Anyone who knows anything at all about Dublin, even if they’ve never set foot in that stout-soaked city, will know that the main drag is called O’Connell Street. Named after Daniel O’Connell, the legendary 19th century campaigner for political and religious freedom, the street strikes north from O’Connell Bridge (over the River Liffey), past the Abbey Theatre, the James Joyce statue, and the iconic GPO, focus of the 1916 ‘uprising’, to end at the monument to another patriot, Charles Stuart Parnell.
One of the best stories about O’Connell St is the explosion that destroyed the upper part of Nelson’s Pillar in the then Sackville St, in 1966. The bomber, Liam Sutcliffe brought down the English naval hero without so much as cracking a single window pane. When the Irish Army was drafted in to demolish the remains of the column shortly afterwards, there wasn’t a shop window intact for half a mile around.
The O’Connell Street, just inaugurated in the Kenyan town of Iten is dedicated to a far more pacific character, Bro Colm O’Connell. But it is due to his contribution to a different kind of explosion, of talent. And it is a fitting tribute to a man who has dedicated his life to, first educating the youths of St Patrick’s School in the Western Highland town, and then helping turn more than a few of them into Olympic champions and world record holders.
I was fortunate enough to meet Colm for the first time, in the early years of his coaching success, in the mid-1990s. Born in Co Cork, Colm joined the Patrician Brothers, a Catholic teaching order as a teenager, and was sent to teach at St Patrick’s in Iten, in 1976. By the time I met him, he had already guided the likes of Peter Rono and Jonah Birir to Olympic titles and Wilson Kipketer to world championships and records, but he cheerfully admitted that he had known nothing about athletics two decades earlier, when he arrived in Iten.
However, among his new colleagues at St Patrick’s was one Peter Foster, younger brother of Brendan who, among other achievements was Olympic 10,000 metres bronze medallist that very year. Peter was doing VSO (voluntary service overseas). “I think it was pretty much the first day I was here,” said Bro Colm, as he’s universally known, “Peter came to my door, and said, ‘Come and help me with coaching the kids’. A year later, when he left, he just brought a tracksuit and a stopwatch to me and said, ‘There you are; get on with it’. So I did.”
An unassuming man, Colm was equally quick to relate his failures, most notable of which was rejecting Paul Ereng for a place at St Patrick’s, and telling him that he wouldn’t even get into the school 4×400 metres team. Ereng won the Olympic 800 metres title two years later. Within a few years of my visit to Iten, Colm had added the likes of Moses Kiptanui and Daniel Komen to his list of successful trainees; and when the boys-only St Pat’s frowned on him coaching youngsters from the local girls’ school, he switched to a nearby teacher training college in Iten, and, beginning with Sally Barsosio and Lydia Cheromei, he contributed to the success, among others of the Kiplagats, Edna, Florence and Lorna. The rest are too numerous to mention, but in addition to Mary Keitany, the apotheosis came at London 2012, when David Rudisha ran one of the greatest races in Olympic history, leading every step of the way to an 800 metres world record of one minute, 40.91sec.
Colm is one of the stars of the television documentary, Race For Kenya* that I made a couple of years after our initial meeting. Since Rudisha’s London Olympic victory, repeated in Rio 2016, Colm has starred in several other documentaries. In one of them, he asks Rudisha’s opinion about a training session. That reminded me of the same humility he had shown when I attended training sessions with him in Iten over 20 years ago, when I’d been surprised to hear him ask the youngsters for their views.
“I learned how to coach by listening to the kids,” he said. “Them telling me how they felt. Now, I just give them the outline, and tell them what I learned from their predecessors. The rest is up to them”.
That is teaching from the heart, real teaching, not pedantry; not just teaching them how to run well, but how to take charge of their own lives. You can’t get better teaching than that.
O’Connell Street, Iten is the least that Bro Colm deserves.