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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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.Skip to next paragraph
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"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."