Ireland’s Fastest Man, Israel Olatunde, sits down with Sports Editor, Oisin Gaffey, to discuss that historic night in Munich and life beyond the track.
In August 2022, Israel Olatunde became the fastest man in Irish History at The European Athletics Championships in Munich. His life was changed forever. How has he handled the pressure of being ‘Ireland’s Fastest Man’? How did he rise to the top of the sprinting world? And what is life like beyond the track for Israel Olatunde?
Israel Olatunde was born in Drogheda on May 29th 2002, and lives in Dundalk to this day. The son of Nigerian-born parents who moved to Ireland in 1999, it is evident his upbringing has moulded him into the man he is today.
To my surprise, Olatunde revealed to me that there isn’t even an athletics track in Dundalk, thus making his journey to the top of the sprinting world even more remarkable. But before Israel became addicted to the fine-margins of the track, soccer was his ‘thing’, hoping one day to “get to the Premier League and play for Manchester United.” In his own words, he admits that he “was pretty bad at football”, but he knew from an early age that he was “always one of the fastest kids on the field.”
Israel’s first real memory of athletics, and one that he unlocked just recently, was watching the 2008 Beijing Olympics on TV when he was six years old. He remembers watching the 100 metre final, in which Jamaica’s Usain Bolt became the fastest man in history. Despite being unable to process the significance of this event, this is a formative memory in Israel’s life, the Jamaican sprinter now one of his sporting role models.
He credits his sister, Sharon, for his introduction to athletics. With his sister competing “all the way through secondary school”, Israel thought he “might as well do what she’s doing” when he joined St Mary’s College Dundalk as a first year student. By seeing “what the craic is” in school athletics, Israel Olatunde quickly got sucked into sprinting and the addictive ‘Art of Speed’; he never looked back.
Winning a silver medal in the U16 200m when he was 15 years old was a defining moment of Israel’s career, as he states, “From there, everything just took off.” Without an athletics track in his hometown, Israel and his coach Gerry McArdle trained in their local park or in his school’s PE Halls for many years. It hardly hindered him, as he set National Records in the U18 60m, U18 100m and U20 60m, as well as “countless championship records” before ever training on a track. He almost forgets to mention the fact he was ranked inside the top 10 in the World at U18 level. “Not bad”, he says.
He set National Records in the U18 60m, U18 100m and U20 60m, as well as ‘countless championship records’ before ever training on a track.
The 2019/20 season marked a real change for Israel, as he enrolled in UCD’s Computer Science course, backed by an Ad Astra Elite Scholarship. Also at this time, Olatunde changed coaches. Sensing the time was right for a change, Israel’s coach Gerry contacted Daniel Kilgallon, who was “National Sprints Co-ordinator” at the time and was in charge of a select group in Tallaght. Living and commuting from Dundalk, Israel knew it would be “hard to get down to Tallaght”, but Daniel agreed to take him on.
He describes his first year under the mentorship of Daniel Kilgallon as “the toughest year to adjust to” because of the step-up in intensity, the commuting distance, and starting a University degree, not to mention the pandemic. However, Israel believes that for his confidence, “Covid kind of came at the right time”, as it shut down the outdoor athletics season for the year. Olatunde believes that if he had run in the summer of 2020, “it might have knocked my confidence.” Instead, he was able to train through the pandemic and build towards a prosperous 2021, in which he won his first National Senior 100m Title.
Winning comes with sacrifices. Israel described to me what a day of College and Training looked like during his time at UCD:
“I got a bus from Dundalk at 6am, I would get to UCD at 7:30am. I would try to do all my work in the morning; go over my lecture notes, do my assignments, all in the morning. Then I go to the gym, and then if I can I try to go to class. Usually I’d have to leave UCD at around 4/4:30 to get to Tallaght in time for training. If my classes were after then, I couldn’t really go to them. My dad finished work at six in Dublin, he would wait for me for three hours and then I finish up at nine and he would drive me home. It was pretty hectic but I just made time.”
For Israel, University was always the plan, regardless of his athletic ability. He has a “very keen passion for learning and for academics”, so not going to University “was never really an option.” A recurring theme is his desire to be a “well-balanced individual”, as he cherishes a life beyond sport. For Israel, it is important “not to find your identity in what you do. Your identity should be who you are, and it should manifest in what you do.”
For Israel, it is important ‘not to find your identity in what you do. Your identity should be who you are, and it should manifest in what you do.
Israel describes the role of his family as “Pivotal” to his success. He highlights the years of sacrifice from his parents and siblings, who all saw Israel’s gift, and supported him to get there.
An aura of humility engulfs Israel as he speaks. For an Elite athlete, he stresses that there is ‘so much more to life’ than sprinting, saying, “I just run in a straight line, I’m not curing cancer or anything.”
'I just run in a straight line, I’m not curing cancer or anything.'
He talks passionately about his upbringing and how it has formed him as a human being. Israel describes how his parents supported him to help him achieve his dreams:
“All they ask of me is that I give my all, they don't care how much money I make, they don't care where I live or whatever, as long as I'm safe and having fun and I’m giving my all to whatever I'm doing. I think I owe it to myself and to them just to give my all to my craft and enjoy it.”
Israel emphasises his parents’ emigration from Nigeria in 1999 as a key source of motivation for him as he discusses “that idea of sacrifice.” He recalls being told stories throughout his childhood of his parents’ struggles, their journey to Ireland and their hard work.
On 16 August 2022, Israel Olatunde broke Paul Hession’s 15-year-old 100m National Record as he ran a time of 10.17 seconds in the final of the European Championships, finishing 6th. Israel has therefore rightfully earned the title of ‘Ireland’s fastest man’, but what must it feel like to have such a title at such a young age?
Israel feels that he has “found the costume” and “accepted it" and hopes to continue to hold the record “for the foreseeable future”, whilst being fully aware of the growing target on his back since his record-breaking result. He recalls looking up to leading Irish sprinters whilst he was young, and knows that “everyone is going to be targeting me now”. This appears to be a challenge which Israel relishes.
Israel takes me back to that night in Munich last summer, and recalls the feeling of stepping out onto the track before the final. With 60,000 people packed into the Olympiastadion in Munich, Israel was the first athlete to be called out. He took a moment to soak in the atmosphere, “because those moments don’t come often, you never know when the next one is going to come”. He describes it as “a beautiful moment.”
After Israel crossed the finish line, he faced an agonising wait to find out his finishing position and his time. During this wait, Israel describes how at the time he felt he had “ran slow”, with race winner and Olympic Champion Marcel Jacobs running in the lane next to him. When Israel finally found out he had finished 6th and set a National Record of 10.17s, he described the moment as “the peak of emotions in my whole life”, achieving something that he had always dreamed of. “It was crazy”, he says with a reminiscent smile on his face.
Israel recalls his coach saying to him after the race, “Are you ready? Your life is going to change when you go through that tunnel.” Daniel was right, £it changed in almost every single way”, Israel says, “and I was not ready.”
'I was not ready.'
Israel’s life would change from that moment, but it wouldn’t stop him from going back to his internship at KPMG, where he had been working throughout the summer. Three days after becoming Ireland’s fastest man, “it was a bit of a reality check” to walk back into the office.
Israel highlights the interconnected relationship between Sport and Mental Health and talks openly about his personal experiences following the European Championships last summer:
“I’ve been getting help with the psychology side of things to deal with the pressure, handling anxiety and different ways to focus on what really matters.”
He discusses his struggles with mental health, particularly during the winter of 2022:
“I just kept trying to prove myself to other people. It wasn't a healthy mindset going into the races. I had forgotten why I do what I do. I do this sport because I believe it’s something that has been put in me.”
'I had forgotten why I do what I do. I do this sport because I believe it’s something that has been put in me.'
He gives credit to his friends, family and his coach Daniel for helping him through these tough times, but describes mental health as a constant work in progress. He says his family have always, and continue to support him in whatever way they can, whilst Daniel is “always there”, “like a friend’.
Life Away From the Track
When I spoke with Israel, he had just enjoyed a four week break without any training, although he said that a big training block was just around the corner. When he’s not out on the track, Israel Olatunde is “always thinking about athletics”, but he tries to distract himself and keep busy in other aspects of his life:
“I think if I have something to do, I'm going to focus fully on that. But if not, my mind starts drifting into thinking about the Paris Olympics in 2024. It's important to switch off.”
During his break this year, Israel spent a lot of time babysitting his niece, whose birthday it was when I met with him. As Godfather to his niece, he tries to babysit as much as possible and likes to find different things that make him happy outside of athletics. Israel says that his niece was “The Star” of his four-week break.
Israel says that his niece was 'The Star' of his four-week break.
When he’s not babysitting, Israel is trying to read more. He likes Non-Fiction historical books, but says he is in need of guidance when it comes to fiction, and is currently accepting any suggestions.
On his playlist at the moment is a lot of Drake, particularly his older music, but no Taylor Swift!
When it comes to Movies and TV, Israel’s favourite comfort show is The Office (US) whilst he has a current obsession with Christopher Nolan’s Tenet which he watched recently. Whilst curled up on the sofa, Israel’s favourite ‘cheat meal’ is Tiramisu and offers a particular shoutout to “the big boxes from Dunnes.”
To close, I asked Israel what he would be if he wasn’t a sprinter; he pauses, remembers he has a degree in Computer Science, and replies, “Probably a computer scientist”. He says that when he was younger he always wanted an office job. In his words, “I always wanted a job where I could wear a shirt and tie every day”.
I think we would all get a bit of a shock if Israel Olatunde rocked up on the track in a shirt and Tie.