Up to speed: Why are Jamaicans so fast?
The American essayist John Jeremiah Sullivan once wondered what made Jamaican music so special. How on earth, he asked, had this small Caribbean island spawned so many global stars and more recorded music per head than anywhere else on the planet?
“Creatively,” Sullivan wrote, “it just seems to take place at a higher amperage. It may be an island effect. Isolation does seem to breed these intensities sometimes.”
This island effect – if that is what it is – doesn’t apply just to music, I realised as I sat on the perimeter of the athletics track at the national stadium in Kingston. The Blue Mountains loomed on one side,
the ocean shimmered in the distance on the other, and in the immediate vicinity everything was happening at a greater intensity, or higher amperage.
Behind me, the bleachers were a heaving, swaying mass of people, chanting, cheering, singing, dancing and banging drums. They included children, parents, mothers with babies; and there was a constant buzz, like a billion mosquitoes – vuvuzelas. Officially, the crowd was 30 000, the old venue’s seated capacity, but it was a river in spate, poised to burst its banks and spill on to the track.
The occasion was Champs, Jamaica’s secondary schools’ athletics championships. That’s right: schools. This Premier League-sized crowd was watching schoolchildren run, jump and throw. But mainly run, extremely fast.
In search of answers
I had been urged to attend Champs, told there was nothing like it anywhere in the world, but I had gone to Jamaica in search of answers to another question: How could such a small island so comprehensively dominate sprinting on the world stage? Led by Usain Bolt and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, Jamaican athletes won 11 of a possible 18 sprint medals at the 2012 London Olympics, including first and second in the men’s 100m, and first, second and third in the men’s 200m.
Their success raised eyebrows and suspicions. The United States’s nine-times Olympic gold medallist Carl Lewis questioned the effectiveness of anti-doping checks in Jamaica.
“No one is accusing anyone,” he said. “They [Jamaicans] say: ‘Oh, we have been great for the sport.’ No, you have not. No country has had that kind of dominance. I’m not saying they’ve done anything for certain. I don’t know. But how dare anybody feel that there shouldn’t be scrutiny, especially in our sport?”
There were other theories, too. Sprinting was in the genes, said some; others said it was the diet, especially the yams.
As the 2012 Olympic glow faded – as the stadium was mothballed, and Londoners went back to sitting in silence on the tube – I resolved to try to find out the secrets to the Jamaicans’ success. So, in late March last year, I flew to Kingston, landing at the airport named after the father of independence, Norman Manley (also the holder of the 110 yards record at Champs from 1911 to 1952; and, yes, it does seem deeply symbolic that the father of independence is also a legend of Champs).
Champs lasts for five days and, on day one, I sat with a coach from an American college, one of many who go there every year to scout for talent. He cooed and purred as athletes competed below us. “Beautiful,” he kept repeating as sprinter after sprinter – some as young as 14 –floated down the straight, their feet appearing only to dab the surface. From the stand, it looked more like dancing than running.
“All these kids, the good ones, are recruited by their high schools,” the coach told me. “They understand that track and field can be their way out. And they’re really easy to coach. They’re not afraid of hard work. If you get a bunch of ‘em on your team, you’re laughing. I would take any five of these guys tomorrow.”
Jamaican Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce wins gold in Beijing at the World Championships. Dafne Schippers from the Netherlands wins silver. (Reuters)
On day five, as night falls over Kingston, with the Blue Mountains resembling ghostly shadows, the lights of the mansions dotting the hills and overlooking the stadium twinkle. This is where the most successful athletes, including Bolt, live. It’s as though they are teasing those youngsters who aspire to emulate the sprinters who have displaced the musicians as the island’s most famous exports. Meanwhile, the stadium rocks. The amperage is higher than ever.
Top athletics school
A hush descends before the main event, the boys’ 400m. All eyes are on a 19-year-old called Javon Francis, known as Donkey Man. He grew up in an impoverished fishing village 15km from Kingston, but now represents the island’s top athletics school, Calabar. He is already a household name in Jamaica, having starred at the senior world championships in Moscow in 2013, almost single-handedly winning his country a silver medal in the 400m relay.
At Champs, Donkey Man sprints around the first bend, hunting down the other runners, then passing as though oblivious to them. By the second bend, he is the clear leader. But he is not racing the others; he is really racing Bolt, the Champs record holder.
He attacks down the home straight, all the way to the line, more than one metre ahead of his nearest rival, then crosses the line with his arms stretched wide and his mouth open. The clock stops at 45 seconds: a comfortable beating of Bolt’s 2003 record.
The stadium erupts. The green and black block, housing the Calabar supporters, bounces violently. Donkey Man points to them, then drops to the track and, mimicking the vanquished Bolt, begins doing press-ups. He manages three, then rests on his haunches, throwing his head back and stretching his arms out again, like Jesus. He clambers back to his feet, but he is staggering, as though drunk.
And then he collapses. A stretcher appears, but he waves it away. A few hours later, he starts the 200m but, midway down the home straight, breaks down injured. He hardly races again the whole season.
Not everybody was impressed. Some feared that Champs, and the emphasis put on athletics in Jamaican schools, was too intense. Among the many letters on the subject in the island’s newspapers over the next few days was one from Lascelve Graham, a chemist by profession, who feared that the focus on sport was “leading our youngsters off a cliff”.
I arranged to meet Graham in Kingston. “Most of the youngsters come from poor backgrounds,” he said, “from families that are struggling and under stress. Most of them have a one-parent family.”
Sport should be an extracurricular activity, he believed, “not the main thing, the only thing. My feeling is it’s not the young people who are to blame. They are not the problem. It’s the adults, who see Usain and Shelly-Ann and want to produce the next one.”
Graham told of stories he had heard about schools aggressively recruiting the best talent, offering inducements such as refrigerators to the parents of fast kids.
I visited Calabar, the west Kingston school that dominated Champs and, historically, too, is an athletics powerhouse. When Jamaica won the 400m relay at the 1952 Olympics – though its domination is a more recent phenomenon, Jamaica’s sprinting prowess stretches back to the 1948 London Olympics, its first – three of the quartet were Calabar alumni.
I was given a tour of the facilities by one of the school’s seven athletics coaches, Omar Hawes. The track was an oval of scorched dark lines on a grass track without much grass. “The track,” I said to Hawes, “it’s …”
“Bumpy,” he interrupted me. “Yeah, man. But this is where we start. I think we’re doing pretty well in terms of the techniques we use, and how we utilise what we have.”
Many of the pupils, he added, arrived at the school with no shoes. “Once he earns the shoes, there’s a lot of shoes for him from the sponsors.” The school has a sponsorship deal with Puma, the German sportswear company that sponsors Bolt.
Needing all kinds of support
When Francis was recruited by Calabar he initially travelled the 16km to and from school by bus. “He needed all kinds of support,” I was told by Andrea Hardware, a human resources executive with a big telecommunications company, whose children attended Calabar, and who now manages the school’s athletics team.
“Javon needed educational support, financial support, and through our committee and myself that was provided for him. But I got very concerned when I got a call telling me he’s coming to school late, he’s sleeping in class, he’s not keeping up – that sort of thing.”
Hardware was assigned to mentor Francis. But she didn’t believe that was enough and spoke to Francis’s parents about their son moving in with her. “They were immediately open to the idea. I remember the conversation I had with his mother. She said: ‘Thank you, God bless you. I know he needs the support and I can’t do it for him.’?” Francis has lived with Hardware for four years. He even calls her Mum.
When I met Francis on another trip to Jamaica in December, he described a nightmare season, during which he feared for his dream of becoming the next Bolt. The nadir came when he missed the International Association of Athletics Federation World Relay Championships in the Bahamas.
One night, Hardware had returned to find him in his room crying. “Mum, my picture’s on the billboard in the Bahamas!” he bawled. “It’s my picture on the billboard and I’m not going to go!”
In the end, the only bright spot in Francis’s year, apart from his record at Champs, was signing a professional contract with Puma. “Yes, sir. Usain Bolt is a Puma lion, I’m a Puma lion, too,” he told me. “Usain Bolt told me: ‘Track and field is an unfair game.’ He said: ‘Javon, you know that, if you have education, no one can take that away from you. Track and field, God can take that away from you.’”
Francis was due on the track to begin training. He stood up, extended his hand, said “Thank you, sir”, then jogged in the direction of the dirt track. Hardware and I watched him, looking for signs that he was injury-free. “A couple of days ago, I said: ‘Javon, how do you really feel?’?” she said. “He said: ‘Mum, mi good, mi good.’ He feels healed.”
Fortunes resting on a knife edge
Francis encapsulated the predicament of a lot of young Jamaican athletes, whose fortunes rest on a knife edge. He could become the next Bolt, and in the process transform his own life and his family’s fortunes. Or he could end up back in Bull Bay, eking out a living as a fisherman, like his father.
But here, I thought, as I travelled Jamaica speaking to the people who are part of an extraordinary athletics culture, was a more persuasive explanation for the island’s success than genes, yams or even drugs. Whatever else it is, it’s certainly a cultural phenomenon, one that’s powered by the intensity, or higher amperage, that characterises this island of contrasts and duality.
Only in Jamaica could music become a competitive endeavour; the scene that began in the late 1950s was founded on and fuelled by bitter rivalries between the “sound men”, each competing to be louder and to play the latest ska, rocksteady or reggae to the biggest audiences.
“Think you’re in heaven, but ya living in hell,” as Bob Marley sang in Time Will Tell.
This was Jamaica: beguiling and maddening, friendly and violent, laid-back and restless, where “the boiling point is always quite near”, as one of their greatest athletes, Arthur Wint, once put it. A place where life can seem to move incredibly slowly. And yet it is home to the fastest humans on the planet.
Richard Moore is the author of The Bolt Supremacy: Inside Jamaica’s Sprint Factory (Yellow Jersey)