Tuesday 25 September 2018

The changing face of Irish athletics

Team Ireland’s relay team at last year’s European Youth Olympic Festival – from left, Patience Jumbo-Gula from Dundalk, Niamh Foley from Newcastle West, Miriam Daly from Carrick-on-Suir and Rhasidat Adeleke from Tallaght after claiming third place in the women’s 4x100m relay during the championships at Olympic Park in Gyor, Hungary. Photo: Sportsfile
Team Ireland’s relay team at last year’s European Youth Olympic Festival – from left, Patience Jumbo-Gula from Dundalk, Niamh Foley from Newcastle West, Miriam Daly from Carrick-on-Suir and Rhasidat Adeleke from Tallaght after claiming third place in the women’s 4x100m relay during the championships at Olympic Park in Gyor, Hungary. Photo: Sportsfile

Cathal Denehy

The trend was unmistakeable, clear as day to see for those willing to look. In Tullamore at the start of the month, midway through the Irish Schools Championships, a snapshot of the future of Irish athletics began to sharpen into focus.

Traditionally the sport has rested its hopes internationally on stick-thin distance runners with milk-bottle skin and names that were unmistakeably Gaelic, but the future has a very different facade - it's a speed-filled spectrum of diversity.

Tallaght’s relay team which took gold at last year’s national championships – Simon Essuman, Shola Edola, Timmy Bada, Joseph Ojewumi and coach Daniel Kilgallon.
Tallaght’s relay team which took gold at last year’s national championships – Simon Essuman, Shola Edola, Timmy Bada, Joseph Ojewumi and coach Daniel Kilgallon.

Nowhere was that more prevalent than in the intermediate girls' 100m, a race dominated by a 15-year-old from Tallaght and a 16-year-old from Dundalk, whose names - Rhasidat Adeleke and Patience Jumbo-Gula - might once have been out of place in this realm, but not anymore.

Adeleke ripped down the track to take victory in 11.68 ahead of Jumbo-Gula in 11.84, with daylight back in third. An hour later in the 200m Adeleke had a second to spare over runner-up Ailbhe Doherty, winning in 24.05.

Dermot McDermott, a 36-year-old coach from Sligo, laughs when he thinks back to this event in 2000 and the buzz around Tullamore when Joanne Cuddihy, the fastest female 400m runner in Irish history, won the same race in 25.36.

"That was seen as a massively fast time back then," he says. "Things have changed massively."

Initiative

Though operating outside the system, few have their stethoscope trained to the pulse of young talent like McDermott, who tested tens of thousands of kids in schools across Ireland for his 'Believe and Achieve' initiative in recent years.

And he noticed a clear trend when it came to those of African ethnicity.

"They're just naturally faster, and along with that if you have three African kids in the class, it makes the Irish kids faster too. It's true what they say: if you surround yourself with fast people, you become fast."

But why the difference?

It's well known that Olympic sprint podiums have long been dominated by athletes of West African descent, and the explanation is likely genetic.

In his superb book, The Sports Gene, David Epstein outlines how the vast majority of world-class sprinters trace their ancestry to the same region in West Africa, where the ACTN3 gene is much more prevalent.

Without burrowing too deep in a scientific rabbit hole, those with two copies of this gene will likely have far more dominant, effective fast-twitch muscle fibres, the key ingredient for generating explosive power, itself the crucial component of speed.

It's not that these genetics can't be found in other ethnicities - the majority of white world-class sprinters are also likely to have them - but for evolutionary reasons it's far more common in those of West African descent.

And when it comes to the genetics of the Irish population, we're a far more diverse lot today. In the 1996 census just 4,687 people identified as ethnically African, but the wave of immigration over the following decade pushed that over 40,000 by 2006. In the 2016 census, almost 60,000 people identified their ethnicity as Black African or Black Irish.

In Irish sprinting, the effect of that change has been amplified.

Last year Gina Akpe-Moses became the first Irishwoman to win a European sprint title when taking 100m gold at the European U-20 Championships.

Born in Lagos, Nigeria, Akpe-Moses moved to Ireland at the age of two and at her primary school in Dundalk, she'd race and beat the fastest boys throughout her youth. Ever since carrying the Irish colours to gold last summer she's been aware of sport's power to promote the impact of diversity.

"I like being a part of it," she says. "I feel like I make a difference as well as everyone else, and you feel relevant."

In recent weeks Akpe-Moses teamed up with Rhasidat Adeleke, Ciara Neville and Molly Scott to break the Irish U-20 4x100m record in Belgium.

Adeleke, like Akpe-Moses, also has Nigerian parents, and while she was born in Ireland it's only natural she feels a blend of nationalities.

"It's great being half and half because I get to share two amazing cultures," says Adeleke. "I'm proud to be progressing and known as an Irish athlete, to be giving something back to the country."

Last summer Adeleke won European Youth Olympics silver over 200m and teamed up with Patience Jumbo-Gula, Niamh Foley and Miriam Daly to take bronze in the 4x100m.

However, perhaps the biggest thing isn't what the children of immigrants are doing for Irish athletics, but what the sport does for them.

"In my experience the kids of African descent are often more integrated if they are involved in sport," says Daniel Kilgallon, a Regional Development Officer with Athletics Ireland.

"Those that excel are generally accepted and no matter what your background, if you are the fastest kid in your school, club or country, you'll be respected for that by your peers."

At Tallaght AC, Kilgallon coaches a group with various ethnicities and the result is an environment where race is deemed irrelevant.

"There's no distinction, no black or white," he says. "There's no disrespect between athletes or difference in treatment."

He thinks back to the first time he met Joseph Ojewumi, who was born in Nigeria but moved to Ireland at the age of six. With no training, the youngster won a Leinster sprint title, then showed up at Tallaght AC the week before the Irish Schools Championships in 2011. Kilgallon sorted him with a pair of spikes and taught him how to use starting blocks, and the following week Ojewumi beat the fastest kids in Ireland over 100m.

Last week Ojewumi clocked 10.64 for 100m in Holland, which makes him one of the fastest Irishman this year, but for Kilgallon, keeping such talented youngsters in the sport can be tricky.

"Joseph is adamant he'll stay in the sport, but so many are disappearing once they get to U-23s," he says.

"They come to the sport very fast, very developed, quicker than an athlete with a traditional Irish background, but once they get a bit older they tend to get a lot of injuries and you see them falling away.

"A lot of these kids are really quick but there's not much technique, and the challenge is often to break that down and keep them in the sport long enough to get the benefit."

Last year Kilgallon coached a relay team to national gold that comprised four athletes - Simon Essuman, Shola Edodo, Timmy Bada and Joseph Ojewumi - whose parents had varying degrees of African origin. Bada, in particular, was of world-class athletic lineage. His father, Sunday, was a World Indoor champion over 400m for Nigeria in 1997 and an Olympic gold medallist in the 4x400m at Sydney 2000.

Over in Sligo, meanwhile, McDermott was coaching Nadia Udo-Obong, whose father Enefiok was on that same Nigerian team that won gold in Sydney 2000. "That's the sort of talent that's coming into the country," he says.

But for McDermott, a lot more should be done to recruit those who so often fly beneath the radar.

"The most important thing for getting these kids into the sport is the schools system. If you get into the school, you'll get the kid."

He'd like to see Athletics Ireland appoint an integration officer whose responsibility is to boost participation among minorities.

"The GAA have them, the Community Games do, so why doesn't Athletics Ireland? More than any other sport, we should have one," he says.

Like many, he's seen the scale of change over the past two decades, knows the ability that's there and if McDermott has one wish, it's that all that diverse talent is brought to full bloom.

"They have to be minded, have to be protected," he says. "Because in a sporting sense, it's like striking gold."

Irish Independent

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