Sonia in the shadow of the Paula show

 

ATHLETICS: Ian O'Riordan on a year Ireland's Sonia O'Sullivan will look back on with regret, but also one that was lit up by the Radcliffe phenomenon

When Sonia O'Sullivan finished in seventh position at the World Cross Country Championships in Dublin last March the whole athletics world took notice. Just 13 weeks previously she had given birth to her second daughter Sophie, and to return to that level of fitness so quickly left little doubt that O'Sullivan was ready to return to the very top of the sport in 2002.

Her partner Nick Bideau commented afterwards that had O'Sullivan got in another two weeks training then she would have won a medal. Actually, just a week later, she ran her old rival Gabriela Szabo into the ground at the Balmoral Road Race, and suddenly the new season of racing couldn't come around quick enough.

Over the next several months O'Sullivan attempted to win four major races, starting with the World Half Marathon Championships in May, two events at the European Athletics Championships in August, and then the New York City Marathon in November.

For almost all other athletes, two silver medals from those four efforts would make for a memorable season, and perhaps even more so for a 32 year-old athlete who had twice given birth in the previous three years.

But O'Sullivan will think back on 2002 differently. This was the season, the midway point between Olympic years, when she desperately wanted to rekindle that winning feeling. Instead she returned to Australia for her winter break reflecting mostly on a season of near misses.

The World Half Marathon in Brussels had come a little too soon and she finished back in 14th - a minor setback. But Munich and the European Championships had always been the specific target, where O'Sullivan was intent on defending the 5,000 and 10,000 metre titles won in Budapest in 1998.

First up came the 10,000 metres, and with it defeat - fair and square. Paula Radcliffe ran away from the entire field after a couple of laps, winning in a European record of 30:01.09. The fact that O'Sullivan chased hard to the line and was awarded with an Irish record (30:47.59) and the silver medal seemed even then like little consolation.

As she said herself, no athlete likes to finish over half a lap behind the winner.

Later in the week came the 5,000 metres, and with Radcliffe already departed from Munich the gold medal was clearly there for O'Sullivan's taking.

Instead she let it slip through her fingers when, having broken clear a little prematurely with 200 metres remaining, she then saw the relatively-unknown Marta Dominguez of Spain snatch victory on the finish line. Just .09 of a second split silver from gold.

O'Sullivan walked out of the Olympic Stadium that night with a small tear in her eye. Once again silver would be no great consolation, and even less so when she knew she was in shape to have won back at least one European title. A fast 14:46.97 in London later in the month indeed confirmed that most of that oft-conquering track speed was still in her legs.

With typical determination O'Sullivan quickly set new targets and announced that New York would mark her first serious marathon attempt. Though she had run and won the 26.2-mile distance once before (in Dublin in October of 2000), it would be her most significant new challenge in many years.

In hindsight her preparations were over-intensive. In the space of six weeks she set a 10-mile world best of 51 minutes flat on the roads of Portsmouth, raced for "fun" in both London and Loughrea, and produced an astonishing 67 minute 19 second solo victory at the Great North Run half marathon in Newcastle.

While she arrived in New York with genuinely great expectations, a combination of the tough course, the more demanding distance, and those stressful preparations proved her undoing. She trailed home in 12th place in 2:32.06, admitting afterwards that just finishing the race was the hardest thing she's ever had to do.

Strictly by O'Sullivan's own standards then, 2002 was weighed with a little too much disappointment to make it a truly great year.

What all this means is that we can expect her to be more determined that ever to get back to the top of medal podium in 2003, at the World Cross Country in Lausanne, at the World Championships in Paris, and then beyond.

Paula Radcliffe: Rarely will an athlete enjoy a more perfect season. It started with the successful defence of her World Cross Country title in Dublin, and finished with a world marathon record of 2:17.18 in Chicago. In between she won the London marathon, plus Commonwealth and European track titles.

Mark Carroll: Proved once again his truly world class talent. After struggling with injury early in the year, he took sixth place over 5,000 metres at the European Championships, then targeted the New York City marathon where his sixth placed effort of 2:10.54 made him the second fastest Irishman ever after John Treacy.

Geraldine Hendricken: One of the great comeback stories of Irish athletics. Aged 32 and anonymous for several years, she suddenly reeled off a series of world class times.

Tim Montgomery: Last September in a half-empty Paris stadium, the American ran 9.78 seconds for the 100 metres, improving by one-hundredth of a second the 1999 record of compatriot Maurice Greene.

Hicham El Guerrouj: Yet another year of total domination. Still the supreme middle distance runner.

Brahim Boulami: One of the most disappointing drugs busts in recent years. Last year he broke the 3,000 metres steeplechase world record and this year he lowered it even further in Zurich to 7:53.17. Within days his Moroccan federation announced that EPO was found in his system.

Haile Gebrselassie: The only man to run 2:06.35 for the marathon, yet still disappoint. In London, last April the hype around his first attempt was palpable, but in the closing miles he dramatically tired and took third.

Gillian O'Sullivan: Deserved a major championship medal. Having broken the world record for 5km walk on the track, she arrived in buoyant mood at the European Championships, only to be overtaken for third place by Italian Erica Alfridi in the last stretch of the 20km walk.

Mohammed Mourit: Another sorry tale of drug-induced success. Last year the Moroccan-born Belgian won the World Cross Country title on home soil. This year in Dublin he failed to finish, blaming a calf injury. Actually he'd also been on EPO and was soon found out.

Karen Shinkins: Failed to turn her superb indoor form to the outdoor track.