How Jamaica produces top sprinters
LONDON, England, Wednesday August 01, 2012 – Come Sunday, when the fastest men on earth contest the Olympic 100 meters final in London, it will be a major upset if the gold medal does not go to Jamaica.
False starts or injuries aside, Usain Bolt will be the one to beat as he bids to retain the title he won in Beijing in 2008, but if he’s even slightly off form, Yohan Blake will do the honours. And it could be a big mistake to underestimate former world record-holder Asafa Powell.
Jamaica’s lightning Bolt is an even heavier favourite for 200m gold and 4x100m relay success is pretty much in the bag with such a wellspring of talent to draw from.
In the women's events, Jamaican domination is also virtually guaranteed, with Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce defending her 100m crown and Veronica Campbell-Brown going for a hat-trick of golds in the 200m.
United States sprinters have grabbed the most gold in the modern Olympics and the likes of Tyson Gay will be keen to stall the Jamaican winning streak in London.
Gay, after all, represents a country with a population of over 300million people and an enviable tradition in track and field through the eras of such stars as Jesse Owens, Carl Lewis and Florence Griffith-Joyner.
Yet for some unknown reason they are now running largely second best to athletes from a relatively poor Caribbean island inhabited by fewer than three million people.
It's not only athletes who sport the now-famous gold and green of Jamaica who have made their mark on the world, moreover.
Olympic 100m champions Linford Christie (for England in 1992) and Donovan Bailey (for Canada in 1996) were born and bred in Jamaica, as was Ben Johnson who also represented Canada.
So what is the secret of this remarkable Jamaican sprinting success?
Role models factor heavily into the equation, and Usain Bolt drew inspiration from a former Jamaican great Don Quarrie who won the 1976 Olympic 200m title in Montreal and six Commonwealth Games gold medals.
"For me Don Quarrie was somebody to watch and to be amazed by," Bolt told CNN's Aiming for Gold programme.
"That's why I love the 200m so much because I've seen Don Quarrie and I said, 'I can be that good.' Quarrie, (Herb) McKenley, these are the guys that I looked up to."
McKenley and Arthur Wint were the first Jamaicans to stamp their country’s name on the Olympic map at the 1948 London Games.
Of Jamaica's contemporary women stars, Veronica Campbell-Brown was mentored by the great Merlene Ottey, who won a record 14 world championship medals for Jamaica in the sprint events and was still competing at international level for her adopted Slovenia past her 50th birthday.
"She (Ottey) is a very positive person, very strong, very hard working, very passionate and she is a friend," Campbell-Brown said.
Campbell-Brown went to the same high school in Jamaica as Ottey, Vere Technical, and both were products of the fiercely competitive track and field schools competition on the island.
Bolt agrees that the key to Jamaican success is the intense rivalry of grassroots athletics from an early age.
"I feel we push our young athletes," he said. "There is this thing called the Boys and Girls Championships in Jamaica, which showcases the talent. The level of competition is really high because it pushes you every day to be the best in your event, in your class."
Even now, as Bolt gets down on the blocks at major championships, that early experience pays off.
"I think it helped me to get past my fear of running in front of thousands and millions of people because I'm front of a home crowd and we are under a lot of pressure."
The four-day championships attract crowds of up to 30,000 at the national stadium in Kingston, while a TV audience of over a million watch the live coverage. Many of the top stars go back to hand out medals and inspire the next generation.
Bolt shone in this mini-Olympics in 2003, winning the 200/400 double in 20.23 and 45.30 seconds -- times which would have been good enough to qualify for most Olympic finals – when he was just 16-years-old.
Campbell-Brown’s talent was spotted and nurtured while she was still at primary school.
"My coach and teacher at the time said to me, 'You are very talented, I think this is going to be a career path for you,' and he recommended Vere, which is still a sprint factory."
Christie claims he was unwittingly put on his course to Olympic glory by his grandmother.
"She used to get us to to run errands to the shops and told us that she would spit on the ground and did not want it to dry before we got back. It meant we ran fast!" said the 52-year-old, who moved to England before he got the chance to compete in the Boys and Girls Championships.
But despite the ferocious competitiveness of the schools competition, even the most talented athletes needed assistance and dedicated coaching to make it to the top.
Glen Mills grew up wanting to follow in the footsteps of McKenley and Wint, but he turned to coaching when he realized that was not to be. In his 22-years in charge of the Jamaican athletics team, he presided over 71 world championship medals and 33 in the Olympics.
Mills quickly recognized that Bolt was a unique talent, but one who needed persuading to work hard.
A defeat to Gay over 200m at the world championships in Osaka in 2007 proved a turning point.
The rest is history.
"I really dedicated myself to everything because I really wanted to be a champion," said Bolt, who became a global superstar the following year when he won the 100 and 200m in Beijing in record-breaking style.
Mills stepped down from fulltime involvement with Jamaica in 2009, but still coaches Bolt and Blake and some other up-and-coming athletes.
Bolt, like many of Jamaica's sprint stars, comes from a rural background. He grew up in Trelawny in a house with no running water and as a child he had to walk for miles with heavy, loaded pails, building up a natural strength.
Campbell-Brown, who also grew up in Trelawny, believes a rural background is a factor in Jamaica's success.
"I would fetch water from the river, so I did a lot of walking. I would walk to school, there's a lot of hills," the 30-year-old said.
"I think it's just hard work, determination and all the things that we have to do growing up as a young person that has contributed.
"Jamaica is full of so much talent. It just so happens that a huge number of those talented people were born in Trelawny."
Johnson, too, lived in the area until emigrating to Canada in 1976. His winning time of 9.79 seconds to win the 1988 Olympics 100m title was considered one of the greatest performances in the history of athletics. A failed drugs test in Seoul for the banned steroid Stanozolol nevertheless saw him stripped of the gold.
Blake also had a rural upbringing, and tested his natural ability in unusual fashion.
"We grew up in the country where your only friends are animals. I find it funny, once we were running with goats and stuff. I think the sprinting really starts from there," he said.
Living off the land may also have benefits in terms of diet, with yams the staple food.
"My parents used to plant their own yams, it's very natural and often eaten with fish," said Campbell-Brown.
Christie agrees: "It's often said you are what you eat, and the Jamaican diet is a really natural one, full of fruit and vegetables and protein."
Whether it's through their backgrounds and lifestyles, their healthy diet and then the rigors of early competition and training, Jamaica's sprinters have found the key to success.
But those factors are not unique, so what is the magic ingredient that gives them that extra edge?
Linford Christie has a novel theory.
"Sprinting is a Jamaican attitude," he says.
"To be a sprinter you need to be a little bit of showoff. Because like the heavyweight boxing champions of the world, this is what sprinting is all about and, you know, Jamaicans just love to show off!"