By Mark Jones
There was, after all, a silver lining for Sonia O’Sullivan.
Despite World and European titles to beat the band, the Olympics had brought nothing but heartache for Ireland’s finest ever woman athlete. But in Sydney last Monday, the good times rolled at last as O’Sullivan raced into history to capture a glorious silver medal in the final of the 5,000 meters.
For a moment, in what turned out to be a fascinating battle of wits, it seemed as if O’Sullivan might even take gold. However, she just failed to catch Romania’s Gabriela Szabo in a nerve-tingling sprint for the line.
It was the first ever Olympic track and field medal won by an Irish woman and it was so richly deserved after the trials and tribulations of both Atlanta and Barcelona in 1992 when O’Sullivan came home empty-handed on both occasions.
On the back of a moderate season in which there were as many disappointments as good moments, O’Sullivan probably even exceeded her own expectations by making it onto the podium. Her time of 14:41.02, a mere 0.23 of a second behind Szabo broke the Irish national record, while the much feared Ethiopian world champion, Gete Wami, had to be content with third place.
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“There was just a hint of disappointment at not winning,” O’Sullivan said, “but there is also a sense of elation which is even greater than I could ever have imagined. There was so much happening out on the track with the Irish flags everywhere that it was very hard to take it all in. But this medal means so much to me that I can’t really put it all into words.”
Now for the gold
With a silver now in the bag, O’Sullivan still has another chance of going one better when she runs in the heats of the 10,000 meters today, Wednesday, with the final scheduled for Saturday.
“The 5,000 has brought me a few steps up the ladder and I’m now upbeat about the 10,000,” she said.
However, for a while during Monday’s emotional final, it seemed as it might be a case of Atlanta all over again as Sonia dropped alarmingly off the pace set by Wami and the second Ethiopian Ayelech Worku.
Approaching the halfway point, O’Sullivan had slipped back to 11th, but as the lap times dropped to 73 seconds, she was able to work her way back into contention.
“I was nearly gone,” she admitted afterwards, “but somehow I got myself back in the race. It’s hard to describe it now, but there were moments which I don’t remember.”
Despite what at one stage appeared to be a fatal lapse of concentration, O’Sullivan grew stronger as the race progressed and soon it emerged that she could erase both the memory of a fourth place in Barcelona and thoughts of the Atlanta disasters.
With the African contingent failing to up the pace, it was left to O’Sullivan and Szabo to contest the two main medals over the final 200 meters. For a couple of seconds, it looked as if Sonia might inch ahead, but Szabo held her lead coming down the straight.
“I don’t think I was really thinking that logically during the last lap. It was all action and I was going as hard as I could. I tried like never before because this was it, no hold back,” she said.
Gold might have eluded Sonia O’Sullivan, but silver was enough for an expectant nation.