Jamaica: The Sprint capital of the World

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A small island nation with a population of only just under 3 million, Jamaica is home to the fastest man and woman in the world and undoubtedly now holds the reputation of the sprint capital of the world. To understand this feat is to take a look at the rich history of track and field in the country and the celebrated merits with which the country has been bestowed.

As far back as 1952 when Jamaica landed 5 medals in the Summer Olympics we have been the nation that is the one to watch in athletics. In 2012 our historic feat of 12 medals at the Olympics became our standard to beat, sweeping many of the top medals in the most honoured events. Surely you know the name Usain Bolt and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Price. You should also know Asafa Powell and Veronica Campbell Brown who have all medaled or held world records in recent times.

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What is it that makes our athletes shine on the track? It depends on where you ask this question. In the colloquial community conversation happening in a rowdy rum bar, they’ll tell you that its the yams. The yams from yam country Trelawny that our athletes eat while running around barefooted in their simple rural upbringing. Stories will be embellished far and wide of running for miles to catch water at the river as the natural training these youngsters receive in their early days.

Coaches will tell you it’s the investment in training facilities and coaches over time that has developed the sport to the high-point it remains today. The GC Foster College in St. Catherine produces world-class coaches of all kinds who now infiltrate schools all across the island. These coaches are adept at spotting raw talent and they utilize the stellar technical training received the the institution to nurture natural talent and bring them to the fore.

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The development of the Sports Development Fund and the CHASE Fund (Culture, Health, Arts, Sport, and Education) has also strengthened the sports product in Jamaica. Together over $2B has been directed at sports so far in the nation since 1995. The funds are used to build multipurpose sports complexes, facilities, stadiums, playfields as well as to support current and past athletes with their well being.

With the increase in support for sports here in Jamaica, we’re also now able to retain our star athletes that may have once left the island in search of funding, facilities and glory overseas. In recent times we have developed home-grown track and field clubs marshalled and trained by coaches who are some of the best in the world. Prior to the establishment of these local clubs, which are attached to some of our finest tertiary institutions, athletes who did well at secondary schools would continue their higher education and track and field involvement by pursuing scholarships in the USA.

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The majority of our current crop of athletes are spared this challenge because we have now fully Jamaicanised our home grown athletic talent and are able to give the guidance required based on our cultural norms, our understanding of the international track and field requirements, and most important, based on the human and psychological peculiarities of our own athletes.

No other country of Jamaica's size, with a population of less than three million, has been as successful in the last 10 years, as Jamaica at the Olympic Games. In fact, the performances of our athletes in the last three Olympics have made Jamaica the sprint capital of the world, an accolade that formerly belonged to the USA. This is an amazing feat when one considers that the USA has a population of over 300 million and incomparable financial and human resources that are used to facilitate their track and field programme.

A visit to the Boys and Girls High School Championships that happens every year in March reinstates Jamaica’s sprint darling status as talent emerges each and every year from the electrified event. For five days, long-limbed schoolchildren from valleys and fishing villages and industrial cities descend on the capital city laying down astonishing times, often only a few ticks off world records. The stadium is packed with over 33,000 fans cheering on their favourite schools and athletes who will go on to bring the country continued athletic acclaim.

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At these amateur championships, the world-class training that these young athletes receive from well trained coaches is evident as they run erect, arms thrusting forward, not side to side. Their cores are powerful; their strides carry no hint of wobble. With the rise of Jamaica’s most famous athletes, the spotlights shines brightly on the sport that can bring the prestige we all seek. Every little kid running in kindergarten believes they could be Usain Bolt. Jamaica is poised to dominate sprints for the next 50 years.

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- by Monique Solomon