It can’t be easy being labelled as Ireland’s Fastest Kids, especially when you’re only eight years old and our sole representatives at the Millrose Games in New York.
It’s probably not right putting kids of that age under any sort of spotlight, only these feel like sadly recessionary times after our once booming wealth of indoor running talent, and maybe the quicker Emily Kelly and Bernard Ibirogba grow up the better.
It was nice to see Thomas Barr taking to the boards on Friday afternoon, his appearance at the Irish Indoor Championships at Athlone IT the first step towards repeating his giant leap of last summer.
There is no going back to the drawing board when you fall just .05 of a second short of an Olympic medal, like Barr did, in what may well be as close to the perfect 400m hurdles he’ll ever run.
Which means he is effectively repeating what he did last year (obviously without the injury part) with a view to a sort of rerun at the World Championships in London next August, ideally at least one place better.
It also means Barr’s indoor season is a one-off experiment in flat running (he ran an Irish university record of 46.87 seconds for the 400 flat) and his season ends with that too. It’s just a pity his talents can’t further transfer to indoor running and the Millrose Games, once partly ruled by Irish athletes.
Saturday’s show goes out live on NBC and features 18 medallists from the Rio Olympics last summer, 11 of whom won gold, including headline act Matthew Centrowitz, America’s first 1,500m champion in 108 years.
It’s also the 110th consecutive edition of the event, although it has moved from its original home on the old wooden boards at Madison Square Garden, right on Penn Plaza, to the purpose built New York Armory, close to Washington Heights, a short trip uptown on the A-Train.
Started in 1908 by employees of Wanamaker’s Department Store, the Millrose Games remain most famous for the men’s mile which still bears that name.
Beginning with Ronnie Delany, in 1956, Irish athletes certainly once owned that race, the dominance continuing with Eamonn Coghlan, Marcus O’Sullivan, Niall Bruton and then Mark Carroll, who between them won the Wanamaker Mile an incredible 19 times. Carroll was our last winner, 17 years ago already.
There is no Irish interest in the race this year, although it’s not that indoor mile running has progressed beyond reach. Along with Frank O’Mara, we still boast four of the top-10 fastest indoor miles of all-time: Coghlan’s 3:49.78 from 1983 stood as the world record until 1997; O’Sullivan’s 3:50.94 from 1988 still ranks as the fifth fastest ever, just ahead of Ray Flynn’s 3:51.20, from 1983; and O’Mara’s 3:52.30, from 1986, still holds up as the 10th fastest ever.
These days, Flynn lives in Johnson City, Tennessee where he operates his sports management business. For the last six years, he’s also been meeting director of the Millrose Games, which helps explain why Emily Kelly and Bernard Ibirogba have found their way over there as at least some of sort of Irish representation (parents and supporters in tow).
Ibirogba may not sound very much like a future name in Irish athletics, although there’s a good reason why he is. Gone are the days when an O’Sullivan or a Coughlan might be the only ones to watch. And Ibirogba, the son of Nigerian refugees and who runs with the Killcullen AC in Kildare, has already set himself apart from everybody else in his age group.
Okay, he’s still only eight years old, but Ibirogba also represents what might be regarded as our ever expanding pool of sporting talent, if only mirroring that of Irish society.
We’ve seen it already in other sports, Niyi Adeolokun coming from a similar background to make a name for himself, first with Connacht, then the Irish rugby team, appearing as a second-half replacement against Canada in November. Adeolokun’s mother moved here from Nigeria when he was 10 years old, and it didn’t take him long to immerse himself in Irish sport and society.
Indeed Adeolokun had already been flagged as ‘one to watch’ by some of my old colleagues from De La Salle Churchtown, who keep a closer eye on these matters and frequently reminisce about the glory days when we managed to win a Leinster Schools Senior Cup – twice actually, in 1983 and 1985 – during our time there.
Now, Ibirogba is being similarly flagged by Dermot McDermott, the inspiratino behind the Ireland’s Fastest Kid project which earned both Ibirogba and Kelly their free ticket to the Millrose Games. For three months, September to November, McDermott travelled the country testing seven- and eight-year-olds for their basic “scratch” speed, not just as a method for identifying young talent but also encouraging it.
In December, he then invited the 24 fastest kids, boys and girls, to Athlone IT, where they raced over 55m to find the outright “Fastest Kid on the Block”; even for an eight year old, Ibirogba’s performance is pretty astonishing (look it up on YouTube).
Likewise with Kelly, also eight years old, who runs with Finn Valley AC in Donegal and showed an equally swift pair of feet. They now get to test themselves against some of the fastest eight year olds in the New York area, who have gone through a similar qualifying process.
One of the original aims of the Fastest Kid on the Block was to tackle social exclusion, and to inspire kids from all walks of life to take up athletics and channel their energies and talents into sport and activity, Ibirogba’s progression to the final stage has added another tier to that, perhaps the future of Irish athletics too.