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Sonia O’Sullivan: You still can’t beat the intimacy of live sport

Events like the Cork City Sports are a chance to get trackside and close to the action

Sonia O’Sullivan in second place behind Shalene Flanagan in the women’s 3, 000 metres in 2005. Photograph: Neil Danton/Inpho

I was lucky enough to score a ground pass to Wimbledon last week, while back revisiting London for a few days, and some of the many old memories that come with it. 

I hadn’t actually been to Wimbledon since 1999, while on a break from running that summer, awaiting the arrival of my first daughter Ciara, who incidentally just turned 18 this week. 

Like many things these days it’s hard to believe it’s now that long ago, so many years, and as the crowds were filing through the gates it felt like a lot of things had changed. Once inside though it’s still the same Wimbledon, and I couldn’t help but look around and wonder were all these people here to watch tennis? Or just the Wimbledon experience? 

I got to sit in a few outside courts watching a couple of men’s and women’s doubles matches, just three rows of seats up from the court, up close and personal with the action.

It’s very different when watching the game on the same level as the players: you can hear them utter their frustrations when they miss a point, or punch the air in jubilation on scoring a point. You get to see the facial expressions and the intensity of a long rally. 

It’s a strange feeling when you’ve been here before, knowing everything that goes on behind the scenes, but knowing too you’re not involved this time. 

You even get a feel for the soft silent grass of the courts. It didn’t matter that the players weren’t the star players or the household names that we get used to watching each day on television: once you side with one player the interest grows, and you can’t help get emotionally involved.

Same energy

It wasn’t quite such an intimate experience watching the athletics a few days later in the Olympic Stadium, at the London Anniversary Games. There was that same energy of heading off to a big event, and watching the crowds file through the turnstiles. 

I actually travelled out to the stadium on the athletes’ bus, and quickly passed through the warm-up area to the stands. It’s a strange feeling when you’ve been here before, knowing everything that goes on behind the scenes, but knowing too you’re not involved this time. 

Now when I go to watch a track meet I want to get to my seat quickly, look through the programme, and keep track of each race. On this side of the fence – the other side of the fence – it’s more about entertainment and enjoying the events as a spectator. 

Ciara Mageean has as good a chance to go sub-two minutes as any Irish women that has attempted in the past, having just run her fastest ever mile 4:22.40 at the London Anniversary Games on Sunday 

The races were good to watch and the results what you would expect in a Diamond League meeting, but in a way I think the more intimate setting of racing in small stadiums gets a better interaction between the athletes and the fans. The Olympic Stadium felt a little too big for the event on show. 

Athletes will get out and run their best no matter what, but the energy generated from a large crowd in a small stadium is sometimes more exciting, as was experienced at the Morton Games in Santry this week, the Lá Chéile International in Leixlip on Saturday, and the Cork City Sports next Tuesday.

Too often now watching sport live can be more about going to the event, rather than connecting with the event and the athletes 

The Cork City Sports will always be special for me, always seems to thrown some special memory, and this year actually will make it 30 years since I won my first event there, the 3,000m, in an Irish junior record of 9:01.52, which still stands. I had a lot of motivations that day, but chief among them was to perform in front of my own intimate crowd at the Mardyke. 

To mark the occasion, they’re staging a 3,000m race for relay teams of young athletes, combining to try and beat the 30 year-old record. I hope they get it. 

These Cork City Sports are also a rare chance to embrace the intimacy of the sport, to get trackside and close to the action, to see some of the best athletes in the world as they prepare to race. To be within touching distance as they lap around the tracks is a very different experience to what you see on television and or even in a big stadium. 

I feel some of this connection to sport is being lost, not just athletics. Too often now watching sport live can be more about going to the event, rather than connecting with the event and the athletes. 

Whenever I got to race in Cork there was always an extra lift from the crowd, especially as I rounded the bend into the finishing straight. So often faraway fields can seem greener – and faster – yet I ran some of my fastest times in Cork. Maybe it is the closeness of the crowd and the knowledge that the people care and are willing the athletes on to great results. 

This may be just what helps break some time barriers, with Irish women chasing once again chasing the two minutes for 800m this year. 

This is a barrier that has been elusive to Irish women down through the years, including myself: and even though it can look difficult to do, on paper, when you break it down it seems very achievable. 

All consuming

It’s one of those challenges where everything has to fall into place, especially when 800m is not your primary event; the weather, the pace, the competition and most importantly the belief that you can do it.  

At the same time it can’t be all consuming when the 800m is not your primary event. It can take a little extra speed training and focus that can then take away from the endurance required for longer distance races. 

So far this year, just 50 women in the world have run under two minutes, and all-time that number is 438. It’s one of those obsessions that distance runners have with trying to increase their range over a variety of distances boosting the confidence, breaking barriers. 

When you are on a roll the confidence increases and the energy from the home crowd can help to deliver greater results

I know I tried this myself in the 1990s and talked a lot about it at the training track, but realistically only ever had one shot at breaking two minutes, when I came up short, at the 1994 Goodwill Games in Russia. 

I’m not sure I truly believed I could do it, especially when in a race against some of the best 800m runners at the time including Olympic Champion and multiple world champion Maria Mutola from Mozambique.It was definitely one of those races where I wanted to come back and start again and give it one more shot, but I never got that chance again. 

This season, Ciara Mageean has as good a chance to go sub-two as any Irish women that has attempted in the past, having just run her fastest ever mile 4:22.40 in London over the weekend. 

When you are on a roll the confidence increases and the energy from the home crowd can help to deliver greater results. 

Irish athletes rarely get the chance to be the star attraction, when races are set up to provide opportunities to win but also achieve personal bests and qualifying marks. It’s important they get the support too, the home crowd, nights to remember that keep these events, alive knowing that bigger isn’t always better. 

Next Tuesday will be the 66th running of the Cork City Sports, still bringing live athletics closer to home, where young athletes get a chance to run on the same track as their heroes and dream of the future. And we’re lucky we still have that.