Sonia O’Sullivan: Medals aren’t the only tell-tale signs of success

Sometimes we need to be patient with young athletes and let their talent develop naturally

It feels like most places I’ve been visiting around Europe this summer somehow bring me back to another time and place, beginning again when landing with a large team of Irish athletes in Gothenburg in Sweden on Tuesday evening.

From there it was about a half-an-hour drive east to Borås, where starting on Thursday morning the European Under-20 Athletics Championships are taking place. These first began life as the European Junior Games, in Warsaw in 1964, became the championships in Paris in 1970, and have been staged every two years since 1973.

Landing in Gothenburg briefly reminded me of where I won my World Championship gold medal, over 5,000m in 1995, although I don’t have many fond memories of the Under-20 championships. In my time they were staged in Birmingham, in 1987, and I’d run the fastest junior 3,000m that summer, 9:01.52, but even though I travelled with the team I never got to run, ruled out with a stress fracture in my leg.

I remember the race was won by Portugal’s Fernando Ribeiro in 8:56.33, beating two Romanians who were never seen or heard of again, while Ribeiro went on to finish second behind me in Gothenburg 1995, then win Olympic gold over 10,000m in Atlanta 1996. Also in 1987 Spain’s Fermin Cacho finished 12th in the 1,500m, and just five years later he was Olympic champion in Barcelona. Barry Walsh won the only medal for Ireland in 1987, bronze in the decathlon.



So these championships can sometimes tell a lot and sometimes tell little about what success will come next: John Treacy also won an Under-20 gold over 5,000m in 1975, and three years later he was the World Cross Country champion.

These days it also feels like some championships are weighted more heavily than others, especially now with so many different championships for different age groups each year, including the European Under-18 Championships, staged last year in Gyor, Hungary.

With the senior World Championships not scheduled until much later this year, in far off Doha in late September, it does also afford our young athletes an opportunity to shine and be properly acknowledged for their achievements.

Already this year there has been a bronze medal at the World University Games for Marcus Lawler over 200m, plus a bronze for Nadia Power over 800m and a silver for Eilish Flanagan in the 3,000m steeplechase at last week’s European Under-23 Championships.

Still these championships are mainly just stepping stones along the way as athletes move from junior to senior level international competition. What sets the European Under-20s apart is that they are still the major benchmark and target all the very best athletes across Europe in that age group. The level of competition at this level is intense, and it takes a special athlete to get on the podium and bring home a medal.

At last year’s Under-18 championships we were a little spoilt with success, Sarah Healy with two gold medals over 1,500m and 3,000m, Rhasidat Adeleke with a gold over 200m, and my daughter Sophie O’Sullivan also coming home with a silver medal at 800m. Sarah and Sophie are back again with the team in Borås, while Rhasidat, still only 16, will take the opportunity for one more youth international at the European Youth Olympics that take place in Baku, Azerbaijan next week.

For most of the 43-strong Irish team in Borås, this is one more step up the ladder, many who will still be in the junior category in 2020 when the World Junior Championships go to Nairobi, Kenya.

One reflection of the high standard at this level is the fact Jakob Ingebrigtsen from Norway, senior champion at 1,500m and 5,000m is still eligible to compete, although it’s hard to see him stopping off here on his way to the London Diamond League on Saturday, where he has been competitive throughout the season, already smashing the European Under-20 1,500m record when finishing second in Lausanne and running 3:30.16.

There has to be a sense of reality along with expectation and balance when you look back and analyse the results

Athletics is not always the easiest sport to predict the future: not all European Junior champions go on to achieve senior success, there are just as many that have vanished without a trace. It’s a huge commitment and level of persistence to reach even greater heights and for some it just doesn’t work out.

There will be a huge amount of talent on display in Borås, some will have stepped up their training so the combined effect will deliver dominant results; others will be fighting to get out of the heats and semi-finals into the final then rolling the dice to get the best possible result.

It’s a lot to ask of developing athletes to train beyond what they are ready for, and sometimes we need to be patient and let the talent and work rate develop naturally rather than forcing the template of an Olympic athlete on a young athlete who is still trying to work out what works best for them.


Borås is also another experience of international competition; the call room, the check in process, staying in a team environment. The introduction of drug testing may be new for many and what normally takes one hour in training or local races can be blown out to a full day; there’s also working out when to eat, trying to rest and conserve energy wishing the hours away, before heading to the track. These can be very empty days, everything measured and calculated and waiting, some athletes deal with it much better than others.

Success will open many doors and it’s what you choose to do with these new-found opportunities that can determine the path you take to the next level. Of the Irish 15 medal winners at this level since 1975, it could be argued that only Treacy, Mark Carroll (5,000m gold in 1991), and Ciara Mageean (1,500m silver in 2011) went on to deliver again on the senior stage. So as much as medals will be seen as a mark of success, there will be so many more learning experiences for these young athletes.

I also look at things slightly different now as I am not just here to commentate and analyse the athletes but to cheer on and support my daughter Sophie in the 800m. I don’t expect because she delivered a silver medal last year that there will be a similar result this year.

I break things down and look at it one race at a time and how to get the best result in each race, you can’t look too far ahead and the numbers and statistics won’t tell the full story until each race unfolds. There has to be a sense of reality along with expectation and balance when you look back and analyse the results. Success and medals are easy to write about and celebrate and make lofty predictions for the future.

It’s a good idea to hold on to the final results, not just the top three, but also those who make the final or walk away with nothing, the ones who may be more driven to ensure this is not the end but only the beginning of greater things to come.