Young runner is on track for a bright future in athletics
2017-07-17 15:04:44 -
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By Austin Anderson

It was September 2011 and Eamonn Henry was one house down from the Ikpotokin family’s home. With him was the mother of a young girl who had recently joined Henry’s after-school athletics training project, one he had recently started up through the Offaly Sports Partnership.

After talking for a while, Eamonn was introduced to the neighbours, the aforementioned Ikpotokins. He met Helen and John, eight and six years old respectively. He told their mother Pauline what his aspirations were for his after-school programme, and of the time he had spent in east Africa throughout the 1990s, when he first became familiar with an ‘equality-based agenda’ and perceived the lack of multicultural participation in sports back home in Ireland.

In 2009, Eamonn saw 1,200 qualifiers for the all-Ireland schools finals; just four of them were of African descent. He knew participation of ethnic minority students in athletics fell far short of the actual demographics of the country. So he set out to do something about it.

Eight-year-old Helen was someone who fit right in with the after-school program Eamonn had devised. Her parents immigrated to Ireland from Nigeria in the summer of 2003, and Eamonn thought he could provide coaching over the years as she grew up. 

But Helen wasn’t the only one in the household interested in joining Eamonn’s programme.

Something special

Eamonn was reluctant at first to let John join the training. He was only six at the time, and Henry’s goal was to help students get integrated with clubs and at schools, not mould them into super athletes.

Nevertheless, John joined on with 25 other students from different nationalities and backgrounds. Neither John nor Eamonn has looked back since.
“I didn’t even think about his age within a month,” says Eamonn today. “He was running like a nine-year-old.”

The first Monday of May in 2012 was the day Eamonn realised he was witnessing something special. It was the first competitive meet of John’s career, and he was set for the 300-metre dash. John took off like his fellow competitors were running in quicksand.

“At the halfway point, at 150m, he was ahead by an astronomical margin,” recalls Eamonn. “I knew it was special.”

Six years on, and John Ikpotokin has stepped on the track to compete dozens of times, winning five consecutive national Community Games titles. He has experienced a lot of success on the track, but there was one day he didn’t.

It was three years ago in Cork, and John remembers it well; it was the only time he’s ever lost.

“I got beat by a dip at the finish line,” he says. “I was surprised.”

John is an obvious example of the success Eamonn Henry’s academy project set out to achieve. But the challenges shouldn’t be overlooked.

Troubles are evident

If one asked Eamonn last year about how athletes from different backgrounds fit in, he would have told you there are some big challenges to be overcome. He changed his opinion at the beginning of this year, but in recent months he has “seen many of the same challenges re-emerge”.

Once, Eamonn witnessed a Congolese family who arrived at a local soccer pitch only to be met by a shouting official telling them they couldn’t park their “f***ing car” there.

Another time, two nine-year-old girls were called cheaters directly to their face, for no discernible reason.

“If an African child is well developed physically for [their] age, there is a belief that [they] must be over-age and cheating,” says Eamonn. “If an Irish child matures early, there would be no such questions.”

Only recently Eamonn was alerted when a girl was removed from competition in order to ‘not make a scene’ after an official received complaints over her age. Henry said there was no basis for such allegations, but she was still not allowed to compete.

Troubles are still evident, but Eamonn says they do not outweigh the positives.

Reinforcing positivity

“Eamonn sometimes seems like a second father to John,” says Pauline Ikpotokin.

That’s understandable, considering they train together three times a week, often in three different places. They’ve gone to competitions together over the years, and Eamonn has had a front row seat to watch John’s maturity as an athlete, and as a young man.

The obvious question from here seems to be, how far can a child who has been beaten by only one other person in six years go in athletics?

“It feels so great [watching John compete],” says Pauline. “It’s what he loves doing. Whatever happens, happens. I take it with whatever comes. I can’t predict.”

John points out he can’t compete at Olympic level until he’s 16, so the first opportunity where he would be eligible would come in 2024 – and a lot can happen in six-and-a-half years.

Eamonn, meanwhile, notes that there is more to success than what happens on the track, for John and everyone else in the programme.

“We want to reinforce positivity and talents,” he explains. “We want to allow them to be ambitious and have that equally translate to other aspects of their life.”
Henry calls it the ‘six million euro’ question: when will a person from an ethnic minority background represent Ireland in the Olympics? He thinks 2024 is a realistic goal, but cautions it may be a little optimistic.

“The hope is the national team will be multicultural in time,” he says. “That’s the dream. I hope it will be that way but we just have to wait and find out.”
TAGS : John Ikpotokin Eamonn Henry Offaly sports partnership All-Ireland Finals Ireland Olympics Athletics
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