Date: Saturday, 07 December 2019
Nationality has always been something of a movable feast and you only need to run through the current list of Irish runners and cyclists, soccer and rugby players, swimmers, divers, rowers etc to appreciate that. Part of the problem is still deciphering the difference between what it means to represent your country and what country represents you.
There is a story on the European Athletics website previewing this Sunday’s European Cross Country in Lisbon which sets the stage: Class of 2000 to headline Under-20 races in Lisbon. I had to read through this twice, if only to reinforce the realisation that the main athletes in contention for the Under-20 title were all born in the year 2000, or else after. Still hideously young, some might say.
Only among them is Jakob Ingebrigtsen, the Norwegian distance running prodigy, who at age 19 has already won the Under-20 race for the last three years and is targeting an unprecedented title number four. Also in there representing Ireland for the first time is Efrem Gidey, and who in just getting to Lisbon has already endured more that any 19-year-old ever should, and certainly showed maturity far beyond his years.
Like most seminal sporting moments in our lives, I can still remember exactly where I was when Catherina McKiernan won the inaugural European Cross Country: sitting in the back of my mother’s old Renault 4 in a muddy field somewhere around Tinryland, on the outskirts of Carlow town.
A gang of us from Dundrum in south Dublin had driven down to run the Leinster Cross Country. It was December 1994, and just home from a running scholarship in America, this was my race to lose. Which I did, badly, letting some local runner get away on the last lap, and ending up fourth, disgusted with myself.
Not long after, we sat in the back of the car untying our spikes when Greg Allen came on RTÉ radio, live from Alnwick, in the north of England. McKiernan had just won the gold medal, jousting with Spain’s Julia Vaquero down the homestretch, her victory margin a mere second. It was an inspired and inspiring run on many levels: the European Cross Country, as McKiernan had just proved, was winnable, certainly worth aspiring towards.
That’s also why, in 1994, when the European Cross Country first came to life, it was about giving runners born on this continent their fair shot at glory, at a time when the World Cross Country had effectively been reduced to a parade of African runners, with still rare exception.
Over the passage of time, however, the European Cross Country changed face again, and since 2013, both the senior men’s and senior women’s races have been regularly won by African-born athletes: Alemayehu Bezabeh from Ethiopia, who won for Spain in 2013, and Kenya’s Polat Kemboi Arikan and Ali Kaya, who won for Turkey in 2014 and 2015. That 2015 women’s title went to Sifan Hassan from Ethiopia, now running for the Netherlands, and for the last three years the women’s title was won by Yasemin Can, the Kenyan woman running for Turkey, despite neither living nor ever even training there.
That situation eventually forced World Athletics, the governing body of the sport, to close a loophole in the rules which allowed for any switching of allegiance to be fast-tracked, provided both countries involved agreed.
Gidey’s case and inclusion in the Irish team for Sunday, as unavoidably comparable as it might be, couldn’t be further removed or more different. Because his is a case not of switching nationality, but finding one, and without applying any undue pressure or expectation can for others be certainly worth aspiring towards.
It’s just two years since Gidey arrived in Ireland from his native Eritrea, via a series of refugee camps including several extended months in the northern French port city of Calais, an ordeal only he can ever fully understand. From there he quickly settled into his new surrounds at Le Chéile Secondary School in Tyrellstown, west Dublin, and where his aptitude for distance running was first discovered, also under the careful nurturing of Joe Cooper and Noel Guiden at Clonliffe Harriers.
Within a few months of his arrival, Gidey won an Irish Schools Cross Country in Waterford. In May 2018, he created his own special piece of Schools Athletics history when lapping the entire field to win the senior boys 5,000m at the Leinster championships in Santry, clocking 15:24.43. Last May, he broke the 39-year-old championship record going all the way back to 1980, winning in 14:34:22, before collecting another All-Ireland title on the track in Tullamore.
When I saw him win the Irish Schools Cross Country last March, staged over the flatly spacious grounds of Clongowes Wood College in Co Kildare, it was clear Gidey’s impact and influence went beyond his running, many of his classmates there to embrace him at the finish as one of their own. It was an extraordinary moment of both inclusion and integration and not just in the sporting sense.