Olympians of tomorrow sprint from ranks of ‘New Irish’
After Rio, athletes from new generation of Irish communities keen for baton to pass on
Sprinter John Ikpotokin training at Tullamore Harriers, Co Offaly, under coach Eamonn Henry. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times
Jana Joha, triple jump specialist, training at Tullamore Harriers, Co Offaly, under coach Igor Povstianoj. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times
Gina Akpe-Moses of Blackrock AC on her way to winning the U-16 200m GloHealth Juvenile Track and Field Championships, Tullamore Harriers AC, Tullamore, Co Offaly, July 2014. File photograph: Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Santry Stadium, May 2012. Sport Against Racism Ireland is hosting Africa Day Athletics to promote the disciplines to children of African heritage. The guest of honour is Kenyan legend Kipchoge Keino, who won gold at the 1968 (1,500m) and 1972 (3,000m steeplechase) Olympic Games.
John Ikpotokin (six) from Portarlington has won the boys’ under-eight 60m sprint. He is looking for another challenge. There are no endurance races for the under-eights, so he steps into the under-10 400m.
On the whistle the children make a burst for the inside lane. John is jostled, trips and falls. Getting to his feet he looks around, expecting the race to be recalled. A couple of officials race over to check if he needs first aid. From the sideline John’s father, Sylvester, calls out “He’s okay” before yelling: “John, just run!”
By now the race leaders are almost halfway around the first bend, 50m clear of John. He takes off. At the 200m mark he is on the shoulder of the second-placed runner. With 80m to go he moves into the lead.
Officials from the local athletics club look on in amazement. Keino speaks with his parents: “If we had a boy like this in Kenya he would be running in the Olympics when he is 18,” he says.
Four years on, John’s mother, Pauline, still remembers that day. “I can remember that was the first time that I knew my son, what he had with the running. He blew everyone’s mind.”
Ikpotokin, who is now 11, yesterday claimed his fifth national Community Games title in a row. Earlier this year he claimed indoor and outdoor national under-12 60m interclub titles. He has his sights set on greater things.
He is one example of the talent among the new Irish, the sons and daughters of immigrants who have made Ireland home over the last decade and more. By 2020 they could represent Ireland in Tokyo. However, some observers are concerned the talent pool is not getting the attention it deserves.
Ikpotokin is probably one of the lucky ones, says Eamonn Henry of Offaly Sports Partnership. Coupled with his immense talent, he was able to join a targeted sports integration programme set up to help ethnic minorities compete at all levels, and in numbers.
Central Statistics Office figures show 12.46 per cent of the population comprises foreign nationals, and 4.17 per cent are from outside the European Union. In the 2011 census, ethnic minorities made up 4.2 per cent of the population. Of these, more than 45 per cent were under 24. With migration rising gently since then, this figure is set to rise further.
“When we started the integration project ethnic minority groups were very much under-represented in organised sport,” says Henry. “I attended the All-Ireland secondary schools track and field finals in Tullamore in 2009. There could have been up to 1,000 pupils there . . . You could count on one hand the number of students of African descent.”
He says things “have improved greatly” in the past seven years but there is still a long way to go.
“Go to any regional or national juvenile athletic event now and the numbers of children of African descent certainly exceed the size of their population in Ireland. However, they do not compare with the composition of races in the UK.”
Ikpotokin got his running talent from his parents. His mother recalls being taken out of third or fourth class, when she was growing up in rural Nigeria, to run in the schools’ competition “because I run faster than the sixth-class kids I used to compete with”.
The Ikpotokin family fled Nigeria in 2003, seeking asylum in Ireland. By the time John was born in 2005, his family had obtained leave to remain. His mother says the children are “100 per cent Irish”. “They just have that deep Irish culture, you know? Like when I make the Nigerian food, they go: ‘Oh no, could you make something reasonable like bacon, you know, and sausage and peas?’”
In 2009, when John was four, the family moved to Portarlington. There, John and his elder sister Helen joined the academy project in 2011.
Henry admits being reluctant about having children as young as six on the project “but John fitted in straight away”.
“He was running faster than a lot of children who were four and five years older and before we knew it we had forgotten about his age. I had to keep reminding myself back then, as I do now, that he is still only a kid.”
Ikpotokin says he has “a lot of dreams” about competing in the Olympics. “I have to be 16 before I can compete, so I’ll wait until 2024. I would like to represent Ireland, because it was the country I was born in.”
Akpe-Moses was born in Lagos, Nigeria, in 1999 and came to Ireland at the age of three. She grew up in Dundalk and started running at eight. She competed for St Gerald’s AC from the age of 11, winning national titles at club, school and Community Games levels and set a number of national records, including for long jump and relay, before deciding to concentrate on sprinting. Winning came easily to her, but a knockback set her on the path to professionalism.
“Back when I was younger I’d do whatever, I hardly trained,” she says. “I’d be winning everything, but I never really took it all that seriously. But three years ago I missed out [on an international spot at the Celtic Games] because one of the girls ran quicker than I did. And it kind of hit me: Oh, I really want to do this. I want to be representing the country and winning medals. Not getting that made me want to work harder to get it the next time.”
Since then she has represented Ireland several times. In 2015, she took silver in the European Youth Olympics in the 200m. This year she claimed silver in the 100m at the European Youth Games and was a member of the Irish U-20 team that came fifth in the World Junior 4x100m, setting a new Irish record.
“I went in blind [to the European Youth Games]. I don’t look at rankings, because I don’t feel it helps me. So I was told the rankings the day before I actually ran. I was going in 12th I think, which was like I wouldn’t really get past the semis at all. But each round I kept on winning, and I kept on getting quicker as well. I was quite shocked at how I was doing. I wasn’t even expecting to get in the final. So it was one of those unexpected achievements.”
In 2014 the family moved to Birmingham and Akpe-Moses joined Birchfield Harriers, one of the leading UK clubs. Her coach there, Andy Paul, believes she’s headed for Tokyo in 2020.
“She’s very, very talented,” he says. “She stands up there as one of the top juniors based here in the UK right now, which over the years has equated to being some of the best in the world. We’ve got some technical bits to do to tidy up her running style; you’ve not seen the best of her yet by a very long way.”
Akpe-Moses enjoys a lot of support in her new club, and thinks Irish athletics could do more to support sprinters.
“There are lots of Irish sprinters who would be amazing but they haven’t got the right support or the right facilities. It’s a lot better in England, because I get a lot of support from my club, they give me funding as well and they really recommend athletes, they really push you on to do better.”
However, if she makes it to Tokyo, she knows who she wants to represent. “I think I’m pulling more towards the Irish team. Because I’ve been running with them for so long now and they feel like family.”
Triple jumpJana JohaLithuania
The family moved to Ireland in 2003, when Jana was a toddler. “It was a brilliant time for everybody,” says Ibrahim. The family settled in Portarlington, and feel at home in Ireland.
“I am kind of unique in my family,” says Jana. “My father is definitely not into sport. He doesn’t watch it. My mam was a professional ballet dancer. Ballet is completely different to sport, to dance is an art. And even sometimes my parents go: ‘Jana, I don’t know where you get this sport from.’”
She practised ballet from a young age and from four was a fanatical horse-rider. After she tried track and field events, excelling at hurdles and running, her jumping talent was noticed and she was referred to an expert coach in Tullamore.
“I was watching the athletics on the TV and it was just really inspiring and I told myself I would really love to do it, and would really love to go professional,” she says.
Last year she won the All-Ireland schools championship, and came second this year in a higher age bracket. “It was a great day, I was really proud and I got a PB [personal best] and everything. Last year it was 10.61m, I think, I won the competition with that jump.”
Her proudest moment, however, was at a Schools International Athletic Board event in Kent: “I felt really kind of proud that I was representing Ireland and to be able to reach that far, you know, all those training sessions and really hard days, to still be able to get there.”
She, too, is aiming for Tokyo: “I’ll be only 19 in 2020, so, you know, I’d be really really happy; but, if not, aiming for 2024. It would mean a lot. All that hard work, all that training, to represent Ireland and to be known to compete among the best in the world. It would be amazing.”
Her coach, Igor Povstianoj, is a Lithuanian pole-vault athlete who competed for the Soviet Union. He also trains Irish junior record-holder and national champion Jordan Hoang, who is of Vietnamese extraction.
“I think she could [have gone] this year in Olympic Games, but she’s very young,” he says. “She’s young but very, very talented. Jana trains hard.”
Some young sportspeople have had more adversity to overcome than others. Footballer Lido Lotefa (16) fled the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo with his family at the age of six. They spent time at the direct-provision centre in Mosney before moving to Balbriggan. Growing up in direct provision “was shite”, he says, in a rich Dublin accent. “But we just had to do it.”
Even there he managed to play football, joining a programme run by Sport Against Racism Ireland (Sari), focusing on soccer after trying Gaelic football for a while. In Dublin he joined St Kevin’s Boys for two years and last June moved to Bohemians under-17s.
“I felt really passionate playing and then teams started looking for me and then everyone started telling me about my talent and all so it just made me be serious about it.”
Since 2014 several UK clubs have pursued Lido, but his freedom is limited until he can apply for an Irish passport in 2017. A few months ago he was invited to Coventry to play with the under-18s. “I was going to get on the plane and all and on my visa it said I wasn’t allowed travel unless I’m with my ma, so they didn’t let me travel.”
Lido’s father played professional football in the Congo, and his mother was a quality basketball player. “That’s probably why we got the genes for sport,” says his brother Chris (21), who plays League of Ireland soccer for Cabinteely.
Bohemians coach Jimmy Mowlds says Lido is among the top 10 per cent of players in the country in his age group, and has the natural talent to go professional. “He’s strong, he’s quick, he reads the game well and he has a good eye for goal,” he says. “He has huge dedication, which is really going to stand to him.”
Lido is aiming in the next few years to play “professionally at the highest level”. Chris is hoping to play for the Congo under-23s next year. He would happily play for Ireland, he says, but he feels minority talent is often overlooked.
“Ireland gave me everything that I have now, so that’d be like a gesture of gratitude. And I do feel we’ve been really blessed being here.”
Sari runs programmes at every direct-provision centre in Ireland. McCue says talented sportspeople arriving in the UK have their papers fast-tracked so they can represent the country; he points to the system in Germany whereby young refugees arriving are asked if they’re into sport. If so, they are siphoned off into clubs where talent is nurtured.
“In five years you’ll see Syrians playing for Germany,” he says. “You won’t get that here.”
Following the recent controversy over the failure to select Moldovan-born marathon runner Sergiu Ciobanu for the Irish Olympic team, McCue points also to Seye Ogunlewe, a pupil at King’s Hospital, Palmerstown who was schools 100m and 200m champion in 2009 and 2010.
“He was never selected to run for us and is on the blocks for Nigeria in Rio.”
However, there is no doubt that the landscape of Irish sport is changing. More and more young people from minority backgrounds are appearing in international competition at the junior level.
Such rising stars include former Castlebar Celtic player Noe Baba, from Cameroon, who plays for Fulham; and Dubliners Zachary Elbouzedi (West Brom) and Jean Yves Poame (Sunderland), who have Libyan and Ivory Coast heritage. All have also played for Ireland.
Indeed, just recently, Adam Idah (15), of Nigerian and Irish extraction, scored two spectacular goals for the Ireland under-17s against Slovenia. “He’s playing a year out of his age and he’s a real shining star,” Mowls says of Adam, who plays for Corinthians in Cork. “I’d say this fella has a host of top UK clubs looking at him. He’s a real talent, this guy now, a real talent.”
If Lido was to represent a country, he says: “I’d choose Ireland over Congo.”
What would it mean to him?
“It’d mean the world.”