It probably says more about society’s needs right now than anything sporting or academic that the one thing Ireland’s fastest man sounds most grateful for is having a roof over his head on the campus of the country’s largest third-level institution.
Anyone who followed Israel Olatunde during his breakthrough runs on the track summer will know he doesn’t ask for much, repeatedly counting his blessings and fortune to have come so far and so soon and still with a long way to go.
Still just 20, Olatunde is a few weeks into his final year of computer and data science at UCD, part of the big change this term being he’s got student accommodation through the Ad Astra Academy, the elite sports scholarship programme which each year rewards the finest student-athletes across a range of different sports.
Olatunde has been an Ad Astra student since his first year, only this is the first time he’s moved out of the family home in Dundalk to live on campus. The benefits are real — namely an end to that long daily commute — and so is his appreciation, given the struggle of so many fellow students to find even a couch to surf on.
“Yeah, you see it all over the news,” he says. “I always hear from my mates as well, it’s not a good position to be in. So I was really grateful I was able to get accommodation on campus, so cheers to UCD and to Athletics Ireland for sorting that out.
“In my apartment, I’m sharing with two hockey players, and a soccer player, so a good mix. In the academy there’s all different type of sports, hockey, athletics, soccer, cricket now, it actually covers all sports. They look at the athlete, more than the sport.”
Although he still travels to Tallaght AC a few evenings a week, to join his coach Daniel Kilgallon and his training group, Olatunde has other things to be grateful for too: the new UCD athletics track, the old one derelict since 2011, opened last week, the UCD high performance gym on his doorstep too. Only for now most of the hard training is done around the grassy hills and that’s plenty good for now.
“No, I don’t touch the track for another few weeks, all my sessions are on grass, but I’ve walked around on it, we’d a little fun run on opening day, and it’s great for training, feels fast.
“It’s not like the most glamorous or nicest time to go training, but this is where champions are made, so we’re all putting in some good work right now. I must be a bit of a sadist or something, I enjoy those kinds of sessions, the rain, the cold, the mud, I enjoy those kinds of days. I don’t know why, I kind of look forward to them. It’s just fun to me, it’s not hard work.
“Being on campus now, it’s definitely a different routine, being able to go to the class or to the gym, it’s been beneficial so far in terms of my recovery and getting time to study.
“And I’m getting a lot more sleep. I don’t have to be up at 5am in the morning any more. I was commuting maybe four hours, sometimes more, a day, so to have that much more free time ... It’s not really free time, I try to use it wisely as I can. It’s being able to recover a bit better for training, more time to focus for school, being able to spend time with my friends. That’s important too.”
After starting the 2022 outdoor season with a best of 10.41, lowering it to 10.17, improvement won’t come as swift again, still he sees plenty of things to work on
Olatunde doesn’t deny the rumours that since his breakthrough runs this summer, sixth in the European Championship 100m final, running 10.17 and breaking the 15-year-old Irish record, there have been expressions of interest from elsewhere, namely some US colleges. Rhasidat Adeleke, his former training partner at Tallaght AC, has just started her junior year at the University of Texas, and if that path might be an option somewhere down the road, Olatunde is intent on finishing in UCD first.
“I’ll be finishing up in May, and it would definitely be after that if I was to make that move. I’m still discussing with Daniel and my family what’s the good options going forward, so I’ve a few options, I’m keeping things open, not just the States. but I think I found the right spot for me in Ireland, in UCD, and with Dan. I can’t ask for much better, I have everything I need.”
It is fitting then that Olatunde is speaking as an ambassador for the Spar College Fund, which is offering all third-level students in Ireland the chance to win prizes of €5,000 each to support their academic year.
After starting the 2022 outdoor season with a best of 10.41, lowering it to 10.17, improvement won’t come as swift again, still he sees plenty of things to work on: he’s not yet on a Sport Ireland carding grant either, part instead of the Athletics Ireland development fund, still all something to be grateful for too.
“But my mom still babies me, sends me care packages every week,” he says of life on campus at UCD, “so I don’t have to do too much [cooking], she takes good care of me.”
Spar has teamed up with the fastest Irish man in history and TikTok star Cian Mooney and calling on college students across Ireland to record a TikTok video in their local SPAR in under 10.17 seconds and share it to Cian Mooney’s TikTok channel to be in with a chance of winning. To find out more visit: www.spar.ie.