ON THE EVENING of August 9, eight skinny, limber men will line up on the red rubber track inside London’s Olympic Stadium and await the pistol in the 800-meter final. All things being equal, this is what will happen next.
David Rudisha, a six-foot-three Kenyan Masai with dark skin and haughty cheekbones, will start hard. Rudisha, 23, is the world champion, the world-record holder (1:41.01), and the clear favorite for Olympic gold. He knows only one way to race, hitting the front early and destroying his competition with raw speed.
Naturally, Rudisha’s opponents will attempt to stifle this tactic. His main rival, an affable, gap-toothed Sudanese named Abukaker Kaki, told me recently that if he is to win gold, he needs to take control at 200 meters and box Rudisha in. The Kenyan had beaten him too many times the same way, and the Olympic final would be Kaki’s best opportunity to try something different. “If you keep getting punched in the face, eventually it’s your fault, not his,” said Kaki’s coach, Ibrahim Aden, clarifying the point.
In truth, there isn’t much Kaki or any other contender can do to avoid a knockout. Like Usain Bolt in the 100, Rudisha towers over his fellow athletes. He possesses a gorgeous, loping gait—the stride of a fearless child running downhill. If he is in peak form, the only place he will see his opponents during the race will be on the JumboTron.
Meanwhile, should Rudisha win, his longtime coach, the man largely responsible for the Kenyan’s powerful, front-running style, doesn’t even plan to be in the crowd to congratulate him. Indeed, his coach, a 63-year-old Irish priest named Brother Colm O’Connell, probably won’t even be on the same continent. He’ll be 4,000 miles away, sitting on a barstool at the Kerio View Hotel in Iten, Kenya—a village perched on the western escarpment of the Great Rift Valley—watching events unfold on television. “I’m not so attached that I have to go and see them winning races,” said O’Connell of Rudisha and the other athletes he coaches, including Olympic middle-distance hopefuls Augustine Choge and Isaac Songok.
It was March, and we were sitting in the hotel where O’Connell told me he’ll watch the Games. A ravishing scene lay behind him: cloud shadows dotting the valley floor. O’Connell was describing his coaching style—a free-form, instinctive approach that’s as unusual in modern professional sports as it is successful. O’Connell, who receives no money for his coaching work, loathes the cult of analysis—all the metrics like VO2 max and stride length—that dictates the regimens of most of today’s elite athletes. “If it works, it works,” he told me. “Why must we analyze everything?”
O’Connell prefers to train his athletes by feel, not by numbers—and it’s hard to argue with the results. Since he began working in Kenya in 1976, 25 world champions and four Olympic gold medalists have come through Colm’s programs, making him, by almost any measure, the most successful running coach in history. It’s a record that doesn’t seem to square with the person sitting across from me: a short, potbellied man wearing a blue diamond-patterned sweater stained with a tiny reminder of breakfast. How did this Irish priest become the guru of Kenyan running? He will excuse me if I attempt some analysis.
O'CONNELL'S UNLIKELY RISE began 36 years ago, when, he says, he experienced a sort of epiphany. Born in 1949, in rural Cork, Ireland, he joined the priesthood in his early twenties and began work as a geography teacher and part-time coach at the Newbridge School, in County Kildare. In 1976, while standing on the sideline at a Gaelic football match on a miserable, rainy Irish afternoon, he was asked by an older teacher whether he would volunteer to teach abroad, in Kenya. O’Connell took a look at the weather and said yes.