Kenya is likely to be among the first countries on anyone’s list of the world’s athletics powerhouses. The east African nation topped the medals table at the 2015 world championships and won 11 medals in the sport at the 2012 London Olympics. These included perhaps the best individual performance of the entire games: David Rudisha winning the men’s 800 metres in a world record time.
In the past four Olympics, Kenyan athletes have won 39 medals. Most people, however, are unlikely to be able to name the person arguably most responsible for mining this rich seam of success.
To be fair, they would be forgiven. Colm O’Connell is not a former champion, has never even been a runner and has no coaching qualifications. He has never courted the limelight; indeed he has never been to an Olympics or world championships.
The retired geography teacher from rural County Cork in Ireland is a balding, portly, 5ft 6in, 67-year-old missionary from the Patrician Brothers order. Since 1976 he has lived in the remote town of Iten, 8,000ft above sea level in Kenya’s North Rift Valley, having turned down the chance to go to California the previous year.
“Often in life you don’t know why you make a particular decision,” he says by way of explanation. “For me it was the road less travelled.”
In 1976 the road to Iten certainly was less travelled. “There was no electricity, no running water, no tarmac road, no telephone, no television, no post office,” O’Connell says. “So in a sense, you dig deep a little bit into yourself.”
He readily admits he knew nothing about athletics coaching when he arrived in Kenya for what he thought was going to be a three-year contract to teach. But he was drawn to it as a way of getting to know the boys after listening to the Montreal Olympics on the BBC World Service just days after arriving.