Athletics: Sower of Africa's glory

Pat Butcher meets the coach who put Kipketer and company on track
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The Independent Online
Among the many rewards and recognitions that Wilson Kipketer can expect when, as it seems eminently likely, he defends his world 800m title successfully this week, one of the most valuable will be the least known.

Far from the delirium attending his victory in Gothenburg two years ago, his world indoor title in Paris in March, or his equalling of Seb Coe's long standing 800m world record in Oslo last month, there is likely to be a simple addition to a monument in a remote part of Kenya, which is becoming legendary in sports circles. It is the tiny rose garden of St Patrick's School in Iten, in the Western Highlands.

Brother Colm O'Connell, who started teaching there 21 years ago, thought it would be a nice idea to plant a rose bush when the first Kenyan youngsters he coached set world junior records. That was back in 1983. As he started turning out more and more good youngsters, other bushes got planted for Olympic champions and world record holders. Now, with Kipketer's achievements, he is running out of space.

The Patrician brother from Mallow, Co. Cork, knew little about athletics back in 1976, the year that Eamonn Coghlan was breaking Irish hearts by finishing fourth in the Olympic 1500m in Montreal. In those same games, Brendan Foster went one better, and won a bronze medal in the 10,000m.

Foster's younger brother, Peter, was doing Voluntary Services Overseas work at St Patrick's. "I think it was pretty well the first day I was here," Bro Colm, as he's universally known in Kenya, recalls. "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."

Twenty years later, he greets visitors to St Patrick's, and he takes us to that square of garden planted with bushes, and placards with hand- painted dedications. We visit each one in turn, commentary by Bro Colm, a short, stout man with wispy grey hair, concealed by the archetypal coach's cap. "Charles and Kip Cheruyiot, world junior record breakers, 1,500m and 5,000m, 1983, my first successes. Peter Rono, Olympic 1,500m champion 1988, my big breakthrough. Jonah Birir, 1992 Olympic steeplechase champion. And the latest, Wilson Kipketer, 1995 world 800m champion. Of course I've got a few things to add to that."

There is nothing of braggadocio in this litany, only pride. And he quickly relates how he sent Paul Ereng away. "I told him he wouldn't get on our school 4 x 400m relay team. Two years later, he won the Olympic 800m." But he could also have added a lot more names, like Moses Kiptanui, like Daniel Komen, like Ismail Kirui - all either world champions or world record holders. And many, many more. Young women too, like Lydia Cheromei, world junior cross country champion, aged 15 in 1991, like Rose Cheruyiot, like Susan Sirma.

St Patrick's is a boys' school, and a pretty exclusive one at that. So, to accommodate all those who came to him for coaching, he arranged to transfer to a nearby teachers' training college, although his house is still at St Pat's, as are the quarters for some of the youngsters, who now come from all over Kenya, and indeed, the world. There were two teenage boys from Norway there in early summer, and Anne-Marie Sandell, the Finn who won the world junior cross country title in 1995, was there for six months beforehand. Young Americans have been there, although goodness knows what they think of the spartan conditions. A downmarket summer camp, maybe? He just smiles and shrugs, saying: "Life is hard in Kenya. That's what helps make these kids so good."

And they don't come any better than Kipketer. Few doubt that Bro Colm's ex-pupil would have won the Olympic 800m last year, had he been allowed to compete. But the Danish authorities refused to bend to their Olympic Committee's request for citizenship 12 months earlier than the seven years required residence qualification. Kipketer had originally gone to Copenhagen as a student, then settled. Last time, he had to watch Vebjorn Rodahl - a man he beat five times out of five last year - win the title. Everyone expects Rodahl to be behind again on Friday. The only question seems to be whether Kipketer can break the world record?

"Nobody can say if there'll be a world record or not," Kipketer said. "It depends on so many things. If the weather is hot, that'll make it far more difficult. I'll try my best for a world record, but I won't be the only one running the 800m. There's going to be a lot of competition, and everyone in the final will be fighting for gold." But as everyone, Kipteker included, knows, he will be the likely recipient.

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