On the Shoulders of Giants - Sonia O'Sullivan

December 21, 2023

Qu Yunxia. Zhang Linli. Zhang Lirong. Three names that the vast majority of Irish sporting fans had never heard of prior to Monday 16th August 1993. After that day, the very utterance of those same three names would send shivers down the spine of even the most casual track and field supporter.

The 1990s provided a decade of unparalleled success and moments of joyous celebration for fans of Irish sport. Kicked off by Jackie’s army at Italia ‘90, Michael Carruth’s gold winning performance at the Barcelona Olympics in ‘92, Ger Loughnane’s Clare hurlers breaking the curse of Biddy Early at a raucous GAA headquarters in the mid-90s, Michelle Smith’s Gold medal haul at Atlanta ‘96 (at the time we were none the wiser as to what shadow would ultimately be cast over this achievement), Ken Doherty’s World Snooker Championship win in 1997 and Catriona McKiernan’s London Marathon win in 1998 some of the many highlights.

It was an era when sport was on terrestrial tv. There was more coverage of sporting events than in decades past, and we had yet to cross over fully into the battle of tv rights and paywalls. For those nestling down into their living room armchairs across Ireland on that warm August evening in 1993, their choice was Green Fingers with Gerry Daly on RTE 1 or the World Athletics Championships in Stuttgart on Network 2. It was an easy choice.

Of all the incredible sporting feats and all the champions that illuminated our lives during this era, there was one star that shone brighter than the rest and in a truly unique way held the unconditional love of the entire nation. That star was the Ballymore Cobh distance runner Sonia O’Sullivan.

George Hamilton set the scene, as he has done for so many great sporting occasions, with Sonia lining up as favourite for the 3000m title. Little was known of the Chinese athletes, Qu Yunxia, Zhang Linli, and Zhang Lirong. In Stuttgart, people were talking about the Chinese team. Their continual hard training and limited recovery between heats catching the attention of other coaches. Added to this, they marched about the city in pairs, their tracksuits immaculate, hair cut short, looking like they meant business. As the Championships went on, the noise around the Chinese team grew, the way they were training and racing led people to believe that something was amiss, it just didn’t sit right. Nothing to worry about though for the Irish viewers who sat at home with great expectation.

All seemed to be going perfectly well for Sonia O’Sullivan, as the athletes moved through 2000m. Yvonne Murray of Great Britain led a tightly compact field. At 700m to go Coach Ma stood up and wildly gesticulated to the Chinese athletes, who instantly moved into the lead. The sudden move caught O’Sullivan off guard and before she knew it, she was 10 metres back.

The utter devastation felt by Irish sports fans after the 3000m final has had few equals. This devastation was driven by a level of expectation that we’ve rarely felt as a nation about any of our sporting stars. But then again, we’ve rarely had a talented superstar quite like Sonia.

Determined not to be pushed out of the medals again, when Sonia O’Sullivan saw the Algerian athlete Hassiba Boulmerka make a move in the 1500m final 6 days later, she responded. The plan was to get in between the Chinese athletes and prevent another clean sweep. In fourth place at the bell, this time Sonia was in touch, and on the back straight, she showed her class. The Silver medal a remarkable achievement given the circumstances.

The impact of these Championships on Sonia’s career was something she later reflected on with Adharanand Finn. After 1993, reports of the type of training the Chinese athletes were undertaking began to filter back to Europe. The ultimate competitor, Sonia increased her training load and training intensity in a bid to remain to the fore. Although immediate success came Sonia’s way, she later understood how this increase in workload and the pressure on her body led to as she described it, “… the downfall of ’96. The constant desire to train harder, better, to push myself and thinking more was always better.”

Two years of unequalled success in 1994 and 1995 were followed by two turbulent years in 1996 and 1997. After 1996 Sonia began working with one of Britain’s top coaches Alan Storey. His more relaxed approach that put emphasis on recovery took a few years to bear fruit. But when it did, Sonia was back! At the World Cross Country Championships in Marrakech in March 1998, over successive days Sonia O’Sullivan won Gold in the short course (4 km) and long course (8 km) events.

The Chinese women’s team dominated the 1993 World Championships, winning three Gold, two Silver, and one Bronze across the 1500m, 3000m and 10000m events. In the 15 World Championships that have taken place since, no Chinese female athlete has won a medal on the track. Accusations of doping and the name ‘chemical sisters’ is the legacy that hangs over the Chinese distance runners of 1993. Aside from the medals they won, the impact on the training and approach of athletes like Sonia may never be fully understood. One thing is for sure, through the moments of disappointment, like the 3000m final in 1993, and along the journey of ups and downs that spanned Sonia O’Sullivan’s career, a singular bond grew between the Irish people and their greatest ever athlete, a bond that still exists as strong as ever today, 30 years later.

Tadhg Crowley

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