With the World Cross Country Championships returning to Africa for the first time in 23 years and temperatures soaring into the 30s, most believed that the almost complete domination of this competition by runners from Kenya, Ethiopia and Morocco in recent years would continue.
Then along came Ireland’s Sonia O’Sullivan to take a brilliant double in the women’s races (8km and 4km on successive days) with Britain’s Paula Radcliffe, taking silver in the longer race (as in 1997) after forcing most of the pace. Another European, Julio Vaquero of Spain finished sixth in the same event while there were also unexpected team medals for Great Britain in the 8km and the USA in the 4km. The gap between Africa’s women runners and the rest of the world may not be as pronounced as it is for the men, but the opportunity still had to be seized in Marrakech.
Perhaps the blonde Radcliffe, deserves the credit for laying the seeds of hope with her silver medal just two seconds behind Ethiopia’s Derartu Tulu last year in Turin. Radcliffe was desperately disappointed to take silver again in an event she believes is "just below the Olympic Games" in importance. Radcliffe really believed she could win the gold in Morocco. "It was something I had been dreaming about. " So when the blonde Briton went to the front early in the 8 km race she was determined to stay there. "It was definitely a case of trying to psyche my rivals out. Usually when a Kenyan or Ethiopian takes the lead they are allowed to do so. In this race, every time one of them tried I went in front of them. It was deliberate and it certainly put them off. You have to try and dominate." And only the cagey O’Sullivan, whose tactical skill helped her win a World Championship 5000m gold on the track in 1995, was able to hang on to Radcliffe’s shoulder and sprint decisively past in the final 500 metres.
Like Radcliffe, O’Sullivan refuses to accept African domination in this event. "I have trained really hard for Marrakech. It all goes back to Athens (last year’s world championships) when I was so upset after finishing eighth that I just sat crying in the mixed zone. I decided that I had to make some changes. get back to basics. To do the things that made me a great runner in the past."
O’Sullivan packed her bags and flew to Australia. There, in the company of Bob Kennedy (who finished 16th in the men’s long race), she tried altitude training for the first time. "We went up to a ski-resort which was located at about 2000 metres. But the main thing was that I was running free - there was no running track and I didn’t want to be too bothered by times. I just got myself into shape and began to build up confidence. When I ran 15:03.28 for 5000 metres in Melbourne on February 25, I knew I was back."
O’Sullivan started the long race with nothing to lose. "When I was warming up I felt lighter than ever. I just wanted to keep in touch with the leaders." But after her first gold, which helped her bury disappointments dating back to the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta when a mystery bug ruined her chances, the Irishwoman was eager for more. "Originally I thought I would enter only the short race but the federation put me in both. Everyone told me to quit while I was ahead but I wanted to see what I could do in the shorter race. Even my coach Alan Storey told me to go out and have a pint of Guinness on Saturday - to celebrate." To make matters worse O’Sullivan gashed her shin trying to escape a persistent jewelry seller in the Marrakech Souk. "I walked into a concrete bollard and there was blood everywhere," said O’Sullivan.
Yet the next morning O’Sullivan jogged to the start line - only to hear her mobile phone ring: "It was my coach. He wasn’t happy but I told him to imagine I was a tennis player doing the doubles. He said ‘thank god there’s no mixed doubles then …"