Bravado-free Israel Olatunde sets sights on Irish sprinting records

The Dún Dealgan and UCD sprinter secured national 100m crown at the age of just 19

 

Sprinters can be loud, considerably arrogant and uncomfortably puffed up with a sense of their own self-importance. Israel Olatunde is naturally soft-spoken, engaging and unconsciously devoid of all vanities. “I do have a bit of an ego,” he assures me.

Sprinters can be lazy and intolerably pampered and spend half their time complaining about one thing or another. Israel Olatunde is a full-time student-athlete and overtly Christian in his beliefs and doesn’t mind training in the wind or the rain. “As long as it’s not windy and raining,” he tells me.

Sprinters can be brash and not easily bothered or motivated by anyone except themselves and are nearly always running late. Israel Olatunde is thoughtful and several minutes early and found sitting in the winter morning sunshine waiting for me. “I appreciate everything you write about athletics in Ireland, it’s really important for our sport,” he says.

There may or may not be anything left of your stereotypical sprinter in this day and age, perhaps least of all in this country: either way there is a new generation flourishing here already, and it doesn’t take long in the company of Israel Olatunde to realise that.

He is the reigning Irish senior 100 metres champion, Olatunde winning that title in Santry last June, a month after turning 19; in the next event, Rhasidat Adeleke won the women’s senior 100 metres title, two months before she turned 19, ensuring both senior sprint titles in Ireland belonged to teenagers, surely a first, with plenty of other similarities though.

“Honestly, she’s such an inspiration for me,” he says. “We’re the same age, but I totally look up to her, it means so much to have her support, and she’s been killing it over in America, not an easy thing to do.”

Their close friendship and witty rapport were forged in more recent years, tied in part to the fact both their parents moved to Ireland from Nigeria before they were born, and they’ve never known anywhere other than Ireland as home. Olatunde was raised in Dundalk, came up through Dún Dealgan AC, and now runs for UCD, an Ad Astra Elite scholar three years into his computer science degree.

Adeleke was raised in Dublin, came up through Tallaght AC, and now runs for the University of Texas, in her second year of a scholarship programme that has already helped her improve the Irish senior 200m record to 22.90 seconds and win a 2021 European Under-20 sprint double. They’re both just part of a new beginning.

Four years earlier, Gina-Apke Moses helped pave the way, the first Irish woman to win a European Under-20 sprint gold medal, before others made a mark too, athletes like Patience Jumbo-Gula, and Joseph Ojewumi, whose parents also hailed from Nigeria. Together they’ve been the taste of the new generation, and going places fast.

Olatunde is unique in his own right in that he wasn’t an outstanding success when starting out underage. “I never actually won a schools title,” he says, denied in 2019 in his Leaving Cert year at St Mary’s Dundalk by Aaron Sexton from Bangor, who smashed the senior boys’ record with his 10.43 seconds (and has since signed a contract with Ulster Rugby).

We meet outside the Sports Centre in UCD, a few days after Olatunde improved his own Irish Under-23 record for the 60m indoors to 6.67 seconds, from 6.73, in the first round of the National Indoor League at Abbotstown; only Paul Hession, with his Irish senior record of 6.61 set back in 2007, is faster on the Irish all-time list, and Olatunde rightly feels he can go closer again in round two of the Indoor League, set for Athlone this Sunday. “I actually prefer the Athlone track too,” he says.

It’s also 15 years now since Hession, then aged 24, set both his Irish outdoor records, lowering the 100m mark from 10.35 to 10.18, and the 200m mark from 20.54 to 20.30; both perfectly respectable, only ready perhaps for further revision. In his last outdoor race of last summer in Luxembourg, Olatunde improved his 100m best to 10.41 seconds, and at first mention of Hession’s long-standing records nods enthusiastically.

“It’s never too soon, but I wouldn’t say it’s my main goal. Right now, my only goal now is to run as fast as I can. If I do that the records will come, over the years, they will fall. Loads of respect for Paul Hession, Irish records at 60m, 100m, and 200m. That’s so impressive, honestly, I’m quite baffled how he was able to do that, a class athlete. But records are meant to be broken, it just means something right is being doing in the sport.

“We knew I was in good shape, coming into my first race, but didn’t put any pressure on it, time-wise. I just wanted a good race, and build from here. I possibly could have got a faster start, but I think it set me up well for the second half of the race. And the good starts aren’t always the fastest starts. There’s definitely a lot to improve, a little quicker at the start, and then yeah, building the momentum, building up speed the whole time, power, not wasting it all in the first few steps.

“And that’s actually changed over the last while, the way I’ve been developing as an athlete, with the training we’ve been doing, I’m getting more mature, stronger, and that’s improved the second half of my race, in the 100m and the 60m.”

Ask him where his draw towards athletics began and Olatunde traces it all back to his family, in that part to Nigeria too: his mother Elizabeth was a sprinter at school and went as far as representing Ogun State in south-western Nigeria. With her husband Isaac, and eldest son Gabriel, they moved to Ireland in 1999 with the sole purpose of affording their children better opportunities in life. Olatunde and his older sister Sharon were both born in Ireland.

“I’m not too sure what it is, there is that great sprint culture in Nigeria. Like winning a silver medal in the 4x100m back in 1992 Olympics. And if you do have that natural ability, you want to try to explore it, see how far you can go.

“I’m Irish, and I still have that Nigerian blood in me, want to do that proud. There’s no reason I can’t embrace the different cultures, where I come from. I embrace them all so much, and that’s an advantage, I think, drawing advantages from each one, I enjoy that aspect.”

It helps when Olatunde doesn’t have to look very far now to see the likes of Gavin Bazunu, also just 19, born in Dublin to a Nigerian father and an Irish mother, nail down his goalkeeping place in the Republic of Ireland football team; or Chiedozie Ogbene, who last summer became the first African-born player to represent to the country in football; plenty others also going similar places fast.

In truth Olatunde first fancied his chances with the round ball: “I wasn’t doing much else at home, at the time, so would always follow my sister to training. I wouldn’t even train, I’d just watch her. She won a few schools medals, in the hurdles. Then over time I started with my coach in Dundalk, Gerry McArdle, at Dún Dealgan, I started with him at 11 or 12, with school first, then when I joined the club, at 13 or 14. From there it just grew gradually, every season I was improving, making progress. At that stage I was loving athletics so much it didn’t bother me if I wasn’t winning.

“I played a lot, GAA, soccer, basketball, dabbled in a lot. I did soccer from first year to third, that’s all I focused on. I just fell out of love with it, things just didn’t work out. I was always one of the strongest, fastest, but I’ve two left feet, no technical ability at all. At one point I realised this just isn’t for me, no matter how hard I tried. It was time to find something else.

“I tried multi-events, explored some of the field events, but the sprints were always my focus. Then I remember I won the silver medal in the 200m in the Under-17 National Championship, I thought then, ‘I can be good at this, one day.’ I hadn’t done much training up to that point, and thought I could take this further.”

In 2019, he ran Irish Under-18 records for 60m and 100m, while still aged 16, and later that year started on the Ad Astra scholarship in UCD: he still commutes from Dundalk, and at that stage also started training under Daniel Kilgallon’s sprint squad, based in Tallaght, which includes training partners Ojewumi, Eoin Doherty, Simon Essuman, and a women’s group including Kate Doherty and Aoife Lynch.

Growing up he made three visits to Nigeria, although only in more recent years has he embraced the Christian beliefs that were also central to his upbringing.

“My faith has always been there, it just grew as I got my mature, got closer with God. I also feel it’s helped me a lot, not just in athletics, in life in general, understanding different things, and growing as a person. It’s the same for most of the family, though we’re all on different journeys.

“During Covid, it grew again, maybe spending more time alone, having different worries. I’d be training in Dundalk with Patience, we’d share different thoughts and discuss our faith. Looking back now, I think that time was a blessing in disguise, allowed me a bit of down time, just focus on the basic training, no racing, back training in the local park, with Patience, really enjoying it.”

Both his parents work in Dundalk (his father a security supervisor, his mother a care giver): “For sure, they sacrificed so much, did so much for us. I know they don’t expect anything of us, in return, as long we we’re happy, but I still want to give back to them as much as I can, make them proud.

“With my coach Daniel, it’s good too that he probably keeps me grounded, because I can have a wild imagination. That can be good and bad, because if I don’t run well, I can blow it out of all proportion. He’s always there to level me out, either side of that.

“It’s funny, my first ever memory of athletics is Usain Bolt winning the 2008 Olympics. I was only six, don’t remember anything else about it, except watching Bolt winning on TV, his arms stretched out. And I do have a bit of an ego, just because of the event we’re in. All the top guys have a bit of ego. There’s a balance, I guess. You look at someone like Bolt, he could be so humble, as well.

“For sure, I think about breaking 10 seconds one day. If I just keep doing what I need to do, that can come. The faster you get, the harder it is to improve. So, you have to find different things to improve on. But I also love this sport, really want to see how far I can take it, go to the very top.”

Exactly as all the successful sprinters have ever thought.

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