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Sonia O’Sullivan: “At the Opening Ceremony it really hits you that you’re at the Olympics.”

Sonia O'Sullivan Getty Images
08 May 2018
Olympic News, Sydney 2000, Ireland, Athletics
Runner Sonia O’Sullivan represented Ireland at the 1992, 1996, 2000 and 2004 Olympic Games, winning 5,000m silver in 2000, when she also carried her nation’s flag at the Opening Ceremony. And in 2012 in London, she attended the Opening and Closing Ceremonies as Ireland’s Chef de Mission.

It’s a strange anomaly that I didn’t go to an opening or closing ceremony until I was selected to carry the Irish flag at the Opening Ceremony of my third Olympics in 2000. For my first and second Games, in 1992 and 1996, there was a variety of reasons why I wasn’t able to go to the ceremonies, but I have to admit that because I was so focused on performing, it didn’t upset me too much at the time. The track and field events come in the second week of the Games, so for the Barcelona and Atlanta Games, I was still at a holding camp miles away from the host city when the Opening Ceremony was going on.

All of the athletes at the holding camp did make sure that we watched the Opening Ceremony though – we all put our uniform on and gathered round the television which was fun. We were all cheering really loudly when Ireland marched in and even though we weren’t there in person, watching the Opening Ceremony definitely made us feel like the Games had begun.

So my first Opening Ceremony was in 2000, in Sydney, when I was flag-bearer. I was asked well in advance if I would carry the Irish flag so I was able to shuffle my schedule around and make sure that I was there for the Opening Ceremony. It was really exciting to be going to my first Olympic ceremony. And to be flag-bearer was great because it meant that I had more of a purpose than just marching.

Sonia O'Sullivan Getty Images

Back in 2000, social media wasn’t around so things didn’t have to be nearly as secretive as they do now. I remember when our flag-bearer was selected in 2012 it was a much bigger issue trying to keep it quiet than it was when I did it in 2000. It was really nice to be asked to carry the flag and of course it was a huge honour but actually, it was no more exciting than just going to the Olympics was because that’s such a huge thing in itself. One thing being flag-bearer did ensure though was that I was definitely going to be at the Opening Ceremony so it was nice to actually be there for the first time.

The build-up to the ceremony in Sydney was fantastic – everybody was in the Athletes’ Village getting ready and putting our uniform on; and what’s so great about that part of it is that’s when you meet a lot of the athletes on the team from different sports. That was really fun. And because I was flag-bearer, everybody came and spoke to me and had pictures taken.

When the athletes make the pledge - about the commitment, honour, respect and fairness, that’s really special. It’s a very big deal to be there for that and you don’t realise until you actually go to the Opening Ceremony quite how significant that is. Sonia O’Sullivan Ireland

One thing I was really worried about was how heavy the flag was going to be. You see this huge flag on this massive flag-pole and you expect it to be really, really heavy but actually, it was completely fine, it didn’t weigh too much at all.

Being at the Opening Ceremony as an athlete makes everything very real and it really hits you that you’re at the Olympics. When the athletes make the pledge - about the commitment, honour, respect and fairness, that’s really special. It’s a very big deal to be there for that and you don’t realise until you actually go to the Opening Ceremony quite how significant that is.

I retired from running in 2007 but was appointed Chef de Mission for the Irish team for London 2012. In a lot of ways, I would actually have liked to have sat in the stands to watch the Opening Ceremony at London because I’d never had the chance to just sit and watch the show before. But I was asked to march alongside our flag-bearer, the boxer Katie Taylor, so that was my role.

Sonia O'Sullivan Getty Images

One memory I have about the London Opening Ceremony is that before the Games began, myself and a few other people were out in London having dinner and we saw all these people practising for the Opening Ceremony. It was fascinating to see what was involved. It was in the dark and it was quite secretive but at the same time, anybody could have walked past and seen what was going on.

There’s two parts to an opening ceremony – there’s the show part of it and then there’s the parade of teams; and the funny thing is that the athletes never get to see the show because we’re in a holding area waiting for our call to march into the stadium.

In 2012, as Chef de Mission, I definitely was able to enjoy the Opening Ceremony more than when I was an athlete. In London, I felt like part of my job was to be there and to support the athletes and it was at London 2012 that I realised how important it is for everybody else to have the athletes there. When you’re an athlete yourself and you’re purely focused on performing at the Games, you don’t realise how important it is for the team to have as many athletes there as possible, but in 2012, it definitely hit me. What was really fantastic was to be at an opening ceremony and not worry about how it was going to affect my performance, I was able to just enjoy it.

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