Sonia O’Sullivan: Serbia will be a true measure for Irish athletes

World Indoors will inform contenders looking ahead to championships in summer

I was reminded this week that it’s 25 years since I won a silver medal at the World Indoor Championships in Paris.

There aren’t many pictures it seems, and when I had to go looking, all I could find was one captioned “disappointing silver medal”, in the 3,000 metres, Gabriela Szabo coming inside of me to win by less than half a second.

Back in 1997, the bar was set so high that I didn’t even get to celebrate a world silver medal. We were a team of eight Irish athletes, and all we came away with was one disappointing silver medal. I’m not even sure where it is now, or what it looks like.

Maybe there was a different standard of expectation then. When I think back further, at the first World Indoor Championships in Indianapolis in 1987, Ireland sent an all-male team of just four athletes, and the return was particularly good, with three medals in two events, including two gold – Marcus O’Sullivan in the 1,500m and Frank O’Mara in the 3,000m, plus a silver for Paul Donovan in that race, having made up three places in the last 100m.

Of the 85 countries that took part, Ireland finished fourth on the medal table, behind the old Soviet Union, then the USA and East Germany. There might have been another medal had the fourth team member, Eamonn Coghlan, not tripped in his 1,500m heat; Coghlan actually recovered, yet still misjudged his finish, and missed out on qualifying when the German Dieter Baumann snuck past.

Coghlan was the gold medal favourite, He’d won 52 indoor mile or 1,500m races since his college days in Villanova, and just a few weeks before Indianapolis won a record-equalling seventh Wanamaker Mile, running 3:55.91.

This was my first real eye-opening moment in athletics, and seeing Irish athletes win races on the world stage like that made a big impact. Just three months later I found myself on the same Irish team as Marcus, Frank and Paul at the Europa Cup event in Portugal.

I remember being tasked with the job of getting an autograph from Marcus for one of my school friends. I really had to build up the courage to ask, not sure if it was embarrassment or nerves now that we were both on the same team.

Inspirational moments

Either way I was in awe and can clearly picture the moment to this day. Marcus is still someone who I admire and look up to always, an inspiration to me on and off the track. It’s still important too that Irish athletics creates inspirational moments like that.

The 2022 World Indoor Championships finally take place the weekend after next in Belgrade, Serbia. This seems to be one of those championships which have been on the horizon for a long time and finally just around the corner.

It’s already starting to feel a bit like springtime at the outdoor track, some early season races already delivering super-fast times in the US over 10,000m giving an overlapping feeling to the 2022 season.

There have been a number of standout performances by Irish athletes throughout the indoor season

It’s still a full 18 weeks away to the World Outdoor Championships taking place in Eugene, Oregon later this summer, starting on July 15th, the beginning of a big summer of international athletics with European Championships taking place exactly one month later in Munich, Germany, plus the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham.

The US as always will have a strong team in Serbia but yet the lack of depth at their national championships recently, and to still have some of the highest-ranked athletes competing, means the team selected for Eugene could be a completely different set of athletes come July.

Still when the medals are handed out in Serbia the winning athletes will not feel they are of any less value as no race will be easily won with small quality fields. It’s just not so predictable yet who will be on the line as some athletes who marked up some fast times indoors choose not to travel and compete and are already looking ahead to Eugene.

Largest team ever

Ireland will have their largest team ever, consisting of 19 athletes, at these World Indoor Championships. There have been a number of standout performances by Irish athletes throughout the indoor season, with probably the best athlete being Rhasidat Adeleke. She won’t actually be in Belgrade as she is committed to running for University of Texas at the upcoming NCAA indoor Championships, which in some events will be on par with the World Indoor Championships.

The expectations have changed and it’s now viewed as an achievement just to get to these championships, with every progression through the rounds to the finals a bonus. Once in the final can you start thinking about the possibility of medals.

Modern sport has a greater sliding scale of success, what is deemed successful, not just purely winning but turning up and delivering the best possible result you can.

Phil Healy finished fourth in the European Indoors over 400m last year and it will be a giant leap for her to make the world final but not impossible and a progression she will be chasing.

There is greater hope for both men’s and women’s 4 x 400m events, where finals are a possibility and with that one of the most chaotic, exciting and unpredictable races of the championships.

With strength in numbers, this will be a true measure for Irish athletes looking ahead to the World and European Championships this summer. Eugene has long been the spiritual home of track and field in the US, an event no athlete will won’t want to miss out on. But what’s better, to take on the world or narrow your potential for success on the European stage in Munich?

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