Israel Olatunde

Catching up with Israel Olatunde, The Fastest Irishman in History

“It’s the possibility of having a dream come true that makes life interesting, he thought, as he looked again”

Today we caught up with Ireland’s fastest Man – over coffee, not in a race. We spoke with 20-year-old University College Dublin student and full-time Adidas athlete, Israel Olatunde, to ask him about his career in the sport so far, and his journey and mindset that has led him to claim the title of the fastest Irish man in history.

Israel Olatunde running with the Irish flag

Olatunde currently holds the record for Ireland’s fastest in the 100m outdoor race and indoor 60m race and has been striving to reach this goal in his career since he first got into sprinting. Starting his career during his first year of secondary school at St Mary’s College, Dundalk at the age of just 13/14,  Israel told us how he’d previously only been playing football up until this point. “I wasn’t very good at it,” Israel said to us laughing, “I was fast and good, fitness-wise, with the running but not at the football side of it”. We spoke about what position he played in, as I (Rosie) also played football when I was younger, and was surprised to hear he played in defense and then eventually striker as the strong runners tend to be put on the wing in football. Israel commented on how he enjoyed transitioning to an individual sport as there was less pressure because “if something doesn’t go well you aren’t letting a whole football team and your friends down.”

“What is the meaning of ‘strength’? Its to have a mind that doesn’t sway while continuing to move and change”

Israel was initially just looking to try out the sport and to follow in the footsteps of his sister who was training in sprinting at the time when he first started in the relay team at school. His talent and potential to become a sprinter and individual athlete was noticed by his first coach, Gerry McArdle, who continued to coach him to become the runner he is today. He told us  “how good” McArdle was to him during this time and that McArdle hadn’t been a coach previously, yet Israel looked up to him a lot when he first started and continues to do so. Initially telling us about him when we asked him if there are any other athletes or sporting figures he is inspired by in his career, the admiration is clear. “He’s always believed in me and understands me as not only an athlete but also a person,” Olatunde says of his coach, “in terms of my mindset, he, alongside my psychologist, have helped me a lot”. Israel now has a different coach since he began studying at UCD alongside his training but is still good friends with his former coach and mentor Gerry McArdle.

Israel Olatunde running during a race

Israel told us that he feels there is less pressure on him now he is in an individual sport. We were interested to question him on this as we understood where he was coming from but had thought about the immense pressure we would feel to do well for own selves or to not let ourselves down if we were competing in an individual sport and at such a high level like him. He responded by saying: “I feel like it’s less pressure when I’m not letting a team down. However, pressure has been different for me since I’ve started to do well, and my last season was very successful”. He also mentioned that “there is new pressure that comes with having these titles and records against me now”. Israel said he always goes back to the reasons he first started sprinting when he feels the pressure start to weigh on him: to have fun and to see how far he could go with it whilst still enjoying himself within the sport. “If I was to tell my 13-year-old self the things I’ve achieved I know I’d be happy and impressed with how far I’ve come and what I’ve managed to achieve,” he said. Knowing his younger self would be proud of him is enough for him to continue enjoying his sport and chasing his dream because he knows the drive and passion he has had for it from a young age. He also noted how he is driven by the younger athletes who look up to him, finding it cool how they are inspired by him and ask him to sign things or take pictures with them as he used to do the same when he was their age with athletes he admired.

 “Don’t forget to enjoy the process.”

Israel Olatunde with his hands on his head

We then asked him about how he deals with the pressure of not always being able to do well or what he does when races don’t go perfectly. He replied by saying that he knows athleticism, and his career is never always going to be a straight line upward, and there is of course going to be dips and struggles along the way. “I try to just ride the wave,” he said, “it’s also important to not become complacent with either the highs or the lows or to settle when in a period of being successful or unsuccessful.”

Speaking briefly about Israel’s family, we asked him if a desire to please them and make them proud adds any pressure to his sport. He said he always wants to make them proud and do well for them, but at the same time, they just want to see him happy, and they are proud of him every time he races him. Though, noting that his mum doesn’t know enough about running to know when he sometimes has a bad race or doesn’t run as well as he hopes to. To his mum, he does well every time, and she is always proud to see him chasing his dreams. He also said his family knows not to bother him before a race, and the best way to act around him so he can do his best on race day. Israel mentioned how he often reads or sometimes listens to music on the day leading up to the race to help keep himself calm and focused. On his off days, he also mentioned how his brother has a daughter now, and that he really likes looking after his niece and babysitting her in his spare time outside of training and university. Noting how it’s been nice to have a baby in the family now and for his niece to be able to be at his races, as he’s used to being the youngest in the family.

Israel Olatunde getting ready to race, looking up to the sky
Photo from Gettyimages by Sam Barnes

After looking through Israel’s Instagram prior to meeting him for coffee, we noticed his connection to his faith, and being a Christian, to his sport. He often shares quotes of scripture alongside pictures relating to his training or record achievements. We asked him about this, and if he thinks his faith and being a Christian helps him or has any impact on his sport and career. He replied that it impacts his view on pressure, that because of his belief in God, he knows that not everything is in his control. He finds comfort in the belief that someone is guiding him along the way. He can train and work to the best of his ability to succeed but knows that not everything is in his control and if something does go wrong, it most likely serves a purpose. Israel noted how sport has helped him get closer to his faith as his success and failures so far have felt as though they’ve proven to him that he’s not alone. That not everything is in his power due to God paving the way, and his journey for him as it’s meant to be, even if that does include challenges.

“What god blesses, no man can curse”

We then went on to ask Israel if now that he has achieved a dream from when was younger and is Ireland’s fastest man, where does he want to go next with his career and what are his new goals? He told us straight away he wants to break sub 10 seconds and get below that for the outdoor 100 meters, and hopefully make it to the next Olympics in Paris 2024. Israel currently holds the Irish record of 10.17 seconds which he set in the 100m final at the European Athletic Championships in Munich in August of last year, beating his time from the semi-final the night before of 10.19. That was just over the previous top Irish record of 10.18 seconds, which had stood to Paul Hession back in 2007. By breaking 10 seconds Israel would be breaking his own Irish record, and following on upwards from his own back-to-back national 60m champion title.

Olatunde after becoming the back to back national 60m champion
Olatunde after becoming the back-to-back national 60m champion

Israel told us of his goal to make the Olympics, with the next one coming up quickly in Paris 2024. He said that though it is coming around quickly, he’d like to think he can qualify and that if he does well in the Outdoor World Championships this summer,  he will likely qualify for it. His next race is at the intervarsity championships with the Irish men’s relay team. Though the relay is his second priority, it allows him to improve individually, take part in something enjoyable as part of a team, and benefit from training for something alongside other people, paralleling where he started with Gerry McArdle.

“You’ve always got to keep pushing on either way, whether that’s through a high or low period, and learn to reinvent yourself to go further when you do hit peaks of success”

If one thing is certain from speaking to Israel, it’s that he is a determined individual who will continue to chase the dreams he has set for himself from a young age for the years that follow and will continue his mindset of having fun and seeing how far, or in this case how fast, his career as an athlete can take him.