In a lather when going to the start, her features taut with tension, the Irish heroine slipped further and further back until she lost touch even with the stragglers. Finally, she disappeared. It had been believed that O'Sullivan had the measure of everyone in the race, but the occasion proved too much for her. Lynn Jennings of the United States, a bronze medallist at 10,000m at Barcelona, who finished ninth, tried to comfort her. "I feel horrible for Sonia," she said. "She's the greatest runner now, and deserved a medal."
O'Sullivan was inconsolable, in tears as she removed her track shoes, unable to offer an explanation for the miserable showing. "It's just sport," her father, Tom, philosophised. May- be so, but this is not how it was meant to be, not when you consider the confidence O'Sullivan had displayed in preparations.
Meanwhile, the winner, Wang Junxia of China, was congratulated by excited compatriots after gaining her country's first Olympic gold on the track. Three years ago, Wang was hailed as a phenomenon, the greatest female distance runner in history, taking a gold medal at the 1993 World Championships in Stuttgart and setting three world records.
A 23-year-old fisherman's daughter from Jiahoe City in the Jilin province, she came under the influence of Ma Junren, a coach whose methods, including doses of blood from freshly killed turtles, gave rise to deep suspicion. Two years ago, Wang, along with other Chinese woman athletes, split from Ma, who was alleged to be creaming off appearance money. A subsequent dip in form prompted rumour and innuendo.
The only woman attempting a 5,000-10,000m double here, Wang stayed with Pauline Koga of Kenya before pulling away with two laps left. "I was watching her," Wang said, "and when there was no response I knew I had won." Asked about her old mentor, she said: "I've had no contact with him. I don't even know his address. We spend a lot of time moving to different places for training. There isn't even a chance to contact my family."
However, she considers herself lucky to have come under Ma's influence and that of her present coach, Mao Deghen. Remarkably, with Ma she ran a marathon every day. "The work I do now suits me better, but I don't think it has made that much difference."
Asked to confirm that the Chinese athletes are on a bonus of $10,000 (pounds 6,300) for gold medals, Wang smiled. "It isn't much money," she said. "In any case, it would not be as important as the pride in winning for my country. Since getting over injuries, I have been able to achieve what people expect of me, to make the most of a treasured gift."
For O'Sullivan, there is still the 1,500m. That is if she recovers from her shattering experience.Reuse content