There is a perfectly good reason why Bob Dylan did not attend the Nobel Prize awards in Stockholm last weekend. Even if only he gets it. There’s always been an innate reluctance in great artists to explain their work, sometimes even acknowledge it, which is a good thing, because part of our fascination is trying to figure out what made them great to begin with.
It’s the same thing with Sonia O’Sullivan, and what exactly made her so great. Seeing her on stage at the Sportswoman of the Year awards – which thankfully for us she did attend – was another reminder of that. It’s one thing being recognised for your outstanding contribution to women’s sport. It’s something else trying to explain how you went about it – and why I’ve stopped trying to figure Sonia out a long time ago.
The truth is that Sonia’s achievements have always been recognised, not because she’s a woman but simply because her career was such a great success in itself. She helped bring Irish women’s distance running to the very top of the world stage not because she wanted or needed any recognition but because she always believed she could. Even now, in her retirement, it’s hard to explain that.
It’s not about shyness or aloofness either. Dylan actually touched on that in his acceptance speech, beautifully delivered by the US ambassador to Sweden, Azita Raji: “It’s probably buried so deep that they don’t even know it’s there,” he wrote, of the secret drive for success or recognition in all great artists, before promptly comparing himself to William Shakespeare, as you do.
“His [Shakespeare’s] creative vision and ambitions were no doubt at the forefront of his mind, but there were also more mundane matters to consider and deal with. ‘Is the financing in place?’ ‘Where am I going to get a human skull?’ I would bet that the farthest thing from Shakespeare’s mind was the question ‘Is THIS literature?’”
Sometimes it’s easier to recognise when that drive is not there. One of the first times I saw Sonia run – and properly appreciated it – was at Boston University, in January, 1991. These were the old BU Games, on the creaking boards at the former armoury facility of the banks of the Charles River. We’d come from all over the East, warming up along Commonwealth Avenue as far as Kenmore Square and then back again, each harbouring our own secret ambitions of what to run that night.
Sonia was coming to the end of her days at Villanova and I was only starting out at Brown, but our ambitions were already a world apart. I ran an indoor personal best, too modest to mention here, but felt nonetheless content, taking the small plaudits that came with. Then Sonia came out and never content with just a personal best ran a world indoor record for 5,000m, her 15:17.28 knocking five seconds off the old mark. She took none of the plaudits either, her eyes already clearly fixed on a bigger prize; my drive quite obviously didn’t run so deep.
That’s always been the difference between talent and genius – in sport, literature, or whatever. Because if talent is reaching a target few other people can hit, then genius is reaching a target few other people can see.
Sonia always had that and more – her appetite for running going beyond insatiable. Just a year and a half after those BU Games, she finished fourth in the 3,000m at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. That still won her plenty of plaudits, but in no way satisfied she jumped straight onto the old Grand Prix circuit and broke five Irish records in the next 10 days – also picking off, like an assassin, the three women who had finished ahead of her in Barcelona.
What unfolded over the next three years cemented her greatness, culminating in her effectively unbeatable streak on the track in the summer of 1995, cleaning up on that Grand Prix circuit, winning in Zurich, Oslo, Monaco and Berlin, running world-leading times in four separate distances, including a 3:58.85 for 1,500m – the only sub-four in the world that year – and not forgetting her World Championship gold medal over 5,000m in Gothenburg.
Of the 21 races Sonia ran on the track that summer, she won 20 of them, and finished that 1995 season as IAAF Athlete of the Year, the most consistent women’s distance runner in the world by the proverbial mile.
Still, even those closest to Sonia often found her success hard to explain. Her great ally, Marcus O’Sullivan, described her as a hurricane, a force of nature that blew through people’s lives and places and left a big pile of wreckage behind, then kept going.
Nowhere was that Sonia more evident than in and around the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, but if she ever had stopped in her tracks, or rested on any of her laurels, she might never have gone on to win her 14 major championship medals, not forgetting those lost out to known doping offenders, or broken every Irish record from 800m to the half marathon, some of which may well be carved in stone.
Dylan also describes the Nobel Prize for Literature as something he could never have imagined or seen coming from an early age, which is probably another reason why he finds it all so hard to explain. Sometimes, he says, it’s not enough to know the meaning of things. Sometimes we have to know what things don’t mean as well – and part of her greatness is that Sonia still leaves us trying to figure all that out.