Custom Search 1

Jamaica 55: How a small nation nurtures world-class athletes

GOODBYE: Usain Bolt saluting fans at a tribute to his career in the Czech Republic last month

AS THE world prepares to say goodbye to arguably the greatest athlete of all time, a great deal of energy is being spent trying to understand how Jamaica, a small country of just 2.7m people has managed to consistently produce not just the world’s fastest man, but to become the world greatest sprinting nation.

This is not just about individual success. Bolt’s dominance may blind some to the magnificent achievements of other men and women from Jamaica.

So, just how did little Jamaica rise to this level?

My brother (Hubert Lawrence - those who know, know, and those who don't should perhaps Google him) and I spent every January to June watching athletics meets from 1975 until I left Jamaica in 1989.

My brother continued that tradition and now is without question the Caribbean’s foremost authority on all things track and field.

At the time, we never knew we were watching history in the making. This was the era of Donald Quarrie and Merlene Ottey, both first class athletes and Olympic medal winners. Ottey has competed in an astonishing seven Olympic!

GOOD GENES: Merlene Ottey at 50 years-old, competing in the 2010 IAAF European Championships

In the 1983 world championships Jamaican Bertland Cameron won the 400m. The following year he was expected to dominate the Olympics but was injured in the semi-finals. Notwithstanding a horrific muscle pull at the 150m mark, Cameron finished the race but was unable to come out for the finals. In coaching circles, his injury seemed to prompt a question which until then was only whispered - 'could it be that Jamaican talent was being destroyed at the expense of the US NCAA’s backbreaking schedule?'.

You see, at that time Jamaican athletes were consistently been awarded athletic scholarships to US colleges and universities. This trend would continue long after Cameron's success, and they all had one thing in common. Irrespective of massive success in US domestic competition, mainly the NCAAs, Jamaican athletes consistently failed to fulfil their obvious potential beyond college or university. Few if any who went to the US went on to succeed at the international level.

Two Jamaican school boys, Raymond Stewart and Greg Meghoo made the national 4x100 relay team and won silver medals in the 1984 Olympics. Note that Ray Stewart was coached by Usain Bolt's current coach and that his alma mater, Camperdown High School, was known simply as The Sprint Factory.

Also at the top of Old Hope Road in Kingston, Dennis Johnson the former 100-yard record holder coached a fully home grown sprint relay team named ‘Bolts of Lightning’ simply put, they were unbeatable.

DREAM TEAM: Jamaica's gold medal winning Men's 4 x 100m relay team. From left - Yohan Blake, Nickel Ashmeade, Asafa Powell and Usain Bolt last year

Also at this time, GC Foster Sports College, built by the Cubans began churning out high-quality coaches who inevitably found coaching positions in schools and colleges nationwide.

The question matured into - 'could Jamaica support home-grown talent'? Also, it was asked, 'could Jamaica nurture and support world class athletes, feed them, outfit them, and support overseas travel to compete on the international stage?'

We had a natural talent. We also clearly had the most competitive and well-organised youth games anywhere in the world, Champs. All we needed now was to marry those components with financial support.

Over the years, high school alumni have robustly supported their alma maters, and soon after corporate sponsorship chipped in too. The result was clear. Jamaica found that rather than sending top class athletes to the USA to be burnt out we could keep them at home, train them and unleash them on an unsuspecting world.

Remember, before you knew Bolt Jamaica gave you Powell. Asafa Powell is the third fastest man in history (9.72), and he holds the title as the sub 10 king having run more sub 10 sec races that any other human. You and the rest of the world are now witnessing the end product years in the making.

A growing percentage of the Jamaican track and field team is home grown. Many have chosen to stay home and develop rather than take up US scholarships. Bolt and Powell are examples of this, so are some of our top women sprinters. In a unique twist, UK sprinters now attend sprint camps in Jamaica.

So as Usain Bolt bows out, let’s take a moment to recall not just his greatness, but the great little nation that brought us the likes of Lennox Miller, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, Asafa Powell, Elaine Thompson, Yohan Blake, Merlene Ottey, Donald Quarrie, Veronica Campbell Brown, Sherone Simpson, Kerron Stewart, Raymond Stewart, Greg Mehgoo, Nesta Carter, Steve Mullings, Michael Frater, Waren Weir, Rasheed Dwyer, Grace Jackson and Juliet Cuthbert.

To close, I’ll say this. Arthur Wint gold in the 1948 Olympic 400m and Omar McLeod – Gold in the 2016 Olympic 110m hurdles. These two men, almost 70 years apart demonstrate the depth and breadth of talent from Jamaica, land we love.

Happy 55th Jamaica.

Read every story in our hardcopy newspaper for free by downloading the app.

Facebook Comments