Israel Olatunde is sprinting ahead as the world stands still, but sees God as the greatest prize, writes Jason Osborne
Few activities are as liberating as running as fast as you can. For some reason as we grow up, we do it less and less, but most of us can remember the ecstatic joy of sprinting across the sports field in school with our friends.
That may be a rose-tinted recollection, as few of us are as fast as we remember ourselves to have been. However, for 18 year-old Israel Olatunde from Dundalk, it’s anything but a dream-like recollection; he’s found great success in this most primordial activity.
Momentous success it has been, recently breaking two national indoor records twice in one day. In February of 2021, Israel broke both the U20 and U23 indoor men’s 60-metre records two separate times.
An Ad Astra Elite scholar at University College Dublin, Israel secured his first record breaking time of 6.74 seconds when he finished second to Leon Reid in the final race of the event. Israel’s second 60-metre run saw him blaze past the line in 6.73 seconds, breaking the record he had set himself just an hour before.
The path to these impressive achievements was born of a simple beginning – noticing he was faster than the other kids he would play with in his youth.
“I used to play football, so I always knew I was faster than the other kids on the football team,” he tells The Irish Catholic.
“But then when I got to athletics, it’s a whole different ball game. You’d be surprised. You think you’re fast in football, then you get to athletics and there’s just some crazy kids in that. They’re really fast,” he laughs.
As he alludes to, competition has really picked up over the years as he’s developed in his sport, but Israel’s introduction to sprinting in secondary school was a more casual affair. While it offered him a door into serious running, it was more centred on fun than on serious competition.
“In secondary school it was pretty, in terms of the schools around us, it was more serious than others. It was still pretty chilled though, pretty calm. The coach that was at our school – his name is Gerry McArdle – he was also the coach at my first athletics club, Dúndealgan AC. It was just fun, everyone was having fun, but everyone still had passion for the sport, or at least most people did anyway. Even though it was fun, we still worked hard. At the competitions, we had some guys medalling at the North Leinster Championships and small championships like that.”
Sticking to the 60, 100 and 200-metre sprints, Israel’s success began to blossom over time. Running with both his school and his club, he ran in the Louth Championships at the tender age of 14 with Dúndealgan AC, in his first year after taking up sprinting. He went on to win in his category, heralding things to come.
“Obviously the Louth Championships isn’t a high level,” he says self-effacingly. “I was in the under-17 age category. It’s not really a high level, but for me at the time, that was a big accomplishment, so I was pretty proud of that.”
He offers a word of thanks to his coach, saying that his belief in him helped him to pursue a path with his sprinting that he may not have recognised for himself at the time.
“My coach Gerry McArdle, he always had big aspirations and dreams for me,” Israel says, continuing, “He saw I had really good potential from a young age. From there, we were still progressing, just continuing to train hard and that summer, I came second in the national championships in the under-17 age category in the 200 metres, so just from there, little things just kept happening. I kept getting small achievements. I just kept trying to work off that and get better at each training session, just for the next competition.”
As with running, so with life; one foot in front of the other. With Israel focused on simpler steps, he didn’t initially consider a future in running. Between the support of his coach and continuous “small achievements,” he found his young life taking a decisive shape, one which would lead him to UCD and into European Championships.
“I always had confidence in myself but I never really thought that far ahead when I was in third/fifth year. I didn’t really know much about the sport as well, so I didn’t really know you could get scholarships from it or whatever.
“Maybe towards the end of fifth year, maybe that summer, I got my first international competition. The European under-18 Championships, so just from there, I knew I could go international at the youth level. I knew I had potential to run at a senior level or in college, or just further on down the line.”
And that’s just what he did – going to university on the aforementioned Ad Astra Elite scholarship to hone his sport and study computer science. Asked about the college experience, he said it’s a different atmosphere to the one he encountered in secondary school. While his time in school was foundational, he said he found university life to be pervaded with “an air of excellence”.
“Yeah, like, not even just specifically to my sport, just in general. When I got to UCD from my secondary school, I was a good athlete and people recognised me for my sport, but then when you get to UCD, there’s dozens of other international athletes and European champions, world champions. The girls’ hockey team as well in UCD – they’re really good.”
“It’s a different atmosphere. It’s good honestly. It, kind of, took the pressure off you. You can learn from other people. Because of the scholarship programme I was on, I got to rub shoulders with some of these guys. I’d be seeing them, walking past them in the gym, watching them train. Not guys even just from athletics, guys from different sports like cycling, hockey, rugby, so really good in that aspect, it humbles you a bit and motivates you. In their sport they’re doing so well, so I can keep working hard and get to a similar level in my sport as well.”
Israel’s sporting life is secure, but he makes no mistake about where his success comes from.
“I can’t help but thank God for his grace,” he posted on Instagram, after his fourth place finish in the 60 metre sprint at the European Indoor Athletics Championship in Poland which took place at the beginning of March.
Israel turned from the temporal racing to the eternal race to tell me about his relationship with God.
“I grew up going to church and everything. I always knew that God was there, but didn’t really have a relationship with him growing up. Just like any other kid that grows up.
“As I got older, I knew he was there, so I was searching for him, trying to grow in that relationship with him – maybe not in the right ways, but as I got older – I’d say he found me, in a sense. As I got older, I started getting closer with him, started growing my relationship with him. I’m still not, obviously, perfect, but it’s a journey.”
Israel tells a tale so many young people in today’s Ireland could relate to – being aware of God but not knowing who he truly is. Steeped in a deeply Christian culture, there are few on this island who grow up without having heard God’s name, few who haven’t received his teachings indirectly, at least.
“Most of my challenges were, kind of, internal,” Israel says.
“Most of my friends, they would identify as Christian or Catholic, different denominations, but yeah, just growing up, I always said to myself, ‘Oh, there is a good God. I believe in Jesus,’ but at the same time, I didn’t really know him.
“Growing up, when I was pretty young, like 13,14, I used to worry, I used to have feelings of anxiety, I used to worry about things a lot, about my future and just worrying about, how am I going to become successful, how am I going to do this, how am I going to do that? That’s all I really thought about as a kid,” he says.
These are struggles every person can relate to – many recent statistics showing that more people are struggling with anxiety, depression and stress than ever before. The pandemic surely has a hand in this, but so too does a lack of relationship with God, and a resulting lack of perspective.
“As a kid, you’re not meant to be thinking about those things a lot, but I used to put a lot of pressure on myself in that respect and it wasn’t until I kind of realised I’m not really in control of all this, there’s someone above me that’s watching out for me, that’s looking after me, that wants to take care of me. But I’m here only worrying about myself, thinking, you know, I’m in control of everything. I think when I realised that there has to be someone above me, watching over me, that’s when I tried to develop my relationship with God.
“Obviously it wasn’t easy,” he says, “but when I first started taking God seriously, it kind of made me realise that, it sounds weird, but it made me realise how small and insignificant I am. But in those deficiencies, that’s where God shows his love, his power, his grace, his mercy.”
Attending RCCG Miracle Land, a Pentecostal Church in Dundalk (in un-restricted times), Israel says his faith and community mean a lot to him, with family and friends providing a welcome balance when he feels he’s lacking.
“With my family, especially like my siblings, I’ve been able to discuss things with them. Different questions I maybe had or just different worries or concerns, even just to discuss with them. Also, my friends, a lot of my friends are on their own journey with Christ and just being able to talk with them.
“Especially, during lockdown, I was training on my own here in Dundalk, but sometimes I’d link up with one of my friends, Patience, another athlete from Dundalk. Patience Jumbo-Gula. She’s on her own journey as well, and when we were training together, just in the parks or whatever, we’d be talking about different Bible verses, different stories that we had, and I don’t know why but it really helped so much. It’s comforting knowing that there’s other people on this journey with God. They have their own issues and problems, and God sometimes speaks through them to you. So I think it’s really important to have people to talk to about that.”
His faith has had a real impact on the way he views life, with gratitude being one of the key characteristics that colours his outlook. He said it’d be the one thing he’d communicate to other young people, given the opportunity.
“I’d say to just, like, try to enjoy things as much as you can. Just little things. Pay attention to little details and try to enjoy as much as you can, because life goes by quick. We’re not here for long. This isn’t our final destination, but while we’re here you might as well try to make the most of it. And that doesn’t mean go out and party and do crazy stuff. Just be grateful for things.
“Today, as I was drawing my curtains, I was like, ‘Today’s a beautiful day,’ well in Dundalk anyway. The sun’s shining, I’m happy for that, I’m grateful for that. I thank God for that. I’m here, I’m talking to you, I’m grateful for that. Every little thing. That’s where true joy and happiness comes from, being grateful for the things God has given you. You might not be in the greatest situation. Things could be better, but things also could be worse. No matter what situation you’re in, there’s always going to be things to thank God for and to be grateful for. I think that’s how you improve a situation, by looking for the good things in it.”
Grateful to God and enjoying career-high success, Israel Olatunde is racing into a bright future.