Olympics: What makes Jamaica tick?

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What is common to Linford Christie, Donovan Bailey and Usain Bolt? Each one of them has won an Olympic gold in the 100m.

It is not a quiz question that will strain your brain. Bolt is, of course, the most famous Jamaican after reggae king Bob Marley.

What many people, however, may not know is both Christie and Bailey were born Jamaicans, though they went on to represent Great Britain and Canada respectively at the Olympics. Ben Johnson, who was stripped of his 100m gold at the 1988 Games for doping, was also born in Jamaica.

A small dot on the Caribbean Sea is a mighty giant in the sprint. Even the US, the most successful nation in the Olympic track, is in awe of the island. In terms of population, there is no race: Jamaica has a little fewer than three million inhabitants; whereas more than 300 million people live in the US. But the Caribbean island’s story at the Olympics is gripping.

Jamaica have won 55 Olympic medals, including 13 gold, since their debut in 1948. Barring one, all the medals have come from athletics in 13 editions of the Olympics.

Bolt & co scooped five of the six sprint gold medals at the 2008 Games. If not for a botched up exchange of the baton, the Jamaicans would also have won the women’s 4x100 relay for a clean sweep at Beijing.

The US weren’t even able to give Jamaica a run for their money in 2008. Jamaica won the sprint race 5-0. Never before have USA been humiliated so comprehensively in the Olympic history.

Melaine Walker of Jamaica compounded American woes by winning the women’s 400m hurdles, traditionally a strong event for the US.

What makes Jamaicans run so fast? It is the question that has fascinated researchers and journalists alike.

The scientific theories that postulate that Jamaicans are genetically endowed haven’t been proven conclusively.

But there is an element of truth in the supposition that the Jamaican athletes are born with more fast-twitch muscles, which are a boon for a champion sprinter.

One scientist has put Jamaica’s sprint dominance to eating habits. Jamaicans eat a lot of yam and green bananas, both rich sources of energy that are vital for an explosive event.

But more tangible evidence for Jamaica’s propensity to produce world-class sprinters comes from history and culture. Jamaicans have always loved running — running fast that is.

Athletics is to Jamaica what football is to Brazil or rugby is to New Zealand. Running gives the nation an identity.

The Caribbean island made an instant impact at the Olympics: they won three medals on their debut in 1948. Arthur Wint and Herb McKenley made it a Jamaican 1-2 in the 400m and the former also won a silver medal in the 800m. In 1952, Jamaica bagged two gold medals and three silver.

After a brief lull, Donald Quarrie revived the island’s romance with the Olympics by winning the 200m gold at the 1976 Games. He missed the 100m gold by 0.01 seconds.

Quarrie, who won the short sprint in three successive Commonwealth Games from 1970 to 1978, is a legend in Jamaica and Bolt is his fan.

Merlene Ottey, another Jamaican icon, was the eternal bridesmaid at the Olympic Games. A gold medal eluded Ottey, who now lives in Slovenia, in a record seven Olympics but her endurance in explosive events won her fans all over the world.

Shelly-Ann Fraser achieved what Ottey couldn’t by winning the 100m at Beijing. Veronica Campbell-Brown added the 200m gold to the Jamaican kitty.

Experts attribute professional inter-school competitions at various age groups to Jamaica’s athletic glory. Fans in the region of 25,000 flock Champs, a famous inter-secondary school meet for U-19 boys and girls conducted at Kingston every year.

The country’s prime minister and Olympic champions are in the crowd. Champions of the meet become national heroes. Foundations for Jamaica’s Olympic achievements are laid at Champs.

Success in athletics guarantees money and fame. For a country that reels from poverty, the track is a route to prosperity.

Don’t be surprised if the men’s 100m at London produces a Jamaican 1-2-3 as the island will enter Bolt (the reigning Olympic champion), Asafa Powell (former world record holder) and Yohan Blake (winner of gold at the last world championship) in the fray.

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