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The Island of the Rocket Men

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In Rio de Janeiro this weekend, all eyes will be on very fast guys in green, black and gold. Andrew Dickens visits Jamaica to discover their secrets of speed.

The crowd are livid, out of their seats and hurling abuse from the stands. It is quite the reaction to a red card. One man, who has somehow made his way to the heart of the action, appears to swing a punch at an official before being dragged away by security.

This is no Argentinian football match gone loco, though. This is the 100m final of the Jamaican National Senior Championships – the country’s Olympic trials – at the national stadium in Kingston. And in Jamaica, sprinting really matters, because they’re rather good at it.

In the Seventies they had Olympic champion Don Quarrie; in the Eighties they gave Canada Olympic champion (before his medal was rescinded) Ben Johnson; in the Nineties they gave Canada Olympic champion Donovan Bailey. Then, in the 21st century, they stopped being so generous to Canada, popped out even more fast people, and kept them all for themselves. People such as Asafa Powell, Yohan Blake and a gangly young man called Usain Bolt.

The first two of these are present at the ruckus, and Blake – silver medallist behind Bolt in the 100m and 200m in London four years ago – is inadvertently its cause. He’s just been disqualified for a false start, despite replays on the big screen clearly showing another runner, Jason Livermore, move early. Gesticulation, hands on head, chins on floor. Disbelief is turning into rage, and no wonder they’re livid. With Bolt missing tonight’s final through injury, his place in Rio in doubt, the prospect of Jamaica’s top two sprinters missing the plane is like Wales playing without Bale and Ramsey.

Well, not quite. For Jamaican sprinters are not in short supply. If those boys don’t make it, it’ll be a blow (not least for sponsors), but not a knockout. Their spikes would be filled by the likes of Julian Forte, Nickel Ashmeade and Jevaughn Minzie, next on the country’s seemingly endless production line, and would-be shoo-ins for most nations. They even have the world’s best sprint hurdler in Omar McLeod, the first man ever to run under 13 seconds for the 110m hurdles and sub-10 seconds for the 100m flat. So, how does this island of just 2.8 million people do it?

BORN TO RUN?

“It’s not genetic,” says Anthony Davis, former Jamaican international sprinter and director of sport at the University of Technology (Utech), one of Jamaica’s primo athletics colleges, which counts Bolt among its alumni.

“While I was at the University Of Glasgow, Yannis Pitsiladis, a professor there, took DNA samples from Jamaican Olympians. He matched them against DNA samples from the US, Barbados, everywhere. He found conclusively that Jamaicans have no superior genes. I’m not sure I can explain why Jamaican sprinters do so well, but there is some coincidence that we have flourished as we have started training more people at home.”

One key to their success is the ‘system’; one which now keeps most athletes on the island, rather than seeing them run ragged at the University Of Likewherever, USA. It’s a system that begins early. Even if Jamaicans aren’t born sprinters, if they’re  talented, they’ll become one eventually. They’re scouted at football matches, at cricket matches, any sport that involves legging it around a bit. And the idea that competition is unhealthy for kids is heresy in these parts. Jamaican kindergartens have an athletics championship, and this continues through every age group.

“You get used to a certain level of competition from an early age,” says Forte, who finished third in the 200m at the trials behind Blake and Ashmeade, and, at 23, is predicted to have a stellar future. “So when we go on the big stage we already know what to expect. We know how to handle those situations.”

ShortList's Andrew Dickens with Omar McLeod

ShortList's Andrew Dickens tries to look cool in front of Omar McLeod

As ages increase, so does the intensity. If you want to see a full house at the national stadium, go to the high school championships. Even this weekend, on the merchandise stalls that sit opposite the patty vendors (now that’s how you do food at sport), the Jamaica merch is matched by mugs, T-shirts and paraphernalia branded with the big names in high school athletics, such as Calabar and Kingston College.

They may live on a paradise island that sits beneath perpetually glorious weather, a combination that makes any visiting Englishman want to a lie down and become the filling in a heavenly sandwich between the two, but the image of the laid-back Jamaican is a myth. Everywhere you go, you’ll get a different opinion on the key to Jamaica’s sprint supremacy, but everyone agrees, Jamaicans are hugely competitive.

Three hours north-west of Kingston is Trelawny Parish, an area that has produced a disproportionate number of world, Olympic and Commonwealth champions, including Bolt and Johnson (another theory on Jamaica’s success is the carb-heavy yam-rammed diet, and Trelawny is Yam Central). In the library of William Knibb Memorial High School there are two large photographs of Bolt, its most famous pupil and provider to current students of inspiration, pride and the school bus. And of an anecdote that shows just how competitive Jamaicans can get.

“I heard this morning,” says Webster Thompson, senior teacher at the school, “that before he ran the 9.58 [100m World Record at the 2009 World Championships], Usain had a bet with Daniel Bailey from Antigua and other training partners – I think it was €100 each – on who would guess closest to the time Bolt would run. He said, as he saw the time, he was happy with the 9.58, but disappointed that some other guy had won the bet. In the middle of an historic event like that, all he was thinking was, ‘Drat, I lost the bet.’”

THE GRASS EFFECT

We make a big deal of facilities in the UK. In order to produce great athletes, all we need is the best balls or shoes money can buy, ignoring the trifling rise-from poverty successes of groups like South American footballers, Mexican boxers and British darts players. Both William Knibb and Utech, two places that developed Bolt, have grass running tracks and only grass running tracks. Hardly superstar facilities.

“They are superstar facilities,” says Forte, “because they produce superstars. It’s not the facilities that make you, it’s the coaches and the ability to make the most of the resources you have. Over the years, we’ve stayed up to date with new techniques and developed our own.”

So money clearly isn’t the answer, but perhaps a lack of money could be. Jamaica is not a rich country. It’s beautiful and friendly and if you love the smell of meat on flame, your nose will never be happier. But it is not rich, as the state of the roads around the national stadium illustrate. Back in Kingston, Ludlow Watts, manager of the Jamaican Olympic team, explains how this can be a motivating factor.

“Athletics is equal opportunity for all,” says Watts. “Of the 50 best athletes on the Olympic team, I would say at least 30 are from the poorer classes. If you are a good athlete, you get the opportunity to get scholarships to universities, athletics clubs will give you the opportunity to work with the best coaches. When you’re 10, 11 or 12, high schools recruit you. The companies want you to be a part of their brand. If you’re a good athlete, everybody wants you. You get income, fame, and your family benefits from it. And you’ll get the best women in the world.”

Well, quite. Down at the starting line, women far from anyone’s mind, the kerfuffle has died down. The officials have rescinded Blake’s red card. It would be discourteous to suggest that they did so to avoid a riot and secure safe passage home; the official explanation to emerge days later is that the starting block wires in Blake and Livermore’s lanes were crossed (the false-start system is triggered by pressure on the blocks). Whatever. Everyone seems happy with the outcome and the race is run. Blake wins with Ashmeade second and Minzie third. They’ll all go to Rio. They’re all elated.

Afterwards, Blake is asked why he won. “God,” he says. If you insist, Yohan, but we all know there’s a bit more to it than that.

For more information on visiting Jamaica, go to visitjamaica.com

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