Most of us know Israel Olatunde as the fastest Irishman of all time, Athletics Ireland’s golden boy and nothing short of a phenom. Behind the taglines and expectations is a young man with a captivating upbringing, refreshing humility and the maturity of someone twenty years his senior. The College Tribune managed to catch up to the speedster for a one-to-one chat about all things Olatunde. 

Conceiving the Title of Ireland’s Fastest Man

The obtention of a label such as “the fastest athlete your nation has ever offered” would sit heavy on any pair of shoulders, especially if those shoulders belong to a 20 year old student. Speaking on whether he has fully digested his new branding, Israel ensured it is something he will never quite conceive;

“It’s just a bit weird I guess, I don’t think it’s ever going to be normal…”

Not quite hailing from a county ripe with athletics royalty, the Louth man touched on the challenges of training as a youngster, “We don’t have a track in Dundalk, the closest one is in Drogheda…I always just trained in the park!”. Regardless of the persistent lack of running facilities in Dundalk, it’s safe to say that as long as the records continue to fall at the feet of Israel, a track in his hometown is imminent. 

Despite the major success of Irish athletes on the international stage as of late, athletics remains to be overlooked in Ireland for the major sports of GAA, rugby and football. Perhaps the issue lies with accessibility to sufficient facilities, the rarity of TV coverage or the level of commitment the discipline requires to participate. Olatunde explains why we see such little support in comparison to ball sports:

“There’s some great stories in the sport of athletics that aren’t heard, we just hear of big performances, everyone gets excited for a few days and then moves on. Getting true stories out there, like what you guys do, get more attention, get more fans and get more people interested.”

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Exploring his Parent’s Nigerian Heritage

Gathering the support of his mother and father was never an issue for the sprinter however, “they didn’t know too much about athletics, but would still show up to every race”. Enjoying a mix of Nigerian and Irish culture growing up, with both parents moving to Ireland over 20 years ago, Israel shared the special experience of visiting his parent’s home in Nigeria with the College Tribune.

“It made me closer with my parents.. just imagining them growing up, I remember them taking us to the hotel where they had their first date! It deepened my connection with them.”

Meeting Rhasidat Adeleke for the First Time

Olatunde has formed a close relationship with fellow record-breaking Irish-Nigerian athlete, Rhasidat Adeleke. An athlete he speaks very highly of, Olatunde described his first time meeting the Tallaght AC runner to the College Tribune:

“I think we met at a Provincial camp back in like 2017, at the time she had just won silver at the European Youth Olympics so I was a little starstruck seeing her!” 

Fascinated at his fellow Irish representative when training with her in Tallaght, Israel attributed Adeleke’s success to her elite mindset. “No matter who Rhasidat trains with she’s going to be Rhasidat…you know every time she races, something special is going to happen.” 

The Importance of Mental Health to an Elite Athlete

Many viewers of RTE’s broadcast of the recent European Indoor Championships were taken aback by the 20 year old’s positive demeanour following a disappointing 60m semi-final result. Olatunde spoke on recent mental struggles and how the introduction of a psychologist into his camp has freed him from thoughts of doubt and inadequacy stemming from the expectations set through last season’s performances. 

“I was comparing myself to the season before which is kind of unfair because I’m a different person to who I was before… that’s something I’ve had to navigate with myself, with my coach and my psychologist. Focusing on myself now and not being haunted by my achievements last year. Even though it’s a sport, the mental side is way more impactful than the physical side.” 

Breaking the Irish 100m Record in Munich

“I was like ‘Aww crap! What have I done!’” 

What Olatunde had done was set a time of 10.17 over 100m, eclipsing the legendary Paul Hession’s 15 year-old record of 10.18 and forever enshrining himself into Irish athletics’ lore. Olatunde details the absence of expectations prior to the final;

“After the semis, I was already on such a high, I didn’t put any pressure on myself… I wasn’t even thinking about the record!”

After speaking with Olatunde, I couldn’t help but wonder if this young man had any idea of how great he not only can become, but already is. Speaking with grace and modesty, yet mesmerising the nation with his feet, Olatunde’s athletic exploits and resulting lack of vanity can only be catalogued as truly exceptional.

Dara Smith-Naughton – Sports Editor