“Lapped and last? Oh well – at least I gained a fan!”

Work was quiet that morning; everyone was at home watching television. I had a temporary job making student cards for that year’s freshers at Trinity College Dublin, frivolous non-work that wasn’t taxing even at the busiest moments.

At lunchtime Grafton Street was buzzing with people. On a poster at a news vendor’s stand I saw the headline for the early edition of the evening paper: ‘SILVER FOR SONIA’. This was how I learned that Ireland’s greatest-ever athlete had just won an Olympic medal.

Four years later, when the 2004 Olympics came around, I was training for my first marathon and following athletics again. Watching her in that year’s Olympic 5,000 metres final, I eventually became a fan of Sonia O’Sullivan.

This may seem strange, as she was trailing in last at the time and had been lapped by the leaders. But coming around the top bend for the last time, approaching the Irish fans who had followed her during a glorious decade, she looked up, smiled and waved at them. I thought she showed great dignity and class with that gesture and in staying on the track, considering that one of her peers had made a high-profile teary exit from another race around that time.

High-profile melodrama, not of her own making, seemed to surround Sonia during her career and perhaps that’s what made me cool towards her. Seeing her not accepting an Irish flag on a lap of honour after her 1995 World Championship win, tabloid-esque media whips up a frenzy over ‘unpatriotic’ Sonia. (She explained that she wanted a flag on a stick instead so she could wave it more easily.) Giving a live post-race interview at the 1997 World Championships, Sonia is suddenly shoved in the back by U.S. runner Regina Jacobs, unhappy with some pushing and pulling in the race.

And then there’s Atlanta.

O’Sullivan’s first Olympic final, the 3,000 metres in 1992, had ended with an agonising fourth place. By the time of the next Games, as reigning European 3,000 metre champion and World 5,000 metre champion, she was the favourite for gold in the 1996 Olympic final and breezed through her heat.

But then it all went wrong on the night. Most people who watched that race remember the sickening image of Sonia drenched in sweat and looking queasy, drifting out the back of the pack until she was almost half a lap down on the entire field.

Eventually she stepped off the track; the Olympic women’s 5,000 metre final went on but all Ireland froze in shock. A near miss or unlucky trip can befall any fancied runner, but no one had conceived of anything as weird as this.

Neighbours in her home town of Cobh were disappointed but more concerned about their heroine’s welfare, while her father memorably used a post-race interview to put everything in perspective for the late-night television audience: “We’ll get up for work tomorrow, we’ll go to work tomorrow, everyone will go to work tomorrow – no one has died, it’s only sport, there will be another day.”

Sonia eventually bounced back to win more titles and that Olympic silver; maybe the mark of a champion is as much about how you handle defeat as how you gain victory. As she waved to her fans on that lonely final lap of the 2004 Olympic final, perhaps that’s what dawned on me at last.

Here’s an excellent little video about Sonia’s ill-fated 1996 Olympics, from an Irish television programme about shocking sporting moments. Thankfully, there’s a happy ending:

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