Sonia O’Sullivan: Better to leave than keep swimming with sharks

Working in OCI before London Games was rewarding but I felt isolated in build-up to Rio

Team Ireland’s chef de mission Sonia O’Sullivan during the London  Olympic Games in 2010. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Team Ireland’s chef de mission Sonia O’Sullivan during the London Olympic Games in 2010. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho


Not many people like to go swimming with sharks, especially not voluntarily, although that’s exactly what about 5,000 of us did last weekend at the Lorne Pier To Pub, down along the beautiful Great Ocean Road on Victoria’s surf coast.

It’s the largest open-water swim in the world, according to locals, and definitely the most iconic event on the Australian open-water swimming calendar.

The day itself went swimmingly well: a gentle stroll along the coastline to the pier, under hot blue skies, into the cool clear water for the 1.2km swim, back to the Lorne Pub on the shoreline, where the party had already been going since early morning.

All entries are sold out months in advance, and there were precious few withdrawals, despite all the talk – and sightings – of great white sharks in the waters off Lorne, in the 24 hours before.

There’s nothing like enjoying a day at the beach after an effort like that, and for some the 1.2km swim is not enough, so they add in the 5km marathon swim, earlier in the morning.

There’s also something liberating about being out there in the water, for well over an hour: thoughts tend to drift a bit, like being out on a long run, and into my head came some of the emails that needed answering, from the Olympic Council of Ireland (OCI), regarding nominations for the executive committee ahead of the EGM in Dublin in early February.

This is actually something I’ve been pondering for quite some time now. Not just in the last week or two; in fact before even questions were raised about the sale of tickets during the Rio Olympics, which are still unanswered, and led to the various inquiries into the running of the OCI.

No clear direction

Ever since I was re-elected onto the executive committee in 2014, I have questioned my role within the OCI. I felt I had no clear direction, or pathway, unlike when I was first elected in 2008, and appointed two years later as chef de mission for Team Ireland ahead of the London Olympics in 2012.

I’d wanted to continue on through Rio, to be involved with the planning and preparation in whichever way I could. However, geographically things were proving difficult – I spend a few months in Australia every year – and I attended very few OCI meetings in the Olympic cycle leading to Rio.

It’s not easy to have a say in decisions when you’re absent a lot of the time, and I knew nothing would keep me involved as much as the chef de mission role did.

However, I didn’t spend any less time in Ireland than I had before London – if anything, I was home even more in the build-up for Rio – and I found it strange that meetings were never co-ordinated far enough in advance that I could plan ahead and be there. In some cases, I missed meetings by a day or two, with numerous decisions being made as Rio loomed on the horizon.

It was becoming increasingly frustrating, and I often questioned my role on the board. It had become unclear, unstructured and definitely without direction.

At times it was like swimming in open water, not being able to see the next buoy, a little lost in the swell. And so the motivation and interest starts to wane. Arms and legs are moving alright, although you don’t feel like you’re making any progress. Then, as the helicopters appear overhead, you start to worry about those sharks as you head back out to sea for one last turn, at the pier, before swimming back in to shore.

Nominations for the new OCI executive – and officers – closed on Wednesday, and there will be many new faces looking to get inside the doors of Olympic House in Howth, looking to make a difference as we head towards a new era in the organisation.


When I was re-elected in 2014, I wasn’t required to do much more than put my hand up. It seemed once you were inside, you were there for life, unless you chose to leave.

I’ve little doubt these elections will bring some changing of the guard, especially given the transparency now expected from everyone involved with Olympic sport. A lot will be expected of those who put their name forward for election – but what exactly can we expect?

Great athletes don’t automatically make great coaches, or even great administrators. Any decision that can impact the life of an Olympic athlete is a big responsibility, and those given this role must have the time and energy to ensure that the Olympic movement in Ireland is positive and that everyone is treated equally.

All nominations for a position on the OCI must be proposed by an Olympic-affiliated federation. I also believe all nominees should be required to make a five-minute presentation outlining why they should be voted on to the executive committee – not just to describe what they intend to bring to the OCI, but also to explain how they propose to actually fulfil their intentions.

In order to make an informed decision, each federation with a vote at the EGM in February needs to be duly informed, and know more than just the name and sport of the proposed candidates.

I wasn’t nominated by any federation, and although as an existing executive member I was entitled to go forward for re-election, I have decided against this.

My initial years on the executive opened my eyes to the work that goes on behind the scenes to ensure selection of the best athletes to represent Ireland at the Olympics.

Training facilities

It’s definitely preferable to be an Olympic athlete than an administrator. As much as I enjoyed and learned about the different sports and their requirements in London, the sport I naturally understood most was athletics. This is where I knew how to best provide high-standard training facilities, the importance of prompt transfers to the village, and all the other athlete requirements along the way.

This perfect set-up may not have reached all Olympic sports, and sometimes we are blinded by what we see directly in front of us, while other sports may not be at the same high standard.

The Olympics is no longer the amateur playing ground it once was, and all Olympic athletes are professionals, who demand and need the highest standards to help them achieve success.

Olympic athletes also need to be led by professional administrators, who are there to provide the best possible pathway to that success. They are there for no other reason.

The time I gave to the OCI up to and during the London Olympics was deeply satisfying, and I felt I was fulfilling that purpose of helping athletes be the best they can be.

When you’ve already been through that, used to working within a time frame, hitting the markings along the way, and return with Team Ireland’s best ever Olympic results, you expect your experience to be used over and over again.

When for whatever reason it’s not, then maybe you’re better off out of the water than swimming with the sharks.

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