Jamaican world beaters

With the explosive running performances in its recent Track and Field Championships, Jamaica is again in the world press for the world-class calibre of its athletes. In the Beijing Olympics, competing in a field of 205 nations, Jamaica finished third in track-and-field.  For such a tiny country, it is an astonishing result, and with the 2012 Olympics looming Jamaica is in line again to come home with several gold medals.  For such a small under-developed country, it seems a surprising result. However, as several writers weighing on the subject, in recent columns and books have shown, the Jamaican performance is the product of a rigorous system, over 100 years old, with a number of key ingredients propelling the success.

Patrick Robinson, author of the recent book Jamaican Athletics, tells a lot of the story. (Incidentally, Robinson is a renowned Jamaican Barrister of Law and is the President of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, a position he was elected to in November 2008. In 2004, he presided over the trial of Slobodan Milosevic, the former Yugoslav President.) Judge Robinson says the Jamaican success rests on the idea of its national schoolchildren track-and-field championship started in 1910. Very affable on the telephone from the Netherlands, he told me, “It’s one of the good things from colonialism; it was started by some English school teachers.” Many Jamaicans, expert on the subject, point to those championships as the engine driving the whole apparatus of Jamaican track and field.  Commonly referred to as “Champs”, it is the biggest school championship in the world. Running for four days, it draws 35,000 people to the National Stadium in Kingston.

Behind that fiercely-contested annual competition, is an elaborate system of trained athletics coaches assigned to every primary and secondary school in Jamaica. That approach of professional coaching, beginning with the very young, is a key part of this unusual story and it underpins the performances we find in Champs. The concept of intensive coaching took another step forward in the Michael Manley years when Cuba made a gift to Jamaica of a sports college devoted to developing athletics coaches.  Known as the G C Foster College of Physical Education and Sport (it is named for a legendary Jamaican athletics coach, Gerald Claude Foster)  it remains the only dedicated sport college in the Caribbean; student enrolment this year is an impressive 617.  (The implications for the absence of such an entity in the rest of the Caribbean are obvious.)

From that sports crucible, every young Jamaican track athlete showing potential is identified from primary school level and comes under the guidance of one of the scores of professional coaches in the Jamaica system committed to a process of teaching and correcting and refining that follows the athlete all the way up the ladder.  Historically, one of the first international successes of the system was the stirring performance of Arthur Wint who astounded the world in the 1962 Olympics taking the gold medal in the 400-metre final. It was the first gold in track from the Caribbean (the next was Hasely Crawford of Trinidad in the 1976 Montreal Olympics; Don Quarrie of Jamaica took second) and the start of the Jamaican success which has gone from strength to strength. As Patrick Robinson put it, “Success breeds success.”

Delano Franklin, a Jamaican attorney and writer, also cites an organizational key when he says that “central to the system of instruction and administration” are the country’s Secondary Schools’ Sports Association (ISSA) and the Jamaica Athletics Administrative Association (JAAA).  Apart from Champs, he identifies the array of track-and-field meets, from primary to the tertiary level, organised in every nook and cranny of Jamaica, on an annual basis, under the jurisdiction of the JAAA. As the crowds at the final attests, the competition is intense, and the whole country responds.

Both Robinson and Franklin also stress the volunteer ingredient in Jamaican track where scores of volunteers, from all walks of life, make themselves consistently available to make the meets happen. Track-and-field in Jamaica, they say, “is largely carried on the backs of volunteers.”  On this point, Patrick Robinson told me, “There are more than 200 staff involved running these events, and I would guess no more than three per cent of those are paid.” It  constitutes a powerful statement of personal commitment.

However, government support also is a factor with dedicated funding that goes to the country’s Sport Development Foundation (SDF). Between 2009-10, approximately J$400 million was allocated to sport with J$20 million being dispensed to national sports organizations including the JAAA, and sports facilities in the country also benefit from this funding.

A valuable contributor in the process was the work of Jamaican track-and-field administrator, Teddy McCook, who successfully lobbied the IAAF to establish one of its high-performance athletic centres in the island which added substantially to the country’s sports training capability. Adding to the mix in recent times has been the impact of private track clubs – MVP Track Club, run by Stephen Francis; Racers Track Club under Glen Mills – which have contributed to the development of the world-class athletes such as Usain Bolt, Osafa Powell, and, this week, Yohan Blake.

The explanations of the phenomenon will continue including the recent tongue in cheek suggestion from a Jamaican writer attributing the rise to the Jamaican “yam and banana” diet, but with this combination of dedicated system, committed volunteers, a production line of coaches, and government and private sector support, Jamaica is a shining success story to the world.

Although the Jamaicans may be too diplomatic to mention it, I believe part of the success story is also the very disposition of the people in that relatively small territory. The Jamaican saga is one of a combative people going back to their early days when the revolting Maroons evaded and defeated the British soldiers who criss-crossed the island’s mountains in a vain attempt to capture them. That strain of assertiveness is part of the Jamaican competition instinct; it is part of who they are.  In addition, and perhaps even more critically, Jamaicans are the proudest people in the Caribbean, and they don’t shrink from showing it.  I have been in track-and-field sports competitions in the Caribbean where the Jamaican pride in country is akin to a roar. At track-and-field events or soccer games in Cayman, I have heard something like 200 Jamaicans sound like 1,000, singing their anthem and shouting for their athletes, and a Jamaican is not reluctant to tell you, sometimes quietly sometimes not, “Mi ah Jamaican, sah.”  Their system of training young bodies, and creating competition streams, backed by government funding and professional coaching, is clearly the bulk of the story, but who the Jamaicans are, and how they are, is also a an important part of it.

There are lessons here for the Caribbean: the obvious establishment ones about private approaches and national commitment stand out, but for the individual there is the less obvious one of national pride. With limited resources and population, Jamaica is on top of the world in track; the rest of the Caribbean should take note of the ingredients in that rise.

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