Brother Colm O'Connell
Meet the runner's iconIn the Kenyan town where Running Icons are produced en masse, the most unlikely of coaches is revered as the largest single reason for their success The Kerio View hotel is located on the outskirts of Iten, a small Kenyan town sitting high on the edge of an escarpment overlooking the Rift Valley. From its terrace you can look down and see the waterhole, home to giant crocodiles and herds of elephants, and discern the occasional silhouette of a distant giraffe. The earth is terracotta red here, and its dust permeates everything. 2,600m above sea level, the thin air does little to deaden the impact of the sun, and the town gently bakes. Perched on the equator, it rises each day at half past six, and descends again 12 hours later, every single day of the year. It is inimitably African, from the sights to the smells to the sounds. For a visiting Londoner, it is impossible not to pause and reflect just how far away from home you are.
And sitting at a table, deep in conversation, as he always seems to be, with friends and acquaintances, is the most famous, the most immediately recognised man in the whole of Iten. In this town of just 4,000 inhabitants, which has produced more distance running champions than any other on the planet, one man stands revered above all. More sought-after than David Rudisha, more celebrated than Wilson Kipketer, more respected than Peter Rono.
The runner's icon
He is the genetic opposite of the running greats in almost every possible way. He stands about five feet six with his 64-year-old frame appropriately padded around the middle. He wears a woollen jumper, shirt and dusty trousers through the hottest days, and his cap offers shade to a face which remains more Cork than Kenya. Ask anyone in this, the greatest athletic town on earth, who among them might be considered an icon, and they will all offer up the same name – Brother Colm O’Connell.
He arrived in Iten from Ireland in 1976, supposedly for three years, working as a teacher at St Patrick’s School.
“The year before I had been asked to go to Los Angeles,” he smiles. “But it seemed very big, very noisy and I didn’t think it was for me. I said no, thank you, but I suppose I should have gone. A year later, I was asked “Have you ever heard of a place called Iten?”! I think someone was making a point!”
He is a man both at home and a long way from it, and he laughs at the memory. He arrived to find a formative athletics programme operating at St. Patrick’s, put in place by Peter Foster, brother of Brendan. Foster’s time in Iten overlapped O’Connell’s by a year, and much of it was spent teaching the newcomer the basics of distance running coaching, in the hopes he could eventually take over its management.
The initial three year contract has now been extended, by about 33 years, as his work has expanded and developed. Not so much expanded, in fact, as exploded. For the first two Olympics to take place during his time in Iten, Kenya didn’t even send a team as a result of boycotts. By last summer, at the world championships in Daegu, they won 17 medals, with no fewer than 10 of them going to former students of St. Patrick’s. It is a statistic which borders on the absurd – ten medallists, at one world championship, from one school. It remains the greatest, most concentrated, single production line of talent in the sporting world. I first met Brother Colm along with a group of fellow British journalists, as we embarked on an impromptu tour of the school while on a trip to Iten. St.Patrick’s has a basketball court which has seen better days, dusty gardens and sparse classrooms. It doesn’t even have a track – there is one on the other side of town, red and muddy and pot-holed, where the first runner of the day needs to shoo away the cattle which arrive each night. But it has fierce pride, engaging children, who are both driven and polite, and perhaps most importantly of all, a sense that with enough hard work, nothing is impossible.
He wandered through the dust to greet us, and posed for photographs in front of a wonderfully dilapidated school bus. How, I mused, did he know we were arriving now?
“This is St. Patrick’s, and this is Iten,” said a local. “He knows everything that happens here!”
Some years ago the school initiated a tradition of planting a tree, when one of its former pupils won a major championship medal. The groundsman, Colm informs us, with just the hint of a twinkle in his eye, complained that the tradition was in danger of creating “a forest”, so it was scaled down. These days, an Olympic medal secures you little more than a shrub. Rarely has a man so enjoyed telling a story.
First successHis first real success as a coach came with Ibrahim Hussein’s victory in the New York Marathon in 1987, while in Seoul, a year later, Peter Rono snatched gold in the 1500m, becoming O’Connell’s first Olympic champion. In the intervening 25 years he has guided a further 25 world champions, as well as four more Olympic gold medallists. There will, inevitably, be more shrubbery arriving after London, with David Rudisha seemingly unbeatable in the 800m, destined to increase his standing among the St. Patrick’s alumni. And yet it is not the star names he claims to cherish training the most.
“I’ve always concentrated on the development of young athletes. That’s where the Kenyan supply line comes from. I’ve not moved up the line and ignored the youngsters, but kept the production line going. That for me is very significant, because I really came here to work with the youth.” And they work hard – terrifyingly so – eschewing gadgets and fads, in favour of sessions designed to take fullest advantage of the surroundings, the thin air and the steep hills. And yet, he maintains, no single reason for the town’s dominance of distance running stands up to scrutiny.
“All sorts of research has been done to isolate a specific reason, and all sorts of experiments, into physiology, climate, altitude, diet, genetics. Nobody seems to have come up with a satisfactory conclusion.”
Neither will he have it that the glories simply represent a desperate flight from poverty.
“Poverty is in other parts of the world, as well. Any one factor you pick has a similar situation somewhere else, so I think it’s all those things brought together in one place, in the right mixture, in the right balance.”
Making a difference
He is too modest to suggest the one unique factor, and too intelligent not to know it. It stares back at him every time he passes a mirror, from under his weather-beaten cap. Other places have altitude and diet, genetics or physiology, but nowhere else has Brother Colm O’Connell. He is the difference.
That night, there is an event, a buffet, where the visitors in town mingle with O’Connell and the greatest distance runners in the world. With his red face and rotund frame, he may resemble the British media more than he does the locals, but there is no doubting where he feels his attachment. At the end of the meal, a tiny figure comes over to the table, to say thank you to her host, and to make a point of saying goodnight to O’Connell.
She is timid to the point of shyness, but to leave without showing her gratitude would be unthinkable. She is Mary Keitany, and she will surely one day be the woman to break Paula Radcliffe’s extraordinary marathon record. In one gesture, laden with humility and politeness, she has also made quite clear who she views as the most important person in the room.
As the athletes drift off, we repair upstairs, to the bar. In front of us, the Rift Valley is in darkness, while behind us, Colm O’Connell is showing no signs of wanting to go home. Not while there are conversations still to be had. Who, I asked him, is the greatest he ever trained? His response is instant. “Cornelius Chirchir. He won the world junior 1500m, and broke the world record.”
My eyes give away my shame at not knowing him. Was he really the best?
“Oh yes. Never seen talent like that, but he didn’t compete as a senior. Didn’t have the right mentality for it. It was for the best.”
The African night is as black as night can be, and the man from Cork, who plotted and planned more medals than anyone, has waited until now, until prompted, to casually mention the one that got away.
It’s precisely 4,080 miles from the Kerio View to the Olympic stadium in London, a long journey, down a mountain, over a desert and across a continent, but not one he will make. He has never seen his charges run ‘live’ at a major championship, preferring to watch from home, on television, away from the limelight. It is, as you understand after meeting him, a decision entirely keeping with his philosophy of life.
A man of action
To be an icon has always been more about deeds than words, but Colm O’Connell, maybe more than anyone, takes it with great modesty, to a greater height than anyone before. As his charges begin claiming their medals in London this summer, our Hall of Fame could not welcome a more appropriate man.