In the summer of 1990 all Irish eyes were fixed on Italy, when we were gripped by an unforgettable World Cup adventure. A few weeks after that, across the Adriatic another epic Irish sports odyssey was about to begin.
The 3,000 metres in the 1990 European Athletics Championships in Split was the first major international track final for a young runner from Cobh called Sonia O’Sullivan. For excitement and strangeness, ups and downs, this race would prove to be a perfect overture to Sonia’s dramatic, rollercoaster career.
Among the other competitors in the race were two who would prove great adversaries to O’Sullivan in future European and Olympic finals – Yvonne Murray of Great Britain and Yelena Romanova of what was then still Russia (running in what was then still Yugoslavia). Also in the race was another Irish runner, Roisin Smyth who had run in the same event at the 1984 Olympics.
Looking back at a time before O’Sullivan became famous, it’s funny to hear athletics commentators getting her name wrong. But on the BBC coverage of the race, David Coleman calls her ‘Moira’ during the presentation of the line-up (and in the first lap seems to call Smyth ‘Bridget’) and later when she makes her first move in the race Brendan Foster mixes her up with Smyth.
The race started at a healthy pace with Britain’s Alison Wyeth leading out the field. O’Sullivan did well to avoid falling on the second lap when she got into a slight tangle that sends her British namesake Sonia McGeorge on a brief detour into the infield.
Suddenly, the whole stadium fell quiet and everyone in the crowd stood still.
In their finite wisdom, the organisers had decided to hold the 10km walk victory ceremony during the 3,000 metres final. And so there is the surreal spectacle of runners in a major championship final circling the track in a silence broken only by the Italian national anthem, in front of a motionless crowd and officials.
O’Sullivan took up the running in the middle kilometre of the race without stretching the pack, and with Wyeth and Murray sitting in behind her. With 1,000 metres to go, O’Sullivan let herself slip back a few places to save her strength for a final sprint.
However, Murray trumped the entire field. Just as O’Sullivan moved back up to the front with 550 metres left, the Scot blasted off and stole ten metres on Romanova. At the bell O’Sullivan was a distant third.
Murray increased her lead over the last lap and held on for an emphatic victory. O’Sullivan finished back in 11th place, with Smyth a further two places behind.
So, Split 1990 might have been an unsuccessful first major final for O’Sullivan, but her strong showing up to the final lap suggested that she had potential at the highest level. Little did we suspect then that her next decade of running would prove to match Italia ’90 in making the nation hold its breath.
Watch the BBC coverage of the race here: