In the midst of an extravagant light show ahead of the European 100m final in the Olympic Stadium in Munich last August, Ireland got their first ever glimpse of one of their own taking to the track for the showpiece event of the championships in the form of Dundalk sprint sensation Israel Olatunde. Making his way to his blocks proudly beating the green vest, there was an overwhelming sense that this was the moment the 20-year-old announced himself on the big stage.
Magical night in Munich
What came next was a performance fit for the occasion. From lane 7, with Olympic champion Marcell Jacobs to his left, Olatunde produced the run of his life, finishing 6th to break Paul Hession’s 15-year-old Irish national record in a time a 10.17, collapsing to the track draped in the Irish tricolor as the time was displayed on the screen in the packed stadium. A moment that will live long in the memory of Irish sports fans.
“I try not to get star struck but you can’t deny it’s a great feeling to be on the same start line as the Olympic champion. After the semi-final he (Jacobs) asked me did I make the final and I replied yeah, he gave me a fist bump and said he’d see me in the final. That was pretty cool.”
Journey to the final
Olatunde’s journey through the heats and semi-finals had been incredible in isolation. Breaking his own U23 national record in his first appearance at a European senior outdoor championship to win his heat in a time of 10.19, he then followed that up with an automatic qualification for the final in 10.20, becoming the first Irishman to ever qualify for a European 100m final.
“I knew if I was in good shape, I could have made the final, so it wasn’t really a surprise, but I was over joyed with the result for sure.”
A season to remember
The performance in Munich topped off what has been a stellar year for the Dundalk man who runs in the colors of University College Dublin under the coaching tutelage of Daniel Kilgallon, to whom he was introduced to 3 years ago by his former coach in Dundalgan A.C, Gerry McArdle. The change in training to a more endurance-based program alongside his training partners in Tallaght A.C, has worked a treat in molding the athlete that became capable of breaking the 15-year-old national record, which he had been threatening throughout the 2022 outdoor season.
“I was with Gerry McArdle in Dundalk, I was still fresh, still growing and Gerry felt it was time to move on to a new coach, I began doing a different type of training I had never done before. It was a bit of a shock going into it.”
Hitting the headlines
The aftermath of the race in Munich caused a social media storm rarely seen for athletics in Ireland, a true testament to the scale of what had just been achieved by the Dundalk man. Of all the messages that landed in Olatunde’s inbox, he does not hesitate in conveying the personal significance of the congratulations received from Paul Hession, the man whom he had just taken the record from.
“That means a lot having a legend like him acknowledging my achievement.”
Rising tide of talent
Olatunde is currently spearheading a generation of up-and-coming young talent of Irish athletes that can undoubtedly go on to compete at the very highest level. None more so than friend and former training partner Rhasidat Adeleke, whom he admits caused him to lose his voice, just 24 hours after his own heroics, as she went on to break her own national record for 5th in the 400m final.
“I was there trackside screaming her on, I kind of lost my voice a little bit, I love watching her race.”
For now, as the season draws to a close, Olatunde will return to some form of normality. Having recently finished up an internship with KPMG, he will return to college in UCD, where he attends as an undergraduate in computer and data science. The significant difference this year will be that of his new living arrangements as he makes the move to the Belfield campus for the first time.
“The main thing will be recovery, using the extra hours where I was commuting for recovery, it’s going to be a good change for me.”
Looking to the future
With his name now proudly alongside the national record, Olatunde is insistent on pushing his career on to the next level. With the World Athletics Championships in Budapest on the horizon in 2023, he refuses to let the rising standard of world sprinting intimidate him in pursuing more success at the highest level, buoyed on by the support of his family, training group and local community in Dundalk.
“I don’t think it’s a step too far, we’ll take things one step at a time, it’s going to be a big year for sure but I’m never going to limit myself.”