Sonia O’Sullivan: Revelations from China should not be buried by IAAF
I spent over 20 years wondering how my rivals in Stuttgart managed to run so fast
Sonia O’Sullivan on her way to a 1,500m silver medal at the World Championships in Stuttgart in 1993. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
A disconsolate Sonia O’Sullivan after finishing fourth in the 5,000m at the World Championships in Stuttgart in 1993. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
It is not often you wake up in the morning and within a near instant get jolted back 23 years. It seemed such a normal Friday morning too. Snowy, our border collie, arriving with the schedule of an Olympic athlete to make sure I didn’t stay in bed one minute past 7am.
A minute or two later I checked the emails on my phone, and it was there, from an unlikely sender, that I first heard the news that the Chinese women who stunned the athletics world back in 1993 were part of a state-sponsored doping programme. Would this finally confirm the many doubts and questions that were always at the back of my mind?
So I did what I normally do – gathered the necessary dog-walking tools, and headed straight out the door. It felt a little like a Roy Keane moment, just me and the dog out for a walk. So much had changed overnight but in reality nothing had changed in my life.
We walked and walked and I reflected on all those years ago. It was a different time back in 1993; no internet, no social media, barely a mobile phone. Race results were in the newspapers or on the teletext.
After finishing fourth at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, I was attacking the new season with renewed energy, confidence and belief.
My first 3,000m of the season was against the Olympic champion, and I won, clocking a new personal best of 8:32. Then I ran 4:03 for 1,500m at the Europa Cup. It was early season and some people were wondering was I running too fast, too soon. Only I knew there was more to come.
Out of nowhere
In Oslo, at the Bislett Games, I ran 8:28 over 3,000m, the fastest time since the 1988 Olympics. The next day news came that Chinese women had just run 8:27, out of nowhere, and this certainly shocked the athletics world.
Who were these athletes, and would they turn up a few weeks at the World Championships in Stuttgart? The prospect of facing someone you have never seen or raced against throws up a lot of uncertainty; how you approach that race, what tactics to employ.
So when we arrived in Stuttgart all the talk was about the Chinese athletes. They were staying across from the Irish block, and every morning headed off running in formation, dressed in full tracksuits, arms straight down by their sides, as if carrying a shopping bag in each arm. This was totally alien to the athletics world, where everyone tries to express their individuality. Only this Chinese team ran as one, ate as one, kept everything to themselves.
I tried hard not to get distracted, but it was impossible not to get involved in the scarcely credible reports coming back from the training track. All athletes are tapering in the days leading up to a major championship, which means easy running, a few fast strides, just to keep the engine ticking over ahead of the most important race of the year.
But the Chinese athletes were at the track everyday banging out 400m regular repeats at race pace. Even the day after they ran away with the 10,000m they were back on the track, clocking up fast times.
Wear themselves out
My only hope was that they would wear themselves out with all the training, but this wasn’t to be. In the 3,000m, I knew they were likely to take off with 700m to go, the spot where Ma Junren, their coach, sat in the crowd.
This happened in the 10,000m, when they looked up for the signal to literally take off. But I got a little stuck behind at that point and missed the break for home.
I kept chasing to no avail. The first two athletes kept looking behind for the third, and managed to get her to hang on for the clean sweep. It was a wipe out. I didn’t want to believe this could happen, fourth again. Only this time it wasn’t the same. I had to put it behind me, focus on the 1,500m, one more chance on the world stage.
Hassiba Boulmerka from Algeria, the Olympic champion, was also in the race but it was the Chinese who had the upper hand. I needed to get some reward for my year of hard work, and it can only have been pure determination and belief that got me across the line to claim the silver medal.
I had no race plan; just get a medal. There was a tussle with 200m to go for the minor medals, because by then Liu Dong was clear. All I could hope for was to be the best of the rest. The silver was some consolation, but still the questions were there: everyone wanted to know if what the Chinese had done was possible.
Instead they simply disappeared back to China with their shiny gold medals and brand new Mercedes Benz cars. Their next stop was the Chinese national games, where they completely rewrote the record books. The goalposts had been moved again, just when I thought I was getting close. I went back on the European track circuit, continuing to dominate the rest of the world, but the questions still remained: how could I compete with these athletes from China the next time we met?
I was never angry, and still don’t feel anger at what was allowed to take place at those World Championships in 1993. There was always a sense of curiosity, that maybe it was possible for women to run so fast and so dominantly.
I know I stepped up a level again in 1994 and 1995, showed no fear, just took control of every race. But still, I was a long way off the Chinese times. So something wasn’t right, and the question of what they got away with, and how they got away with it, was always there.
So now it’s more a sense of relief that the truth has finally seeped out. Even if it’s not conclusive, I don’t believe this is something that should be buried in the sand of the IAAF offices in Monte Carlo.
Too many athletes were affected, too many sports fans left devastated, and I would be confident this will be resolved in time.
After 23 years I can wait for the full admission and confirmation. I don’t want a package with two gold medals. That wouldn’t change a thing. I just want to know that in 1993 I did everything I could to be the best I could be, to be the best in the world.
It’s also about knowing that the governance of the sport, which was beyond my control, was compromised, was blind to the truth, and that the IAAF accepted what almost everyone else never accepted.
If there is to be a new era for the IAAF, under Seb Coe, that also means obvious irregularities such as the Chinese women should be more thoroughly investigated, beyond the random doping controls. It’s not too late for that now.