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'Sonia was almost the perfect Irish hero: courageous, determined, yet fragile and all too human'

Moreover, Irish sport has continually demonstrated our nation’s capacity to unite behind certain events and certain individuals, writes Dr Richard McElligott.

Dr Richard McElligott Historian

OBJECTS DEFINE OUR our nation’s history. That is the essential concept behind National Treasures.

Over four roadshows my fellow curators and I were confronted with hundreds of items, each a cherished and significant part of the lives of the people who turned up to share them.

From these we were asked to select a sample which we felt best reflected the social, cultural, design and sporting history of this island over the past century – a daunting task. The fruits of this endeavour will be aired in RTÉ One’s four-part National Treasures series beginning this evening.

Sporting history

Given my academic interest in Ireland’s sporting history, I was asked to concentrate on items which would reveal to the viewer the rich tapestry of the nation’s sporting heritage. Sport offers a wonderful window into Irish society and the complexities, nuances and contradictions of Irish life are continuously revealed through our sporting history.

Moreover, Irish sport has continually demonstrated our nation’s capacity to unite behind certain events and certain individuals.

Sonia O’Sullivan is undoubtedly one of those individuals. A personal highlight of the project, which viewers will see in the first episode, was getting to select O’Sullivan’s running gear from the Barcelona Olympics and discussing her illustrious career with her father John.

Such a talent

Sonia was not just Ireland’s most renowned female athlete; she was one of the greatest sports stars Ireland has ever seen. It is amazing now to think that this small country, with a relatively unremarkable pedigree in international athletics, produced such a talent.

Sonia dominated world middle-distance running in the mid-1990s. Having first shot to prominence with a fourth-place finish in the 1,500 meters in Barcelona, she went on to win gold in the 1995 World Championships, gold in three European Championships and gold twice in the 1998 World Cross Country Championships. In 1994 she smashed the 2000 meters world record by three seconds, a time not subsequently bested until February 2017.

Yet more than her talents and her unprecedented successes on the world stage, it was the high-profile setbacks experienced in the Atlanta Olympics that helped endear her to the Irish public.

A stomach illness ensured that despite being the odds-on favourite for the 5,000 metres, she failed to finish the final. It struck me as I listened to John talk with such pride about his daughter how we, as a nation, were also so emotionally invested in her. We shared her pain and agony on that humid summer night in Georgia and, like her father, we revelled as she returned to the world stage resolved to erase that failure.

Athletic redemption

Her athletic redemption culminated on September 25 2000. In the final of the Sydney Olympics 5000 meters, Ireland came to a standstill as we collectively roared on our unassuming hero from Cobh.

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I can only imagine the emotions John felt as his daughter hunted down Romania’s Gabriela Szabo in a captivating sprint finish. Szabo did just enough to hold on to gold, but O’Sullivan’s silver was the first Olympic medal won by an Irish woman in athletics. It was also the country’s first track and field Olympic medal since John Treacy’s silver in 1984.

Throughout a glittering career, Sonia filled us with excitement and nerves. A proven winner who nevertheless suffered huge disappointment, Sonia was almost the perfect Irish hero: courageous, determined, yet fragile and all too human.

The items John so graciously filmed with us showcase one of the most astounding talents to emerge from an Irish athletics tradition that stretches all the way back to the eighteenth century. Yet on a more personal level, they demonstrate the quiet but immense pride of a father in his daughter’s achievements.

It is that link between the personal and the greater historical context that is at the heart of the National Treasures project.

Dr Richard McElligott is a lecturer in modern Irish history in University College Dublin and a curator on RTE’s National Treasures, a four-part series starting this Sunday on RTÉ One at 6.30pm.   

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