the final.

I can remember the Irish media were all excited as I came off the track, Peter Byrne, Tom O’Riordan, Brendan Mooney, they were never far away. I would later refer to them as The Usual Suspects as wherever I turned up to race in the world for years afterwards, the three amigos were never far behind.

It was like they practised the scripts and each had a different question and then they would all share the answers while reporting for three different newspapers.

I remember Tom asking did I not think about easing down in that final 200m and saving something for the final, that 30 seconds for the final half lap, did it not take something out of me?

Outsmart

I hadn’t even thought of the final yet I was so happy and excited to have got through the heat and felt fantastic. In my mind it would’ve taken more energy to ease back and worry about someone sneaking up on the inside or outside as we approached the finish line.

There is something about making a statement and not waiting your turn to shine, while the elders are trying to outsmart themselves why not get out there and shake things up?

There is no pecking order to adhere to, respect your competitors as you line up but once the gun goes off its game on, and whoever has the determination and will to proceed to the next round will find a way.

If you look back down through the history books winners will always find a way and they make certain that they get to the next round, never sneaking in on a wing and a prayer.

The true championship runners rise to the occasion, and know what’s required and how to make it happen. The racing brain kicks in and any times and limitations are cast aside as you work out how to get in a qualifying position, it’s all about placing and racing and wanting to get back out there no matter what.

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