Sonia O’Sullivan reflects on the golden summer of 1995
It’s 20 years since Ireland’s greatest female athlete claimed 5,000m world glory in Gothenburg
Sonia O’Sullivan celebrates with her gold medal after winning the women’s 5,000m final at the 1995 World Athletics Championships at the Ullevi Stadium in Gothenburg, Sweden. Photo: Mike Hewitt/Allsport
Sonia O’Sullivan raises her arm aloft after winning the 5,000 metres at the 1995 World Championships at the Ullevi Stadium in Gothenburg. Photograph: Mike Hewitt/Allsport
Sonia O’Sullivan of Ireland waves to the crowd after winning the gold medal in the 5,000 metres event at the World Championships at the Ullevi Stadium in Gothenburg, Sweden in 1995. Photograph: Gary M Prior/Allsport
Sonia O’Sullivan takes the final bend ahead of Portugal’s Fernanda Ribeiro on her way to winning the women’s 5,000m final at the 1995 World Athletics Championships at the Ullevi Stadium in Gothenburg, Sweden. Photo: Clive Brunskill/Allsport
Time passes slowly on every long bus journey, and on this one, Sonia O’Sullivan rests her head against the window, stares out across the green fields of home, and gets lost in the dream all over again.
Because in the 20 years since, and in all the years before, no Irish athlete has enjoyed a more dreamlike summer than O’Sullivan did in 1995. Only now, as she begins to look back, does she realise she never allowed herself enjoy it as much as she should; nor, it seems, did certain others.
In the summer of 1995, O’Sullivan ran 22 track races, and won 21 of them. It was the summer of the World Athletics Championships in Gothenburg and her 5,000 metres gold medal run inside the Ullevi Stadium was an exercise in perfection.
It was the summer that earned O’Sullivan the IAAF Athlete of the Year award, unquestionably the leading women’s athlete on the planet. Unbeatable? Not quite, but as good as.
Yet in ways the summer that followed, her sudden fall from grace that was the Atlanta Olympics, somehow eclipsed all of that, at least temporarily, until O’Sullivan ran her ultimate race of redemption in Sydney, 2000. Indeed all those summers impacted on the other, for better or for worse. Now, to help mark her 1995 achievement for its own worth, perhaps highlight the fact we may never see her likes again, comes the staging of the Sonia 5K in Dublin, this Saturday, the chance for everyone to come along and get lost in the dream all over again.
The first thing to remember about 1995 was where exactly O’Sullivan was coming from. It was the summer after 1994, when she’d been equally dominant, winning the European 3,000m title in Helsinki, and two summers after 1993 when, like the rest of the world, the entire landscape of women’s distance running had been shaken by the sudden arrival of the Chinese, under their wildly controversial coach Ma Junren (complete with turtle soup, daily marathons in training, etc).
At the 1993 World Championships, in Stuttgart, O’Sullivan was run out of the 3,000m medals by a trio of Chinese women (none of whom ever appeared on the international stage again), although O’Sullivan did manage to split them in the 1,500m, winning the silver medal behind Liu Dong (who also soon disappeared).
No one could say with absolute authority whether or not the Chinese would show up in Gothenburg, although O’Sullivan doesn’t remember being particularly worried about that. At age 25 she was in her absolute prime and her only worry was whether to run the 1,500m, the 5,000m, or indeed try to run both.
“It was the first major championship race for women in the 5,000m,” she tells me, not long into that bus journey. “Up to then it was always the 3,000m. So I’d actually won the last major title in the 3,000m. But I remember not being entirely sure about running the 5,000m. I actually wanted to run the 1,500m as well, and certainly felt it was possible.
“Thinking back, now, I should have done both. It was like most championships. I was always thinking about a double, and someone was always trying to talk me out of it. And more often than not they did. The 1,500m wasn’t a very difficult race. Although it was a pretty tactical race, so it could have gone either way. I know I was also down to run the Zurich Grand Prix, a few days later, so maybe I was talked a bit into saving myself for other races. Maybe there was some money talking as well.”
Once Gothenburg got underway it was clear the Chinese wouldn’t be coming after all, although there was no fear of O’Sullivan not being ready for them: “It was all rumour, really. The same as 1993, because no one thought they would show up then, either. I had definitely upped the training, and the mileage, since Stuttgart, but that was coming into 1994. Then I ran so well that year I just continued it on, into 1995.”
Then, settled on the 5,000m, O’Sullivan started weighing up the opposition – not through any sense of fear, but respect. In London, a few weeks before, she beat Fernando Ribeiro, from Portugal, running 14:47.95 – the then fifth fastest in history. A week later, Ribeiro came out and ran a world record of 14:36.45, in Belgium.
“But Ribeiro was also doing the 10,000m. I wasn’t going to lose to her, not in a sprint. She didn’t have my speed. I just knew she’d be ready to race. I had to respect her, but I didn’t fear her. Because I know I was absolutely capable of winning that race. I just had to make sure I did everything right. The only person capable of beating me was myself. Because I felt I was prepared for anything. Fast or slow. The one thing that threw me, a little, was when Gabriela Szabo set off really quickly, stuck in a 63-second lap. But that settled down again. I certainly didn’t panic.”
Indeed Szabo, the feisty Romanian who would later deny O’Sullivan Olympic gold in Sydney, wasn’t yet at that level. It was actually Britain’s Paula Radcliffe who did most of the front running, before Ribeiro struck for home, with three laps remaining. O’Sullivan simply sat, sat and then kicked, with exactly 200m to go: 14:46.47, always feeling she had 14:30 in her, if needed. Unstoppable?
“Yes. It was almost matter of fact. I was there to win it, and I did. It would have been a bigger story if I didn’t win. There was pressure, to an extent, but I certainly wasn’t worried, beyond staying out of trouble. And that’s why the one thing I felt at the end, more than anything else, was relief. More than celebration. Because I was expecting to win. So there was no jumping around for joy, like there was in some later races.”
There was a joyous embrace with her father, John, who threw his Irish flag around her neck, before she passed it back. A little further into her lap of honour she was handed another bigger Irish flag, which appeared to be attached to a telegraph pole, and she passed that back too. That’s my memory of it, and O’Sullivan’s memory doesn’t conflict, and together we wonder why this moment of pure elation was promptly turned against her.
“I still can’t understand why such a big deal was made of it. I don’t think people understand that after you run a 5,000m on the track, you’re legs aren’t just tired, but your arms are, too. They’re full of lactic acid, especially after running so fast at the end. And I just wanted to run free around the track for that lap.
“Obviously there was some discussion about it, right afterwards. John Treacy was there, doing some work for RTÉ, and he interviewed me the next day, and suggested I wear this green Irish cap, with a big shamrock on it. And I thought that made it worse. I just wanted it to leave it at that. I couldn’t believe that after you win something like that, people are trying to find holes in it.
“Then Paul Kimmage wrote something, for one of the Sunday papers. I certainly never read the papers back then. It was all before the internet, so you wouldn’t be reading them online, like you do now. The only time I ever looked at the papers back then was to look at the pictures. I never read the articles, because they certainly didn’t matter to me. So I certainly didn’t read what Paul Kimmage wrote. But I’ve nothing against him. I know what Paul is like.”
Indeed the only thing that makes her uncomfortable thinking back on that lap of honour, now, is not the flag incident, but her haircut: “Like, super short. Don’t know what I was thinking. I know I’d been training in Australia earlier that year, and it was hot down there, at the time. So it was just more convenient to keep it short. Then of course it takes a while to grow back, because you have to keep trimming, so it doesn’t get too bushy.”
There are brighter memories of the aftermath of that race, including her prize of a ruby red Mercedes-Benz E-Class, even if she never once drove it. “I did a deal with Kim McDonald (her coach), because he actually wanted the car. Later, after Kim died, the car ended up with Alan Storey, when he was coaching me. So that car hung around for a while. It was a bit of a boat alright.”
O’Sullivan wouldn’t have found much time to drive that Mercedes even if she wanted to. Four days after Gothenburg, she raced in Zurich; two days after that, Cologne; then Brussels, London, Berlin, Rieti, Rome, Monte Carlo, Tokyo, and finally, Johannesburg – winning every single one of them. If that didn’t boost confidence in a pre-Olympic year nothing could. Yet was there any fear it was taking its toll?
“Well no. That’s just the way it was. It’s what we did. That’s your job. I don’t think it would have made any difference if I’d stopped then, immediately after Gothenburg, instead of September. I wasn’t into going on holidays. Okay, look at the history, and quite often you’ll see the athletes who win the World Championships don’t always go so well in the Olympics the following year. But you can’t plan for that. You can only live in the moment. If you’re running well you can’t just stop, and say ‘I’ll save it, until next year’. It doesn’t work like that.
“You never know what the next year is going to bring. And the more fun you have, the more relaxed you are. I enjoyed the circuit, had great people with me like Marcus O’Sullivan, Frank O’Mara, David Matthews. It was a great time to be in the sport.”
And here is where the memories turn from functional to emotional, because only now does O’Sullivan fully appreciate just how great a summer 1995 was. She would never again medal in a World Athletics Championships, and actually only competed in two more, in Athens 1997, and Paris 2003.
“Thinking back now, seeing how hard it became in other years, I certainly didn’t appreciate it, no. Or maybe enjoy it as much as I should. I mean in 1997 I didn’t even make the final. How could I go from champion to not making the final? So now, I definitely appreciate it so much more, especially when I see how much smaller achievements are celebrated.”
She certainly appreciated winning a European track double, in 1998, and yet now, 20 years later, she still struggles with the question of where her 1995 World Championship gold medal ranks compared to her Olympic silver medal, five years on.
“Ger Hartmann always tells me a World Championship gold medal has to be better than any silver. But the Olympics are only every four years, and Sydney was the third time I tried to win an Olympic medal. And it asked so many questions of me, even during the race, that tested my character. I don’t think I believed I could win that medal as much as I believed I would win in Gothenburg. Performance-wise, Gothenburg is definitely the best. But emotionally, how I attach myself to it, what it means to me, it would be second to the Olympic silver, in Sydney.”
Still there is the question that after another 20 or 40 or 80 years, given the apparent unlikelihood of another Irish woman ever repeating O’Sullivan’s performance in the 5,000m, might that gold medal simply increase in value?
“No, I would never say we can’t do it again. There are a lot of Irish athletes doing the training, but have no idea what it really takes, to be that good. I was always the last person to leave a track, when I was training. And when I was racing, I would always run home from the stadium, back to the hotel. I’d say I could find my way back from every stadium in Europe, even Gothenburg, 20 years on. That attitude seems to be missing now. I definitely got everything out of myself, in those years.” The Sonia 5k takes place in Dun Laoghaire this Saturday evening at 7.30pm. See www.sonia5k.ie