Rhasidat Adeleke on film: An intimate portrait of the athlete as a young woman

The Path to Paris documentary series follows nine Irish Olympic hopefuls over the last three years

Rhasidat Adeleke during training at the University of Texas. Photograph: Darragh Bambrick

From the opening title sequence, Path to Paris cuts straight to Rhasidat Adeleke, not on the track but in her dorm room, showing off her classic baseball-style letterman jacket with that unmistakable capital T for Texas on the back.

“You always see them in movies and stuff, the high school and college kids … it’s like the staple attire for American college students … something I’m proud of.”

They’ve misplaced a letter in her first name, embroidered inside the left pocket, and Adeleke smiles at that. On her arrival at the University of Texas, the 52,000-student campus in Austin, as a then 18-year-old from Tallaght, Adeleke was still unknown.

This is the scene with which Dublin filmmaker Darragh Bambrick begins his fourth documentary series. Path to Paris follows nine Irish athletes on their journey to the Olympics and Paralympics, each of their stories intertwined between three one-hour episodes, only not in your standard fly-on-the-wall approach, more cinema verite.


And because you can’t paint anything like an intimate portrait in one sitting, Bambrick followed each of them over the last three years, starting in November 2021, at which stage none of the nine athletes had come even close to qualifying for Paris. (Spoiler alert: as of writing, six of the nine have.)

Episode One goes out next Thursday and also follows Olympic surfing hopeful Gearóid McDaid and Paralympics cyclist Katie-George Dunlevy along with her pilot Eve McCrystal. Bambrick was still editing the final cut earlier this week, the unrelenting pace of Adeleke’s progress ample evidence of why.

The plan was always to complete her episode with footage from the European Championships in Rome earlier this month, where Adeleke ended up winning three medals — gold and silver in the relay, plus individual silver in the 400m. That success meant piling even more on to the cutting room floor.

“We did shoot a lot, over a long period of time, but that’s really the gift of this thing,” Bambrick explains. “Sometimes if you try to cram a story into a few months, nothing will happen. If you have three years, and we started towards the end of 2021, life happens, there is victory, defeat, illness, injury, all of that.

“It’s the one thing I insist on, taking the full Olympic cycle, because some people only see these athletes once every four years and don’t realise what goes on in their lives in between, or who these people really are, their commitment, sacrifices.”

When Bambrick first visits Adeleke in Austin, in the spring of 2022, she’s coming to the end of her sophomore year, still adjusting to the student life and training demands at one of the largest and most sporting-mad institutions in the United States.

There’s clearly a special bond with Coach Flo, who recruited her based on her underage success in the shorter sprint events, but Bambrick’s camera is always keen to divert our eyes beyond the track — to the weights room, the hair salon, the college food truck — and in between the laughter and some tears of her last three years.

From there, he follows her back to Dublin for the National Championships in Santry, then the 2022 European Championships in Munich, where in her first senior 400m final Adeleke finishes fifth. Then it’s back briefly to Dublin, Adeleke training alone on the dark wintry nights, before another trip to Austin in the spring of 2023, where Adeleke’s star power is clearly rising and signed off with her first individual NCAA victory.

At the World Championships in Budapest last August, a few weeks after Adeleke’s decision to sign a pro contract with Nike, there’s a little more tension and expectation in the air, as this time she finishes fourth (her mother Ade seen shouting from the stands, “come on Rhasidat … come on baby!”)

“The whole transition has been tough,” Adeleke says. “From being a collegiate athlete to going pro, still trying to compete after such a long season, but my coach always tells me, when you pray for rain, you have to deal with the mud. And this is something I’ve prayed for, something I really wanted, for a long time.”

By the end of Episode One we get an intimate portrait of the athlete as a young woman. Bambrick also has a travelogue that would do National Geographic proud. Episode Two features gymnast gold medal hope Rhys McClenaghan and Nhat Nguyen in badminton and his sister Tham in weightlifting. Episode Three features boxer and defending Olympic champion Kellie Harrington, distance runner Hiko Tonosa Haso and Paralympics swimmer Nicole Turner.

The experience is something far different for Bambrick from his previous London Calling series (before the 2012 Olympics), Road to Rio (before Rio 2016), and Horizon Tokyo (before the delayed Games in 2021, when no one was entirely sure those Olympics would even happen right until the Opening Ceremony).

“This time round, I think it’s been more of a cerebral battle for all the athletes,” he says. “Coming out of Covid-19, they’re a lot more aware of their mental health, it’s part of their training now to balance that, I think there’s been a lot more chat from that side of things, and for the better.

“The longer episodes also allow us to tell the stories a lot better, get deeper in their lives, and tell that personal story, first and foremost, on top of their sporting story.

“We felt we had our champion, in Kellie, our great contender, in Rhys, and out rising star, in Rhasidat. After that we wanted to tell different stories, and Hiko was actually the first athlete I cast, which starts with his story of coming through direct provision. And with Nhat and Tham coming from Vietnam, Rhasidat being that face of new Ireland, that’s three different ways into that storyline in an entirely positive way.”

Before wrapping it all up, Bambrick again got Andy Lee to do the voiceover, the 2004 Olympic boxer bringing his understanding to these subjects.

“We did shoot lots of stuff we knew wouldn’t end up in film,” says Bambrick. “Just to get that connection. That intimacy is really the main thing we have going for us. A series like this doesn’t really make financial sense any more. We’d assistance this time from PTSB, a big help in getting in over the line, but it’s something I really want to do. You also want to do the athletes justice, tell their story properly, the story of the people behind them, to show what it really means to them all.”

The first episode of Path to Paris airs this Thursday, June 27th at 10:15pm on RTÉ One