Sonia’s near miss in Barcelona

Fourth place for Ireland again.

On my recent visit to the Olympic stadium in Barcelona, I tried to block out memories of Ireland’s athletics highlight from the 1992 Games. As it happens, Ireland had another of its agonising fourth place finishes on the track that year.

True, the 1992 Games were relatively successful from an Irish perspective – we won a gold and a silver in boxing, traditionally our strongest Olympic sport. But ahead of Barcelona our brightest medal hope was a young Cork athlete called Sonia O’Sullivan.

Gold and silver medallist herself at the World Student Games the previous year, 7th in the World Cross Country Championships at the start of 1992, O’Sullivan was a rising star of international athletics by the time the Barcelona Olympics came around. She won her 3,000 metres semi-final decisively – although perhaps with more experience she would have saved her energy and contented herself with mere qualification.

Still, the marker was laid down; O’Sullivan was a medal contender. Her main opponents in the final would be Yvonne Murray of Great Britain and Yelena Romanova and Tetyana Dorovskikh of the Unified team of former Soviet states. Murray was the Olympic bronze medalist at the event in Seoul in 1988 and had won the European title two years previously in a race where O’Sullivan made her major international track final debut. Dorovskikh was the reigning Olympic champion, while Romanova had won silver in the event at the previous World and European championships.

Like many major finals, the race was slow and cautious at first – the two opening laps were each run in around 75 seconds, a veritable jog for élite athletes. As the race progressed the pace stayed slow, putting extra psychological pressure on the field. Who would move up to the front to try imposing a tempo? Who felt confident of having a decisive kick at the end, and who would risk a long run for home to burn off the fast finishers?

On television, the BBC commentator was still David Coleman, now accompanied by former Olympic medallist Brendan Foster as analyst. You can listen to them and watch the race below. Foster, well used to tactical battles on the track, helps build the tension with just over four laps left by worrying about Murray’s chances were she to drive for home from way out: “The one who goes first, I would bet, doesn’t win this race.”

Coleman, by 1992, was past his prime of the 1960s and ’70s – his voice had lost its dramatic boom and was now a piercing gurgle, like a washing machine with a cat stuck in the outflow pipe. But he still had the occasionally brilliant turn of phrase. When Murray confirms Foster’s fears by making her move with 600 metres to go, Coleman strikes a pessimistic note: “Well, she’s there to be shot at now – committed beyond recall”.

O’Sullivan, meanwhile, had stayed near the back of the leading group throughout the race but now edged up outside Romanova, who had covered Murray’s move. In her subsequent autobiography O’Sullivan explained her plan at that point: latch on to Murray’s anticipated early attack and use that to pull away from the pack before launching her own attack.

At the bell, the Irish athlete was third. Around the bend she went past Romanova and moved up to Murray at the head of the field, settling in to let the Briton lead her out.

But then O’Sullivan‘s plan fell apart. Reaching Murray, as she recalls in her autobiography:

“I realize that Yvonne’s cards are all on the table and that she has been holding nothing. She goes. I go. And I realize with over 300 metres left that she is dead. Running on empty. […]

We had been coming on to the start of the back straight on the final lap when Yvonne evaporated into the night and left me alone, out in front of an Olympic field and about 150 metres away from my comfort zone. It is too soon, but it is too exciting also […] So I go with it. I make a push. Maybe fear and adrenalin and innocence will push me home.”

O’Sullivan kept up her surge, but her move was neither decisive enough to make a clean break nor conservative enough to keep something in reserve for another kick. Basically, with 300 metres left O’Sullivan looked to have gone too early.

At 200 metres, with Murray slipping right out of contention as if standing still, it was now O’Sullivan’s turn to be shot at. The two Unified team athletes trailed her around the final bend, in prime position to strike for gold. Almost simultaneously they attacked on the home straight – Romanova going outside O’Sullivan and Dorovskikh slipping through a gap on the inside that an experienced athlete would have closed off. The Irish runner couldn’t respond, and Romanova pulled away for the win ahead of her compatriot.

Now O’Sullivan had to hang on for bronze. However, just as she looked inside her for another challenger, Angela Chalmers of Canada moved up on the outside. Finishing strongly, the Canadian ran in for third place, leaving the Irishwoman fourth. Just as with Eamonn Coghlan in 1976, it seemed that inexperience had cost O’Sullivan an Olympic medal and condemned her to the agony of fourth place. And if you don’t think this result was agonising for O’Sullivan, check out her expression in this photo.

The race would have a bleak postscript. Dorovskikh failed a drugs test the following year; Romanova died at the young age of 43 in 2007, from unexplained causes. O’Sullivan’s supporters would draw their own (unsubstantiated) conclusions as to the result of the 1992 Olympic 3,000 metres final.

O’Sullivan recovered from this setback – but not immediately. She failed to qualify for the 1,500 metres final. The following year she finished fourth in a major final again: the now-notorious 1993 World Championship 3,000 metres final where the three medal places went to a surprise trio of unknown Chinese athletes whose coach swore by a diet of traditional herbal ingredients. (Irish athletics fans just swore.) But a few days later, albeit behind a Chinese athlete again, O’Sullivan won silver in the 1,500 metres, thus ushering in a glorious decade of domination during which she always waited until 200 metres before striking for home.

Sonia’s Olympic story, though, got worse before it got better. But her calamitous experience in Atlanta four years later seems to have drawn attention away from her equally-frustrating Barcelona final. No harm in that, the woman herself might say.

Here’s that 1992 final with BBC commentary by Coleman and Foster:

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