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Brother Colm O’Connell in Iten, Kenya. Photo by: John Gichigi/Getty Images

Kenyan distance running’s surprising inspiration: an Irish priest

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Brother Colm O’Connell in Iten, Kenya. Photo by: John Gichigi/Getty Images

In the tiny village of Iten in Kenya’s Rift Valley lives the surprising unofficial talent scout for Kenya’s next distance running champions: Brother O’Connell, a 63-year-old Irish priest.

O’Connell has lived in Iten for the past 35 years, mentoring runners who have gone on to win four Olympic gold medals and 25 world championships, the Irish Independent reported.

Amongst those who have trained in Iten is Mo Farah, who earned a gold medal for Britain Saturday in the 10,000 meter event in London.

O’Connell originally came to Iten in 1976, planning to teach geography for three years. Three decades later, he’s still there.

“I’ve always concentrated on the development of young athletes,” O’Connell told the Irish Independent. “That’s where the Kenyan supply line comes from. I’ve not really moved up the line and ignored the youngsters.”

Children in Iten aspire to become athletes, as success in running offers a way out of poverty, according to the Independent.

"Children have been emulating the older athletes,” Wilfred Bungei, former Olympic gold medalist for Kenya, told the Independent. “Children say, 'I can be a great athlete like Bungei' and they start training."

Up to a thousand runners train in the area around Iten, which is 7,874 feet above sea level. The high altitude forces runners’ bodies to maximize the efficiency of their oxygen use, which pays off in runs at sea level.

The Kenyan Olympic long-distance running team this year refused to take advantage of training facilities in Bristol before the games.

“The whole world is coming to Kenya to train in long and middle-distance races,” the chairman of Athletics Kenya, Isaiah Kiplagat, told the Independent. “Why would we take our team to Bristol?”

In Beijing four years ago, Kenya collected six gold, four silver and four bronze medals, the most for any African nation. All the medals were in distance running.

So far in London, Kenya has won one gold medal and two each of silver and bronze, all in running, and has eighteen more chances to win before the end of the games. The favorite is David Rushida, who already holds the world record for 800 meters and will face the Olympic final in that event on Thursday.

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