Usain Bolt and Jamaica: Have they left US Olympic sprinters behind?
Jamaican sprinters took gold and bronze in the 100 meters Saturday, and the men, headlined by Usain Bolt, are hoping for a sweep Sunday at the London Olympics.
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The recognition that America is no longer the alpha male (or female) of the sprinting world is pervasive, though perhaps not always explicitly acknowledged. At a media summit in May, American 200-meter sprinter Wallace Spearmon said of his teammates: "None of us runs for second place, and I think that's the best thing going for us. None of us is going to hand this to" the Jamaicans.Skip to next paragraph
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But the very suggestion that the US could be content with second place is, if not unprecedented, then at least unfamiliar, and it speaks to the Jamaicans' relentless pursuit of the podium in recent years.
Top Jamaicans used to emigrate
In truth, Jamaicans have long been among the medals in the Summer Olympic sprints, the world just didn't know they were Jamaicans. Poverty and a lack of training opportunities have meant that Jamaica has been little more than a sprinting nursery, sending many of its most promising prodigies abroad to be honed – and to compete for their adopted countries.
The world was perfectly happy with this arrangement. Even some inside Jamaica were. "They thought the system worked well, sending [our athletes] to finishing school in the US," says Bruce James, a top track coach in Jamaica.
But he had other ideas. Jamaican athletes and coaches, he says, needed "to believe in themselves."
So he helped start the MVP Track & Field Club in 1999, which together with Racers Track Club, have become Jamaica's two premier "finishing schools" for track athletes. Racers trains 100 meter men's favorites Usain Bolt and Yohan Blake, MVP trains Saturday's winner Ms. Fraser-Pryce as well as Asafa Powell, the third member of the potential medal sweep in the men's 100 Sunday.
In a decade, the clubs have reshaped Jamaican expectations at the Summer Olympics. Beijing brought a record 11 medals – all in sprints. James is predicting more in London, noting the rise of Blake in the men's sprints, the continued strength of the women, and national improvement in the 400 meters.
"There are significant areas we could improve our performance from the Beijing Games," he says.
A national aspiration
For the US, in particular, that is a frightening thought. But for the past few decades, at least, Jamaica's success has really only been a question of whether it could get its act together. The passion that the country has for sprinting is irrepressible.
"Everybody grows up wanting to be a track star," said Sanya Richards-Ross, an American 400-meter sprinter who was born in Jamaica but left for the US at age 12, at the media summit.
Now, with results at last matching talent, the enthusiasm at home has been a bit overwhelming for some.
"Thinking about what Jamaicans want is a bit pressuring," said Fraser-Pryce after her race. "So I try not to think about what Jamaicans want until I get the job done."
That, it seems, is no longer a problem.