By Mark Jones
DUBLIN — Four years after the trials and tribulations of the Atlanta Olympics, Sonia O’Sullivan is going for gold in Sydney, Australia. The race is the same, the stakes just as high, but Ireland’s finest-ever woman athlete is a different person.
In 1996, her personal life was in turmoil and that was readily reflected in her hugely disappointing performances on the track. Today, she is in a stable relationship with an Australian former athlete, Nick Bideau, who is also the father of her baby daughter, Ciara. Everyone who talks to and listens to O’Sullivan gets the same impression: track and field is no longer a life and death issue.
So, her approach to the 5,000 meters heats on Friday should be less obsessive than at Atlanta, when the pressure of an entire nation seemed to weigh her down. O’Sullivan is now more mature, and a more experienced big-race runner. She will surely have gained from what happened four years ago.
But for all the positives concerning attitude, and mental approach, O’Sullivan may not be the athlete she was back in 1996. According to running legend and fellow Villanova star Eamonn Coghlan, the spark has gone; the bounce is no longer in her legs. Writing in his column in the Sunday Tribune newspaper, Coghlan was adamant that O’Sullivan wouldn’t win gold, and that she might not win a medal of any color.
Certainly, her performances this summer don’t point to any great deeds in Sydney. O’Sullivan may have run several good times, but she was often well down the field, like in London, where she trailed in ninth in a 5,000 meters race.
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With Romania’s Gabriela Szabo, and the Ethiopian pair of Wami and Worku the pre-race favorites, there will be less of a burden of expectation this time for O’Sullivan. Unfortunately, for Ireland’s hopes of a first track medal since Ronnie Delaney triumphed in Melbourne in 1956, she may also be less of an athlete.