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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.

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"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."

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"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.

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