Sonia O'Sullivan: 'Even now there are people who get away with cheating'
One of Ireland's greatest athletes, Sonia O'Sullivan tells Emily Hourican about training, winning, doping and regrets and her pride at seeing her daughter win a silver medal in the U18 European Championships
Sonia O'Sullivan recalls: "When I was growing up in Cobh, there were only three people who were out running. There were two men and they were well known - they used to do the Dublin marathon every year and everybody in the town knew their names, and then there was me."
The Olympic silver medallist, World Championships gold medallist and world-record-setter (her 2,000m world record of 5:25.36, set in 1994, stood until 2017), is now 49 and lives in Melbourne from where we chat in advance of her launching the inaugural Breast Cancer Ireland Chicago Great Pink Run on October 5.
"Now, when I go back," Sonia continues, "running is huge. And it's wonderful to see that. There are so many different levels that you can compete at. You don't have to be the best in the world to get out and run. I think it took a long time for people to realise that."
To talk running, training and psychology with someone who Patsy McGonagle, Irish team manager for 25 years, recently described thus: "Of all the athletes I ever managed Sonia was the best - without question", is, I confess, a thrill. She is a curious combination of modesty and conviction.
In fact, the conviction may be the root of her modesty. There is no bluster, no 'showboating before a fight' with her, just the certainty that comes from being the best. And certainly, modesty doesn't mean false modesty or dissembling. I ask Sonia what kept her running in those Cobh days, through the teenage years when so many girls, still, give up their sport.
"I was successful to a certain degree when I was quite young," she says. "I didn't win all my races, but I think when you're young and you get a taste for success, and you like it, then you want to keep challenging yourself. I enjoyed that feeling of winning a race, and getting out there. It led to different opportunities to travel, to go away with the Irish team, and that was always a bit of fun. I think the first time I went away I was only 12 or 13. We went to England, on the boat, it was a big adventure, going away without your parents."
Were her parents involved much in encouraging her career? "Yes, but I think I was the driving force in wanting to do more. I was the one to ask 'can I do this? Can I go here?' I was always trying to work out ways that I could get places. I remember in the Bank of Ireland, if you were a young saver, you could get a train ticket to Dublin for £5… I was making it happen. I didn't want to be turned down because it was too expensive to go. I didn't want there to be any reason why I couldn't go."
Nowadays, she reckons, there's a lot more talking about running than there used to be. "The coaches talk about it a bit more, sports psychologists. In our day, the coach would have a chat with you, you'd do the training, but you didn't talk about things too much. You went out and you did it."
Is the new way better? Not necessarily, she reckons. "I think people can over-think things a bit too much nowadays. I do have athletes I coach, and if there's something wrong with them - if they have an injury, they're sick - they can't do anything, whereas I know if I was sick, I'd be doing everything to pretend that I wasn't. I didn't want to miss training, or a race. You'd push yourself through things and you never believed that anything could stop you. Now, if people have an ache or a pain, they tend to stop straight away.
"When you didn't know that much information, you'd keep going, because you'd think 'ah it'll be fine', You'd keep running until you could run no more."
But, she adds, "It's good and bad to do that. It's good because you do push yourself as far as you can, and you learn from it. And it's bad because sometimes the sooner you stop, you can sort things out a bit quicker… but you have to work out, what's a real injury? What's a real sickness? You can't be stopping all the time."
At which point, I can't not ask - what about the Athens Olympics in 2004, when I, along with the rest of the country, watched, devastated, as Sonia, clearly ill, finished last of 14 in the 5000m? "That was one of those situations," she agrees. "I was in the final, I could have just put my hand up and said 'I don't feel good, I can't run'. Or I could go out there and run and think, 'I'm not going to know if I don't run, and maybe I will get away with it…' because sometimes, you can get away with things."
"I suppose," she continues, "in a way I look back and I think, 'why did that happen then? Was there something more I could have done, to not get sick?' And there probably was. When you are super-fit, your immune system is not as strong, you're more open to infection. And you meet people all the time, you talk to people - now, athletes tend to not meet people, they don't shake hands with people - but I wasn't very aware of that stuff then. Little things like that, maybe it would have made a difference. Maybe not. But you can't change it, so you just have to say 'well, that's the cards that you're dealt'. I was trying to do the best I could with what I had, and it didn't work out. I didn't realise at the time that would be the last Olympics I would ever run in. I never saw that as being the end."
Which, I suggest, is maybe just as well? "Yes," she agrees, "that's true. You don't want to finish on a low note and walk away with a negative in your mind. I carried on and trained pretty hard. I had a lot of enjoyable years, all the way until 2008, and then there comes a point where you think, 'well I'm putting in a lot more effort here than the rewards I'm getting'. I think that you get that realisation 'I can't do this any more. It's just not working'. It doesn't happen over night. There's no light bulb moment."
More a gradual evolution of priority? "I had other things in my life. I had two daughters, and I was getting more involved in their lives. When they were much younger, I was training really hard. Then all of a sudden you have all these injuries and you're not running as well, and you think, 'why am I not doing things with them?' And then you think, 'ok, I'm just going to do this for fun now'."
So what's 'fun', now, for Sonia O'Sullivan? "I have two dogs at the moment, They're Border Collies, one is nine and one is not even a year, so full of energy. I take them for a run most days, for about an hour. I found a nice park where I can just let them out of the car and we can all go for a run together and they don't even need to be on the lead, which is great."
She coaches at a local school a few days a week - "it's a really big AFL (Australian Football League) school, most of the boys play AFL, we kind of get the leftovers; but it's great because it's a bunch of kids who get so much out of running" - and at a club also. "Then I always have different events coming up. I do lots of different things that keep me busy."
Sonia is married to Nic Bideau, coach, agent and director of the Melbourne International Track Club. They have two daughters, Ciara, currently at university, and Sophie, who last year won silver in the 800m at the U18 European Championships.
What was it like, for Sonia, seeing her daughter win? "It was a surprise really, it was a bonus, to have a result like that, the first time she was competing in a big competition. It was a good feeling, it was exciting." But, she cautions, "She's still quite young, she's got a lot of training to do yet if she wants to get to the highest level. She enjoys it, and you hope that she continues to enjoy it. She has a natural competitive instinct. You hope that she can draw on that and be rewarded."
Does Sonia have anything to do with her training? "I don't really, except that I take her there. Then I take the dogs for a quick walk or go to the supermarket, while she's training." Does she offer advice? "We have chats in the car. She's learning to drive at the moment so we chat when she's driving, because then she can't argue with me as much," she laughs.
"I have no problem giving her advice, or if she does something in a race and I don't think it's the right thing to do, I'll tell her and if she wants to take your advice she will, and if she doesn't, she won't. You just keep talking, keep the communication going."
Finally, does she ever wish that the sophisticated level of drug testing for athletes that is around now, had been available when she was competing? "You do wish they had the records and the ability to go back and re-check some of the times that were done. Definitely you'd think, 'I'd like to know, was that a true test?' But even now," she points out, "there's still people able to get away with it - with cheating.
"It's one of those things," she says, "that, if you are of the mentality that you don't cheat, that you just go out there and you get the best out of yourself, you can't quite understand. I don't have any doubts about any performances I had. Everything was done through hard work, determination. I look back now and some of the training sessions I did, the races I ran, I wonder, 'how did I do that?' But you're just really tuned in to your ability and belief in yourself. You get out there and push yourself as hard as you can." There, in a nutshell: the best advice you could get.
The inaugural Great Pink Run Chicago, sponsored by Glanbia, takes place in Chicago's Diversey Harbor on October 5, then on October 19 in Dublin's Phoenix Park and the next day in Kilkenny Castle Park. www.greatpinkrun.ie