Demographically, Jamaica is a dot on the world map. Its population of just under 2.9 million ranks the island nation 133rd in size. By contrast, Jamaica is a giant in athletics. Remarkably, the black-green-and-gold dot has garnered 56 Olympic medals in track and field, with 13 gold medals leading the way. Blessed with speed and an indomitable spirit, Jamaica punches above its weight in a sport contested by over 200 nations.
Inaugurated in 1983, the World Championships have served to vault Jamaica into further prominence. In 12 stagings of this event, Jamaicans have won 80 medals, with 14 of them golden. These results compare favourably with those of many continental powers whose resource base is far superior.
Analysts the world over know the names of our champions, names like Arthur Wint, George Rhoden, Donald Quarrie, Deon Hemmings, Veronica Campbell-Brown, Melaine Walker, Merlene Ottey, Bert Cameron, Usain Bolt, Shelly-Ann Frazer-Pryce and Brigitte Foster-Hylton. Still they wonder how this little nation has consistently produced stars on the track.
The answer isn’t as simple as 1-2-2, the medal finish for Jamaica in the 100 metres at the 2008 Olympics. Some of the success is owed to genetics. The large body of Jamaicans are the descendants of Africans from a region blessed with fast twitch muscle fibres. Research has shown that these Jamaicans dine often on foods, including yams, which fuel these muscles to create speed.
History shows that many Jamaicans fled to the hills during slavery and emerged stronger for their sojourn in the mountains with their legs primed for sprinting.
Built in those genetic and historical foundations, Jamaica has a system for finding and nurturing good prospects. With physical education entrenched in the school system, youngsters are funnelled through school and college competitions at every stage. One of them, the world famous Boys and Girls Championships, has been described as a ‘Mini-Olympics’.
A final sweetener has been added to the mix in the last 15 years. For decades, Jamaican athletes followed the footsteps of McKenley to the US college for tertiary education and athletic development. More recently, many blue-chip prospects have stayed home at government institutions like the University of Technology and the GC Foster College for Sports.
Now the country is enjoying a golden era. At the 2009 World Championships, Jamaica won 13 medals with 7 gold, its best results ever at this level. That followed an 11 medal performance at the 2008 Olympics.
This may well be on account of the power of positive role models. The early successes inspired others and those who stay home are proof positive to others aspirants that success can be obtained.
Still, the analysts seek answers. Perhaps we will all learn more as Jamaica approaches the 2012 Olympics.
By Hubert Lawrence