Sonia O’Sullivan wonders about Gabriela Szabo’s Olympic gold
Romanian beat Irish athlete to first place in 5,000m at the Sydney Games in 2000
Ireland’s Sonia O’Sullivan on her way to finishing second at the 1993 World Championships in Stuttgart. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
So nothing about the unravelling truths of world athletics surprises Sonia O’Sullivan anymore, only the secrets that might still be hidden – including behind the athlete who beat her to an Olympic gold medal.
After a long and thoughtful reflection on the latest revelation that she was denied two World Championship gold medals by Chinese women distance runners allegedly forced to take “large doses of illegal drugs”, O’Sullivan was asked about Gabriela Szabo, the Romanian woman who denied her the gold medal over the 5,000m at the Sydney Olympics in 2000.
Szabo never failed a doping test – although three years after Sydney, French border police seized her car, being driven by a family friend, Daniel Vlad, during a routine patrol on the motorway at La Turbie, a village overlooking Monaco. Vlad was arrested, and among the products seized was the performance-enhancing product Actovegin, a derivative of calf serum, which wasn’t on the banned list at the time.
Although Szabo was subsequently cleared of any wrongdoing, her career went into a slow nosedive, and she retired two years later, aged only 29, citing “exhaustion”.
O’Sullivan is understandably cautious about finger-pointing, but given it’s taken 23 years for the truth about the Chinese women to emerge, she can’t help wonder might something more be revealed about that Szabo incident.
“You can’t really say anything, because there’s definitely nothing proven there’’.
Szabo held off O’Sullivan by less than a quarter of a second to win that Olympic gold medal, and later served on the IAAF women’s committee.
Whether the letter which alleges the large dosages of illegal drugs among the Chinese women is verified or not, their reputation – or rather what’s left of it – counts for nothing.
“None of it surprised me, at all, although this was actually the last one I ever thought was going to be brought up again, that the Chinese would be proven to be cheating, not doing things right,” said O’Sullivan.
“It was totally out of the blue. I don’t think anyone knew this was coming. Then it starts to sink in, and you think back, how people reacted, all that. I still think most people were just so stunned at the time they didn’t really know what to say.
“Now, just knowing you were cheated out of something, knowing you were doing the right thing, knowing people were right to question those runners, you certainly feel better about that. It’s knowing I did the best I possibly could, and got beaten by people who weren’t better than me, but were on something that I couldn’t compete with.”