He’s Ireland’s fastest man and at just 20 he has the world at his feet. But ahead of his first European Championship race on Tuesday in Munich, a concerned Israel Olatunde called his mother Elizabeth for an urgent cheer.
“He wouldn’t have believed it,” he told her. The people who faced him in the 100m semifinals were “giants – one of them was an Olympic champion”.
From the reassuring comfort of her family home in Dundalk, Co Louth, Elizabeth Olatunde offered her son the perfect advice. “Ignore them,” she said. “Don’t look at her. Focus. If you focus, you will get where you want to go.”
Israel called her again when he reached the final and said with concern: “Mom, these people are just too much for me. Mom, I’m only 20, I’ve never been to this field and they’ve been there all year.” Elizabeth said the same thing as before: “You have this. You can do it.”
More reassurance came from the family’s Whatsapp group, with Israel’s siblings Gabriel and Sharon weighing in with support. “I think that really gave him a boost too because I know I didn’t see him looking at people – the Olympian was standing next to him but it didn’t matter. He was concentrating,” Elizabeth said.
A third call came from Israel immediately after learning that he had broken the Irish 100m record in the final with a time of 10.17s as he finished an excellent sixth place. This time, all he could say was, “Mama, Mama” before bursting into tears of joy and happiness.
In the living room of her home on the outskirts of Dundalk, Elizabeth, 52, recounted the last crazy 24 hours before the happy new reality of her son’s achievements had to sink in. She had just managed to get a few hours. sleeping after finishing their night shift as a caregiver at Dundalk Cheshire Service.
Elizabeth and her husband Isaac, head of security at Amazon, had watched their son on TV in the finale and said, “I was sitting on the floor, running, screaming, screaming.”
A display case of trophies in the corner speaks of the steady road to success Israel has embarked on since he was 14 when he started going to the Dún Dealgan AC circuit with his sister Sharon.
But the biggest silver cup in the place of honor isn’t for running – it was awarded to Israel as Student of the Year while he was in Leaving Cert at St Mary’s College, Dundalk, where yesterday a teacher said of his success: “We’re famous.” today, isn’t it great? And you couldn’t meet a nicer kid.”
Headmaster Alan Craven spoke warmly of Israel as “the whole package – academically committed, athletically gifted and fearlessly proud of its Christian faith. A person of great humility, he is well liked by his peers and a great mentor to younger students.
“He received the Ad Astra scholarship in elite sport when he went to UCD to study Computer Science and is in his fourth year before completing his internship at KPMG next week.
“When St. Mary’s students return to school after the summer, they will be drawn, along with other school sports stars, to the image of Israel on the back of their new school year calendars.
“He wasn’t the fastest in Ireland when this picture was taken, but he was the fastest in school.”
Even as a one-year-old, Israel “had more energy than most,” Elizabeth recalled.
She believes the family genes run strong — her father Akinyemi died in Nigeria during the pandemic aged 104, but up until his death he was “very energetic,” she said.
Elizabeth herself had been a sprint champion at school, so she expected at least one of her children to come after her, although she believed it would be her eldest son, Gabriel – an engineer.
Instead, it was Israel who caught sprinting fever and was taken under the wing of Gerry McArdle, a former gym teacher at St Mary’s, who first saw his potential.
Rita McCarron, Dún Dealgan club secretary, said they were thrilled by Israel’s immense success.
“He is a very sincere young man. We couldn’t be happier for him,” she said.
“He comes from a lovely family – they’re very quiet, humble people.”
When he started out as a teenager, Israel had suffered from asthma and used an inhaler.
Elizabeth had been concerned that running might worsen his condition, but the family’s GP assured her it was mild – and it ended up disappearing completely once he started running.
Israel’s father was the one who pledged to “take him everywhere, who woke up early, who picked up from work” to take his son to races across the country.
The family are impatiently waiting for Israel to be home now and when he lands at Dublin Airport on Monday as expected, Elizabeth will be there with her arms outstretched. “I just want to hug him,” she said.
Concerned about how her shy son will deal with his newfound fame, she adds, “I suppose he won’t be able to go shopping with me anymore.”
https://www.independent.ie/irish-news/i-just-want-to-hug-him-irelands-speed-king-israel-olatunde-owes-it-all-to-family-41919712.html ‘I just want to hug him’ – Ireland’s speed king Israel Olatunde owes it all to his family