How tiny Jamaica develops so many champion sprinters

The world's two fastest men will go head-to-head in Jamaica's Olympic trials this weekend.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    100-METER MAN: Jamaican Asafa Powell has broken the world record four times.
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    Usain Bolt in New York on May 31 celebrates after setting a new world record in the men's 100-meter.
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    See how they run: Jamaica's training facilities in Kingston are not world class, but their coaching is.
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As late afternoon trade winds drift into Kingston's National Stadium, the world's fastest man ambles back to his starting blocks.

Usain Bolt's performance in this training session is less than lighting-fast, however, and it fails to impress his coach, Glen Mills. "Make sure you do them good, otherwise you'll do them tomorrow morning – early," he barks.

A month ago, Mr. Bolt lived up to his name by breaking countryman Asafa Powell's world record in the 100-meter dash. The two hold the five fastest recognized times in the event and will go head-to-head this weekend in Jamaica's Olympic trials.

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Yet these men are just two of dozens of top-flight Jamaican sprinters who are poised to put the tiny island nation on the map in the same way Kenyans and Ethiopians are known to dominate long-distance running. Jamaica's Olympic track team is so deep in talent that these trials will be like watching American NBA stars vie for a spot on ™basketball's famous Dream Team.

How does a poor Caribbean country of less than 3 million people produce such athletic riches? Improved coaching and a new system to develop raw talent at home have combined with a tradition of seeing sprinting as an inexpensive ticket out of poverty, observers say.

"Where we are today is [like] a flower," says Anthony Davis, the sports director at Jamaica's University of Technology (UTECH), whose programs and facilities helped shape some of Jamaica's finest runners, including Mr. Powell and Bolt. "You'd have had to plant a seed long ago to get where we are today."

And plant they did.

A little more than 30 years ago, former world-record sprinter Dennis Johnson decided to take what he'd learned at San Jose State University in the 1960s and set up a competitive, US-style college athletic program here in his home country. The goal: produce world-class athletes, especially track stars.

At the time, most considered this crazy talk.

Jamaica had long produced some of the world's top high school track athletes, but then they left the island. There was no place in this former British colony's college system for them. Postsecondary education is based on an older British model in which sports are merely a recreational break from the rigors of academia. The only hope of continuing track after high school was to get a scholarship to a foreign university.

Today, Jamaican sprinters still leave, and pad many NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) track rosters.

"In Louisiana, at a high school track meet, we'll find maybe one or two athletes that could be good enough for [Louisiana State University's track program]," says Dennis Shaver, head track coach of the 2008 NCAA championship LSU track team. "[But] in Jamaica, there are probably 50 women ready to fit right into the program every year."

"Jamaicans have played a significant role in the 31 track and field championships we've won over the years," he says, adding that Jamaica will be "very competitive in Beijing."

Competing in the top US schools was, and is, a fast track out of poverty. The problem, as Mr. Johnson saw it, was that too many Jamaicans never came back home, and some even ran for other Olympic teams. (Donovan Bailey of Canada and Linford Christie of Britain are two examples of Jamaican-born Olympic champions.)

That's why Johnson started a sports program at a two-year vocational college here, and that later became UTECH, a four-year college. Through Johnson's work, which has since passed to Mr. Davis, the program now has 280 student athletes and houses the top professional track teams in Jamaica.

By US standards, the training facilities are second class. Jamaica's top sprinters cram into UTECH's tiny gym to pump rusty weights, and they often practice on the school's basic grass track.

"We have to be creative, because we don't have the resources," says Davis, explaining that the lanes of the track are marked with diesel and burned because the school can't afford the machine that lays down chalk lines every week or so. "We had a choice: complain about the resources and do nothing or work with what we have."

Davis is pushing to attract more sponsors for UTECH's programs. The British sports drink company Lucozade now offers two full track scholarships to UTECH, and Davis is hoping that success in Beijing will lead to funding for scoreboards and an indoor track surface. And he knows right where he'd put a new athletic center, if he ever gets the money. "We want someday to be the sports center of the Caribbean," he says.

But UTECH's program is only part of the reason for Jamaica's sprinting prowess. "Coaches have played a very important role and are still playing an important role," says Herb Elliot, a Jamaican member of the International Amateur Athletics Federation's Medical and Anti-Doping Commission. "NCAA scouts come here in droves to recruit, but our athletes often come back [from four years at US universities] tired and mediocre," says Mr. Elliot.

Among the most effective Jamaican coaches today is Powell's coach, Stephen Francis, who founded the Maximizing Velocity and Power (MVP) team in 1999 after getting his MBA from the University of Michigan. "My background is different from most coaches, who were former athletes," says the rotund Mr. Francis, explaining that the Jamaican track establishment did not appreciate his maverick style.

"My philosophy is based on doing things the hard way," he says. "We don't recruit superstars." He looks for latent talent and chooses coachable sprinters who don't have supersized egos.

Brigitte Foster-Hylton is one of Francis's first success stories. When she started working with him in 1999, most didn't see her potential. But she's cut more than half a second off her time in the 100-meter hurdles and won bronze in the event at the 2005 World Championships. [Editor's note: The original version misstated the amount of time Ms. Foster-Hylton cut off her time in the 100-meter hurdles.]

Powell – who says in a matter-of-fact manner that he is still the world's fastest man despite Bolt's record run – is another Francis success story.

Powell struggled as the youngest of six siblings growing up in the Jamaican countryside. He was a good sprinter in high school, but not among Jamaica's very best. A few years ago, one brother was shot to death in a New York cab and another died of a heart attack. The tragedies might have derailed some athletes.

Both of his parents are pastors and he credits a strict upbringing for his focus. "I couldn't miss one day in church and my mom and dad still call to see if I'm going to church," he says. "None of this would've been possible without God, and I pray to him each and every day. But I know that God helps those who help themselves, so I try to help myself."

He says he's ready to win the Olympic gold medal that eluded him four years ago.

But given the recent convictions and confessions of steroid use by track and field athletes, some skeptics question the success of Jamaican sprinters. There have been no recent cases of Jamaicans caught using performance-enhancing drugs. "We are far in advance of the US record for [preventing] doping," says Elliot, who's the top enforcement official in Jamaica. "We preach, cajole, and test," he says. Jamaica makes its athletes available for sudden testing 24/7.

Besides, Elliot says, Jamaica won't tolerate cheats. "Sports is such a part of our culture that the disgrace [of doping] is so great that the Jamaicans that live here wouldn't even consider it."

For now, Jamaicans are reveling in having the world's two fastest men heading into the Beijing Olympics.

"In the sprints, we're as good as any," says Fitz Coleman, a technical coach on Bolt's team who is widely regarded as one of Jamaica's best hurdles coaches. "In fact, we just might be the measuring stick at this point in time."

Another reason for Jamaicans' success: their attitude, according to Mr. Coleman. "We genuinely believe that we'll conquer," he says. "It's a mindset. We're small and we're poor, but we believe in ourselves."

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