Twenty years ago tonight, Sonia O’Sullivan won a silver medal in the women’s 5,000 metre final at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. That night is still regarded as one of the best ever in the sport of athletics. Patsy McGonagle was the Irish Team Manager that night. Here is how he remembers it …
THERE are 112,000 people gasping for breath as Sonia O’Sullivan comes around the bend and goes for gold.
Gabriela Szabo, the reigning World champion, is holding on. But Sonia, the Sonia of old, is battling for dear life.
The night of September 25, 2000, will be regarded as the greatest night in the history of athletics as the world watched Cathy Freeman, Michael Johnson and Haile Gebrselassie light up the track, but we don’t realise that as we watch Sonia and wait for Sonia all at once.
We are consumed in the moment and lost in the Sydney night. It is one of the great Olympic nights and nobody inside Stadium Australia can take their eyes off the epic battle on the track. People in those days didn’t view history unfolding through the lens of a mobile phone.
With 300 metres to go in the women’s 5,000m final, Sonia goes for it. Four years earlier, she had a disaster in Atlanta. Sonia didn’t finish the 5,000m final and failed to qualify from the heats of the 1,500m.
But now Sonia is back. Her name has been scandalised in the Australian media and we wondered how it would all impact on her.
It is very clear that Sonia is in the zone. She’s going to win this.
Here I am, now, on this night of nights, at the finish line in Sydney, thinking it is going to happen. I’m not coaching, but I’m managing and being associated with this sensation of Irish athletics.
Sonia has a couple of goes, but she just can’t get up to Szabo.
I know all about the Romanian. In my early days as Irish team manager, Szabo won gold in the 3,000 metres at the 1994 World Junior Championships in Lisbon. I was never a man for looking at splits or lap times.
People shout all this information at various intervals, but I just watch the person, see where that person is and what the whole landscape looks like at a particular moment in time.
Two Ethiopians, Gete Wami and Ayelech Worku, are arguing amongst themselves as the race hots up. Their plan was to have the pace at such a height that Sonia would get lost.
Wami is on the trail of glory. Worku fancies her own chances. They are flat out by now, but soon the battle for gold is down to two… it’s Sonia versus Szabo. It’s a frenetic fight to the finish. Szabo goes first. Sonia responds and, as they’re heading for home… neck and neck. GO ON… SONIA!
Sonia’s on her shoulder, but Szabo finds a little something… again. I’m waiting for Sonia to burst past Szabo, but… it doesn’t happen.
Sonia is out of time… out of track. Szabo has nicked it. Twenty-three hundredths of a second. One stride. So close. So far. F***… F*** IT.
My first meeting with Sonia O’Sullivan was before the 1994 European Cup, the first of 17 times I managed Ireland at the event.
The fact Sonia was even turning out for this was a big deal. She was big business and not all athletes treated the European Cup too seriously.
This one was in Dublin, which helped, but it was still a big thing to have Sonia with us.
Before the event started, I piled all the athletes into a tiny little room in the Skylon Hotel on the north side of the city, declining the option of a big room for a reason: I wanted proximity.
I didn’t want distance between me and the team. I had to get them psyched.
I asked Fr Liam Kelleher from Cork to say a Mass in the middle of the ‘meeting’, but I got him to shunt the Mass in a direction of a team talk.
At the end of it all, I was at the ‘altar’ – a table, with some sort of Holy-looking cloth around it – beside Fr Liam and we got the team so up for it they were ready to burst out the door from Mass.
Sonia was one of the last to arrive that day.
The seats were all taken and you could see her train of thought.
Where am I going to sit?
I had never met Sonia O’Sullivan before.
I looked over at the ground beside the wall. “There you are… over there.” Part of me was worried that she was such a big star that she’d kick up a fuss but, no, Sonia hunched down on the ground and didn’t bat an eyelid.
Sonia was a gem.
She was part of a very good European Cross Country team that I had in Edinburgh in 2003. She won silver with Catherina McKiernan, Rosemary Ryan and Anne Keenan-Buckley.
Of all the athletes I ever managed Sonia was the best – without question.
Sonia was magic, but the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta was a nadir for her. Ireland expected gold.
Sonia expected gold.
She came through the heats and the semi-final, but with two laps to go in the women’s 5,000 metres final, Sonia dropped out of the race. There was a question over where Sonia would go after ’96. The country adored Sonia and nobody wanted Atlanta to have been the end.
Sonia studied at Villanova in the late 1980s and early ’90s and developed shin splints, which kept her out for a year.
She struggled, but she came out the other side and showed incredible resilience to do that. If a silver medal at the World Indoors in 1997 hinted that Sonia would be back, Marrakesh in western Morocco and the World Cross Country Championships in 1998 was the confirmation.
She went to Marrakesh with the intention of running in one race. She got dropped off at the wrong hotel, lost her bag and her phone, but went to stay with Tina Ryan from Nike. Sonia was annoyed that she might be scratched from the second race, but she handled it so, so well.
It was the first year that there was an eight kilometre race for the women and the first year there were two different races.
Sonia went for a run around the course the night before the race and was prepared for the gap in the fence the participants had to go through to get to the finish line.
It was set up for a sprint finish. Sonia had that knowledge from the previous night and Paula Radcliffe admitted afterwards that she was just going to stop at the fence and not go through the gap. Radcliffe’s hesitation and Sonia’s knowledge meant that there was only going to be one winner.
That evening run made it for Sonia. She came out and nailed the second race too.
The heat was wicked because the race was at midday, but Sonia just took Marrakesh in her stride. Her confidence was back, and with it the stardust also returned. She was just awesome at that time – a true icon.
Sonia, the oldest runner in the race, won silver in the Olympics in Sydney, but there was a certain disappointment. She ran a new personal best time, and her 14mins and 41.02secs was a new national record too.
There was a feeling around the midway point that the race was gone from her. She drifted back to 12th and the fear was that she wouldn’t claw it back. But Sonia did.
Szabo put her two arms out and got over the line for her moment. Sonia looked to the Sydney sky as we waited for the reaction. She looked over and smiled.
Once I saw the satisfaction written on Sonia’s face, my mind, scrambled as she crossed the line, changed. She got her medal, becoming the first Irish woman to medal in athletics at the Olympics, and did a lap of honour just as Cathy Freeman, Australia’s heroine and by now Sonia’s arch nemesis, was being paraded as the 400 metres champion.
Sonia darted down the home straight, draped in the Irish Tricolour and accepting the adulation of the Irish supporters.
Her father John was anxious to get to her. Nic Bideau, her coach and partner, and their daughter Ciara came over. So too Father Liam Kelleher, who saw her briefly.
They met under a street light with Sonia in the Olympic zone and they in a spectator area. The smiles from each side of the fence told the story. We had to get Sonia out of there.
There was a demand for a press conference, but we didn’t do one. We only got out of the place after midnight.
Sonia had the 10,000 metres to do as well, and our minds quickly turned to that. She went away into the night with an Olympic silver medal around her neck and a furry wombat under her arm.
The above is an excerpt from ‘Relentless: A Race Through Time’, Patsy McGonagle, A Memoir (with Chris McNulty) Published: June 2019, Hero Books, €20.00 (ISBN 9781910827079). You can buy here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Relentless-Race-Through-Patsy-McGonagle/dp/191082707X