Sonia O'Sullivan: Athletes need to make big decisions themselves

IAAF call not to allow Isaac Makwala compete in the 400m final defied belief

Athletics has always been an individual sport. No matter what way you look at it, even when you come together as a team at a major championship, each athlete has to run their own race or take on their own event.

There always comes a time when the athlete needs to decide for themselves.

What to eat, how much to sleep, how hard to run in training. And, just as importantly, when to make a break or crucial, decisive move in a race.

Ultimately the most crucial decision is deciding you are fit to race. That is why I was left in disbelief when Botswana runner Isaac Makwala was denied entry to the athlete warm-up area on Tuesday night, and as a result denied the chance to line up in the 400m final.


Makwala easily won his semi-final, two days previously, only in the 24 hours after this run he turned up for the 200m heats only to be forced to withdraw due to contracting the vomiting bug that has impacted a number of athletes over the past few days.

Still, 24 hours later Makwala declared himself fit to run. And he should know better than most. Yet he wasn’t even allowed to enter the warm-up track due to a recommended 48-hour quarantine imposed on the athlete.

This seems a bit of an afterthought, as surely if one is in quarantine they would not be able to even get to the gate of the stadium let alone be turned away as going about the normal routine of turning up for a race.

On Monday, Thomas Barr declared himself unfit to run in the 400m hurdle semi-final but at least he took the decision himself.

It all seemed like an unprecedented situation, though it’s certainly not the first time athletes have been affected by similar though probably undiagnosed illness in previous championships. Too much information can be a hindrance to common sense decisions.

It would be interesting to know if any other athletes were turned away and denied access to their race. I would have gone mad in that situation and tried every gate in the stadium in order to get in.

It seems an extreme overreaction on the part of the IAAF, and I think Makwala has been denied the chance to race in a final where he was ranked third in the world this year and one of the main challengers to Wayde van Niekerk. I certainly felt with an empty lane there was a major component missing from the 400m final.

Direct contact

There has been statements made by UK Health and also the IAAF to justify the decision taken, essentially in dealing with the gastroenteritis virus but I don’t believe that every chance was given to allow Isaac Makwala race in the 400m final.

By all accounts the virus is contagious, but only through direct contact with the person infected or through something that they have touched. This is something that could so easily have been avoided and an environment created where every athlete is at least given the chance to race.

I have no doubt if Makwala was given some surgical gloves and a mask to wear he would’ve put up with the discomfort while in the warm-up track and call room areas.

Instead, it seemed the decision was made on medical grounds, but not taking into account the extremes that all athletes will go to, to be able to train and compete throughout the year. Surely on this stage, a World Championships which only come round once every two years, something could’ve been done better to allow this athlete to run.

It takes a lot of courage and bravery to overcome illness. And even more courage to override doubts and fears when you line up to race.

There have been so many great races this week, in part because of their unpredictability. Every evening we’re seeing what a great sport athletics can be when all the best athletes are competing together and not watered down as we so often see throughout the year.

Both the women’s 1,500m and the men’s 800m provided everything that we crave in athletics: pure racing, uncertainty and a sense that if you make the commitment and persist eventually opportunities will arise.

It was also hard not to look at these races and wonder what might have been for the Irish athletes. There was a time when Mark English was mentioned in the same sentence as 800m winner Pierre Ambroise Bosse from France, and Poland’s silver medallist Adam Kszczot.

Even more recently Ciara Mageean stood on the podium at last year’s European Championships in Amsterdam alongside Sifan Hassan of the Netherlands and Angelika Cichocka from Poland, who finished fifth and seventh in one of the greatest ever women’s 1,500m races ever on Monday night.

It also got me thinking back a little to the 1993 World Championship 1500m, in Stuttgart, wondering how things have changed. Are these women running faster, is it more competitive?

It’s definitely more competitive in the sense that more of them believe that they can medal, but even with the ominous presence of the Chinese athletes 23 years ago, split times were similar throughout both races.

This also brings me back to the decisiveness an athlete needs to have in their race, the belief and the ability to deliver what you believe you are capable of.

There was a lot expectation put on Mageean coming to London, even though at senior level she hasn’t yet earned the right to it, hasn’t yet delivered on the world stage.

Support people

I always feel uncomfortable when Ciara is unable to answer questions after her races, instead offloading the decision-making to her coach Jerry Kiernan.

There comes a time when an athlete has to take ownership of their decision -making and go out on a limb. You don’t have to announce these decisions, but it’s simply just making your mind up what you can realistically achieve and following through.

We all need coaches for guidance and setting out the training plan, but ultimately the individual athlete must know what they want to do and take the decision in their own hands.

There is sometimes too much dependence on the support people around an athlete who can walk you all the way to the final call-up room but once you step on the track there is only one person that can answer the questions.

And if you can’t find an answer instinctively and without hesitation you will be left wanting and wondering and unable to find the answers.

We all enjoy the comfort zone of an environment that we know and are comfortable with but there is no greater challenge than change in an athlete’s career.

As Caster Semenya said this week, about questions of her own racing situation, the same song played over and over again gets boring after a while. And sometimes there is no greater challenge than change in an athlete’s career.

But there comes a time when you have to throw out the old hymn sheets, because if you keep doing the same preparation over and over again you can’t possibly expect different results.