As they travel to Helsinki next week for the European Athletics Championships, the Irish team can draw inspiration from the last time these games were held in the Finnish capital.
Back in 1994 Ireland’s main hopes rested with Sonia O’Sullivan, who had dominated women’s middle-distance running all that year. But her major championship experiences had been frustrating affairs. She finished fourth in the 3,000 metres final at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. Amazingly, she also finished fourth in the same event at the following year’s World Championships behind a trio of Chinese athletes whose dramatic acceleration in the closing laps aroused much suspicion. A silver medal in the 1,500 metres at the same championships – behind a Chinese athlete again – brought some consolation to O’Sullivan but it seemed that she would be cursed with the same tendancy for near misses that overshadowed Eamonn Coghlan‘s career.
In Helsinki O’Sullivan entered only the 3,000 metres, at which she had broken the European record earlier that year. The final came down to a duel between O’Sullivan and her old adversary Yvonne Murray of Great Britain, the defending European champion. It was a clash of distinct styles – Murray’s front-running versus O’Sullivan’s late kick.
Sure enough, Murray took off early in the race, hoping to sap the sprint out of O’Sullivan. However, the plan didn’t work. At the bell the pair were well clear of the field, Murray having made all the running but with O’Sullivan still sitting in comfortably behind her.
Unlike in the Olympic final, O’Sullivan kept her composure on the final lap and was content to stay with Murray into the back straight. Then with 200 metres to go, the Irishwoman made her trademark move, pulling away without opposition from Murray to run in for her first major title.
The Europeans would prove to be kind to O’Sullivan. Four years later in Budapest she won a sensational 5,000 – 10,000 metre double, winning gold with her first ever competitive run in the longer event. And next time around, in Munich in 2002, she won silver at both distances, capping a glorious career of unprecedented success for an Irish athlete.
Here are the highlights of O’Sullivan’s 1994 victory in Helsinki, with commentary by the inimitable David Coleman of the BBC:
YouTube credit: ARRISIPPY