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.
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.