Today marks the first instalment in our series called The Inside Track, where David Gillick meets young Irish sports people aspiring to achieve big things. Across the sporting landscape, the next generation of Irish sportspeople are already starting to make their mark, and over the coming weeks, we'll be telling some of their stories.
To start the series, Gillick sat down with Dundalk sprinter Israel Olatunde. In January, the 19-year-old shattered the Irish U23 record in the 60 metres indoor when he ran 6.4 seconds. He stands just one hundredth of a second from qualifying for March's World Championships in Belgrade and is threatening to break Paul Hession's 15-year-old Irish record of 6.1 seconds in the race. Not bad for someone who's not yet 20. Olatunde is a scholar at UCD and is coached by Daniel Kilgallon. Last summer, he announced himself properly to Irish athletics when he won the 100 metres at the Irish Nationals in Santry.
On the back of a blistering winter of form, he sat down with David to discuss the next generation of Irish sprinters, his friendship/rivalry with Rhasidat Adeleke and his aspirations on the track.
This weekend, we're launching a new series where @DavidGillick meets upcoming Irish sports stars
First up is sprinter @IsraelOlatunde5, who's on the verge of breaking the Irish 60m indoors record
Here's Israel on inspiring young African-Irish athletes. Full interview tomorrow. pic.twitter.com/C36gh7JeWV
— Balls.ie (@ballsdotie) February 12, 2022
DG: There’s load of stuff I want to talk about, but first let’s start with the present, you’re a young man who is in the form of your life, you recently ran an Irish under-23 record, obviously huge PB for you, you’ve backed that up with a 6.64, which is the second fastest in Irish history over 60 metres. When an athlete is in that form, it’s such a great feeling. How are you taking it all in? What’s your experience over the last couple of weeks?
IO: Yeah, it’s been great honestly, just to have seen my hard work pay off over the last few weeks, we work hard over the winter, not just over the winter but the last few years to keep progressing as an athlete. This is my first year out of the junior ranks and I wanted to experience as much as I can and just progress as much as I can, that’s the main focus this year. To have started off so well means a lot to me, so let’s see where we can go from here.
DG: You look at your progression last summer after you won your senior title. That obviously meant an awful lot to you, to be the fastest man in Ireland. But you progressed into indoors as a senior, you’ve come into this indoor season now hot out of the blocks from race one, so things are working with Dan Kilgallon and that group over in Tallaght.
IO: Yeah for sure, this is my third season training with that group and you know, when I first started I was so young, I was only 17 when I first started with them and I did struggle at the start with the new intensity of the training. I trained on my own when I was in Dundalk so coming into a new group with all the fastest guys in Ireland, it’s going to hit the system. But Daniel and the whole group were so supportive of me, they would support me throughout anything and now we’re seeing everything pay off. I was really happy to get that senior medal last summer as well, that’s something you always dream of as a younger athlete, to get that senior title.
DG: Were you surprised?
IO: A little bit, coming into championships I knew I was in good shape, I was running consistently, 10.6, 10.5 and I knew I could drop it and go a bit faster. When it actually happens you get a shock, just like a relief that it finally happened, but yeah a bit of a shock.
DG: Look, when people start running this quickly, people get excited and you’re still only 19. When people see this, they compare it to previous Irish athletes, like Paul Hession and his record, the 6.61 he ran back in 2007. Paul was a great teammate of mine, he was my roommate in all the championships, he was versatile from 60m all the way to 200m. Would you have known Paul? Would you have watched him? Or was he someone you went “right, I’m going to take his records”?
IO: Well, I started to get into athletics a little bit late, a bit after Paul’s time. But still looking back at all the great Irish sprinters like you, Paul, Derval O’Rourke, it’s really an inspiration to see you guys, how you guys got to the top of the game. It’s an inspiration to all us younger athletes, we may have not seen you guys compete, but we see the results and the legacy you left. We definitely want to reach those goals. Like Paul is a great athlete, having a 6.61 record is crazy when I think about it. I want to be there one day, respect to Paul of course but I want to be there one day.
DG: It’s probably hard for people to understand the margins, particularly in the 60 metres, a 6.64 is a fast time but it’s not a qualifier time for Worlds, that 6.63. it’s 0.01 off and of course you have that national record of 6.61. It’s all about the fine margins. How do you work that out, how do you look at a race and see where you need to improve, how do you find 0.01?
IO: With any sprint event it’s the finest of margins, especially with the 60m as it's the shortest sprint event. One mistake and that will cost you hundredths, tenths of a second and that’s the difference between being a world champion and not even qualifying for the event. It’s plenty of different things you know, like even just my reaction time, my sharpness out of the blocks, holding my top end speed, it’s the littlest of things we can improve on and that could make all the difference.
Israel Olatunde from UCD AC provided a new Irish U23 60m Record of 6.64 at TUS Arena in Athlone during the league Round 2
Just TWO Weeks after he broke Paul Hessions 10 Year Reign on the record. #IndoorSeason #IrishAthletics #NationalRecord pic.twitter.com/g9NSGa2QB3
— Athletics Ireland (@irishathletics) January 23, 2022
DG: Within that group as well, there’s connections with Rhasidat Adeleke, Patience Jumbo Gula, these are people you know. You are all kind of what people would call the new generation of Irish sprinters coming through, you have African heritage, Nigerian heritage. How important is that to you, having the heritage of Africa but you’re Irish?
IO: It’s like all our parents made a sacrifice to give their kids a better opportunity at life and just being able to make our community proud really means a lot. Growing up, there weren't many African-Irish people in the media or people to look to, so being able to inspire people younger than us who are African and Irish. Hopefully we can see more African-Irish people in sport and in general pursuing their dreams.
DG: We’re seeing a little bit of that when you see the Irish soccer team. But even in our own world of athletics Rhasidat Adeleke took that senior Irish 200m record, so that’s the first of that generation coming through. You could be next. But growing up, your parents coming from Nigeria with your brothers and sisters, did you find that easy growing up or maybe did you feel that you were looked upon as different, particularly coming into the world of athletics as well?
IO: Yeah like growing up people are always going to look at you differently because they’re not used to it. Some people are a bit more nastier than others but it is what it is, I guess. But in athletics it’s different. I can only speak for myself but I haven’t had any bad experiences being African-Irish in athletics. I feel like everyone is really supportive. That’s what I really love about sport, you have people come in from all different cultures and backgrounds and they come together to compete to be the fastest
DG: From my perspective, the generation that’s coming through is bringing a whole new generation after them and inspiring them to be athletes. It’s brilliant to see because now mixed relay teams are a reality. I’ve read a lot of things and Rhasidat is someone you look up to and you’re mates. That must be inspiring to see her do what she’s doing over in the States now. It seems to be going very, very well for her. How does that make you feel?
IO: It fills me up with a lot of pride as well to see my friends do so well. At the same time I see her as one of my rivals. Every time I see her do well I go,“Oh I have to do well as well”, even if she’s a girl. I have nothing against her but she motivates me to go further and to achieve more.
DG: You seem to have a really nice balance in life. We’re here in UCD and you’re a scholar here as well. But you’re still living at home, so there’s a commute in there as well. Is that difficult, do you get stressed about getting here and getting over to the track in Tallaght? It’s a lot for a young person to pack into a day.
IO: Yeah, for me like I've never really had an issue with commuting. Firstly, I really enjoy living at home, I’m going to have to move out eventually but for now I'm enjoying living at home it’s not really a problem for me personally. I can have my downtime, I sleep, read, listen to music, do anything I want on the bus. So it’s not too bad honestly. And here in UCD there’s lots to do, a lot of places to chill and study. Yeah, I'm never really stressed or anything.
DG: And long term, you’re in third year, you have another year to go here. Would you look at maybe going full-time, if financials and all were possible.
IO: Yes of course, I think that’s every young athlete's goal to go full time or be a professional.
DG: To get a gear contract!
IO: Yeah, that’s the dream. I still have a bit of a way to go before I get there but I'm ready to put in the work to get to that stage, to that type of level.