Sonia O’Sullivan’s Olympic aspirations in 1996 were cruelly curtailed by an untimely bout of illness and she then suffered the ignominy of exiting in the 5000m heats at the 1997 World Championships in Athens where she was defending her title.
But after two seasons in the mire, the Irishwoman was back to her exceptional best in 1998. She won both the long course and short course titles at the World Cross Country Championships in Marrakech – only Tirunesh Dibaba has swept both titles at the same championships on the women’s side – and O’Sullivan was to convert this form back onto track.
O’Sullivan had previously achieved success at the European Championships, winning the 3000m title from Yvonne Murray in Helsinki in 1994. But the event was replaced by the 5000m with O’Sullivan boasting the distinction of becoming the inaugural world champion at the distance in Gothenburg 1995.
She would duly become the first ever European 5000m champion in Budapest in 1998 but not before she opened her title haul with a sensational gold medal in the 10,000m – the first time she had ever contested the distance either on the track or on the roads.
O’Sullivan was often criticised in her career for losing concentration in longer distance races. Her agent Kim McDonald was among those to harness some reservations about her foray up to the 10,000m but her doubters needn’t have worried as the race unfolded perfectly for O’Sullivan.
O’Sullivan would face a field which included Portugal’s indomitable championship performer Fernanda Ribeiro, the reigning Olympic and European champion, as well as Great Britain’s Paula Radcliffe who was also moving up from the 5000m. Radcliffe did most of the front running in the latter stages but weakened by illness herself, the Brit could not sustain a pace which would neutralise O’Sullivan’s famed finishing speed.
After 24 interminable laps around the Puskas Arena, O’Sullivan was now in her element. With 200 metres remaining, O’Sullivan slingshotted past Ribeiro with a breathtaking and unrivalled acceleration and the Irishwoman was suddenly well on her way to the first part of a long distance double.
Legendary BBC commentator David Coleman summed up the latter stages of the race succinctly and perfectly. “There goes O’Sullivan!” he exclaimed. “And in two or three strides it’s all over.”
In full flight, O’Sullivan covered the last half-a-lap in under 30 seconds to make it a golden debut, winning the 10,000m title in 31:29.33. In the space of just 200 metres, O’Sullivan eked out a significant winning margin of three seconds over Ribeiro (31:32.42) with Romania’s marathon specialist Lidia Simon taking the bronze (31:32.64). A visibly off-colour Radcliffe wound up fifth in 31:36.51.
“There were times in the race when it got a little bit tough but everything fell into place when I got to halfway,” O’Sullivan told the Irish News. “I thought: ‘Right you can’t lose from here. This is my area now.’ But I never thought about winning until I was in the last 1000m because you can get distracted.”
After a few days rest, O’Sullivan embarked on adding to her title haul in the 5000m in which she would face her long-time adversary Gabriela Szabo from Romania, who succeeded O’Sullivan as world champion in Athens in 1997.
Szabo was also renowned for her exceptional finishing pace but clearly aware of O’Sullivan’s formidable form in the 10,000m, Szabo uncustomarily – and at times reluctantly – assumed the pacemaking duties.
Much to the chagrin of the diminutive Romanian, O’Sullivan was more than happy to sit in and follow. It was a windy afternoon and O’Sullivan was carrying some of the tiredness in her legs from the 10,000m.
“I refused to go past her,” said O’Sullivan in an in-depth interview with European Athletics earlier this year. “There was one point when Szabo moved out and looked around and she got really annoyed at me because I wouldn’t take the lead but I was like: ‘Hang on a second, this is a race, we’re not trying to help each other.’”
The latter stages of the 5000m played out similarly to the 10,000m. Szabo kicked from the front but O’Sullivan, who temporarily lost her position just before the bell, ominously moved onto the Romanian’s shoulder with 300 metres remaining.
Szabo might have put up more resistance than Ribeiro did in the 10,000m but the outcome was inevitable when O’Sullivan forged to the front with 120 metres remaining. With a 59.74 last lap, O’Sullivan claimed the 5000m title to go with her 10,000m title in 15:06.50 to hand Szabo her only defeat at the distance between 1997 and 2000.
Szabo might have got her revenge on O’Sullivan in a classic 5000m final at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney where they came away with gold and silver respectively but O’Sullivan is still regarded as one of the very best European distance runners of all-time.
After missing the 2001 season to give birth to her daughter Sophie, the silver medallist in the 800m at the 2018 European Athletics U18 Championships, O’Sullivan was to add two more silver medals to her collection in the 5000m and 10,000m at the 2002 European Championships in Munich.
And with a tally of three gold medals and two silver medals, O’Sullivan remains the most successful female long distance runner in European Championships history.