In March 2020, I shared a public platform with a smiling schoolgirl of 17 who was wearing a tracksuit, like any teenager – except this girl was said to run like the wind. We were part of an An Post discussion panel for International Women’s Day, and she spoke with humour and humility about her prodigious talent for speed.
I remember asking how to pronounce her name and the way she laughed good-naturedly, saying people struggled with it. This week, many more of us are familiar with that name thanks to her performance in the European Championships – my fellow panellist was Rhasidat Adeleke.
During that event in Dublin’s GPO, Rhasidat recalled her surprise on discovering how fast she could sprint as a young girl – so speedy, she was soon beating the boys she pitted herself against. I wondered aloud how they reacted. They were astonished, she said – and didn’t like it one bit. Then she looked down at her feet and smiled modestly.
At the time, she was a pupil at Presentation College in Terenure, Dublin, and due to sit her Leaving Certificate later that year. She described how challenging it was to stay focused, with training sessions before and after school, and weekends given over to training and races. Talent-spotters at American universities were already chasing her, but she was leaving all of that up to her mum.
Rhasidat told the audience she really wanted to make her mark in athletics and have the honour of representing Ireland. She also emphasised the importance of her family’s support, especially mum Ade, who drove her everywhere.
Afterwards, I spoke briefly with Rhasidat’s family, who were bursting with pride – sister Latifah and brother Abdullah were in the audience, along with Ade. Ade and Latifah work for An Post in mail processing in the Dublin centre, and it was plain to see how Ade had passed on respect for the value of hard work to Rhasidat.
Years of exertion paid off this week at the European Championships in Munich when 19-year-old Rhasidat smashed Ireland’s national record for the women’s 400 metres and came fifth in a highly competitive race, finishing in a time of 50.53. Clearly, she is on course to achieve that dream of distinguishing herself as a runner.
Also in Munich, Co Louth’s Israel Olatunde (20) broke the Irish record for the men’s 100 metres. So this week, two talented young Irish athletes have made history for track events within 24 hours of each other. The two sprinters, both Irish-born and of Nigerian heritage, are the public face of a new and multi-cultural Ireland. If ever proof was needed that Irish society is on the march and becoming more diverse, Team Ireland’s Rhasidat Adeleke and Israel Olatunde are the living, achieving, positive evidence of it.
Rhasidat is from Tallaght, Dublin, while Israel is Drogheda-born and was raised in Dundalk. They are friends and training partners, and only a few months separate them in age – Rhasidat turns 20 at the end of this month. She’s young, fit and dedicated, and we’ll be hearing a lot more about their triumphs in the future.
The pair have enormous potential both in terms of their running careers – Olympic medal prospects lie ahead – and as role models, not just for younger athletes but the immigrant community, where they play an iconic part as standard bearers. But they also have a broader symbolic role as representatives of a more diverse Ireland.
“Fastest Irishman in history,” read the headlines about Israel. The UCD student finished in sixth place in the men’s final with a time of 10.17 seconds, breaking Paul Hession’s record of 10.18 set in 2007.
Headlines about Rhasidat too stressed her talent and aptitude, with reminders that she is the fastest ever Irishwoman over 60, 200, 300 and 400 metres. As for endurance, she has that in abundance, competing again today as part of the Irish 4 x 400m relay team – her 50th race of the season.
“I gave it all I had,” Rhasidat said after her event.
“I’m so grateful,” said Israel following his. “I’m just going to keep working and building on this.”
Working, pushing onward, giving your all – these are positive and inspirational messages for all of us.
Let’s turn now to concerns expressed in certain circles about the pressure on housing and services from migrants, asylum-seekers and displaced people arriving in Ireland, with the country getting “too full”.
While this viewpoint is not representative of what Irish people think in general, it is making itself heard.
We need to think in terms of what migrants bring to Ireland rather than what they take, and see ourselves in others – our common, irreducible humanity. Newcomers settle down, take jobs, pay taxes, have children and make a worthwhile contribution to the community.
Rhasidat and Israel grew up in hard-working families – Israel’s mother, Elizabeth, is a care worker and his father, Isaac, works in security – and their stories are shining examples of the benefits of welcoming people in.
Yes, infrastructure needs to be improved and housing stock must be increased – yet accommodation shortages are down to failures in government policy, not to a surge of new arrivals. Meanwhile, people of all nationalities are keeping our health system operational, our supermarket shelves stocked and the construction sector staffed.
Behind Rhasidat and Israel’s record-breaking performances lie years of exertion, as Rhasidat said in the GPO. In sport, as in other walks of life, people who specialise in the impossible are not just necessary but essential, giving the rest of us a sense of the value of perseverance, dedication and self-belief.
They are doing Ireland proud.