The secret of Jamaica's runners

Usain Bolt of Jamaica competes during the men's 100m semi-finals at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. He went on to win three golds, in the 100m, 200m and 4x100m relay. Nineteen of the 26 fastest times ever recorded in 100m races were by Jamaicans.
Usain Bolt of Jamaica competes during the men's 100m semi-finals at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. He went on to win three golds, in the 100m, 200m and 4x100m relay. Nineteen of the 26 fastest times ever recorded in 100m races were by Jamaicans. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY
Jamaica's Elaine Thompson celebrates after winning the women's 100m final at Rio 2016. Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, also of Jamaica, came third.
Jamaica's Elaine Thompson celebrates after winning the women's 100m final at Rio 2016. Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, also of Jamaica, came third.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Among the most enigmatic features of Jamaica, an island of only 2.8 million people, is its astonishing supremacy in running. Currently, the world's fastest man and woman are both Jamaicans. Nineteen of the 26 fastest times ever recorded in 100m races were by Jamaicans. The list goes on.

Jamaica's global dominance is broad and deep, both male and female, and started to emerge over half a century ago. At the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, Jamaica was ranked 13th by the International Olympic Committee. By the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, it was first in sprints, with Usain Bolt winning three gold medals, and an unprecedented clean sweep of the women's 100m.

How do Jamaicans do it? It's not because of genetics, as some claim. A vast majority of Jamaicans' ancestors are from West Africa, which has relatively few outstanding sprinters. Nor can genetics explain why Jamaicans outperform other blacks in the Americas, especially in Brazil, which has 36 times as many of them.

Ask a Jamaican like me (I was born and raised there), and we'll give you a very different answer: Champs. Officially called the Inter-Secondary Schools Sports Association Boys and Girls Athletics Championship, Champs is an annual competition attended by 30,000 wildly enthusiastic fans. Jamaica is perhaps the only country in the world where a track and field meet is the premier sporting event.

But it's not just Champs. The competition is one part of a broader framework - track and field is huge at every educational level, with periodic regional meets drawing athletes of all ages from the most remote rural areas. So the real question is, why is Jamaica nuts for track?

Part of the answer is institutional. The British first introduced organised and informal athletics, and interscholastic competition, to Jamaica and other colonies in the late 19th century. One of Jamaica's founding fathers, N.W. Manley, was the greatest student athlete of his generation; later, as the revered head of state, he tirelessly promoted track and field.

Jamaica quickly stood out from other Caribbean islands in extending these competitions from elite white schools to those of the non- white classes. Starting early in the 20th century, several outstanding athletes, like G.C. Foster, emerged as role models, mentors and promoters of the sport, and they identified and trained the next generation of talent.

By the time I went to high school, in the 50s, track and field was as popular among my friends as baseball was among kids my age in Brooklyn. My heroes were the runners who had triumphed at Helsinki. Noel A. White, one of our country's most revered coaches, joined Foster to coach my high school to Champs victory in 1957. White was also my homeroom and history teacher, and he coached me after school, free of charge, to the top of my graduating class and a university scholarship.

But the institution is only part of the answer. These efforts succeeded because of an abundance of very healthy children and young people - the result not of Jamaica's mountainous terrain, as some have claimed, but of the extraordinary success of a public health campaign partly spearheaded in the 1920s by specialists from the Rockefeller Foundation.

The programme began in the small town of May Pen, where I later grew up. It emphasised hygiene, clean water and faecal and mosquito control. The old mantras "healthy bodies, healthy minds" and "cleanliness is next to godliness" took hold in our communities and primary schools, whose teachers were recruited in the public health campaign. Running, as the cheapest sport, was the natural beneficiary of this movement. As a child, Usain Bolt received his initial training at a remote, poorly equipped rural grade school.

The result was what historical demographer James Riley calls the Jamaican paradox: one of the rare instances of a poor country with the life expectancy of an advanced society, a health transition that began in the 1920s and improved at one of the fastest paces on record, from 36 years at birth in 1920 to 70 by 1977. It's no accident that the oldest individual medallist in Olympic track history is a Jamaican woman, Merlene Ottey, who was still sprinting in international meets at age 52.

Yet another factor is Jamaicans' combative individualism, the dark side of which is the country's chronic violence. Its bright side, though, is extreme self-reliance - which, along with effective health policy, is Mr Riley's main explanation for the life-expectancy paradox. But it also dovetails nicely with running, in which performance is entirely up to the athlete.

Jamaican track is a far cry from the British ethic of winning with grace. One Olympic medallist and alumnus of one of the dominant schools at Champs was quoted by writer Richard Moore as telling young athletes: "One thing we go out there for, and that's to win. To win. To win. To win. To win. To dominate. To crush them!"

The world got a taste of Jamaica's cut-throat track culture in Beijing, where Bolt, on the verge of winning the 100m in record time, slowed down, thumped his chest and spread his arms in a taunting, triumphant gesture. "We are a confident people," he later told the BBC.

This self-assuredness can lead to reckless behaviour. Although Bolt has a clean slate, several Jamaican athletes have tested positive for prohibited substances. Some are no doubt guilty, and the recent disclosure that Nesta Carter tested positive for a banned substance as a result of a re-test of samples from Beijing has caused consternation in Jamaica - though, to be fair, the Swiss-based Court of Arbitration for Sport has overturned or reduced penalties imposed on Jamaican runners on the grounds that there were non-doping explanations for the results. (Jamaicans have a long tradition of taking herbal supplements to promote good health.)

Jamaica has also creatively exploited its proximity to the United States. Some of our best runners went to college there on athletic scholarships, and they stayed and even competed for America, as many now do for Britain and Canada. But a critical number of them, like world-record holders Dennis Johnson and Herb McKenley, who was also an Olympic medallist and a former Jamaican national coach, returned to train generations of new stars. Jamaican student athletes also acquired international experience by participating in US meets like the annual Penn Relays, where they frequently excel.

Until recently, Jamaican athletes who didn't get scholarships or coaching jobs tended to leave the sport after high school. But even that is changing. Beginning nearly 20 years ago, Jamaicans started establishing for-profit track and field clubs, which have brought US-style sports entrepreneurship to the island. Now nearly all the island's major track stars are being trained locally, greatly reducing the talent drain and shifting the focus to adult runners, lengthening their careers and, with their greater local visibility and wealth, intensifying the island's passion for the sport.

The remarkable success of Jamaicans in building the institutions of a globally dominant sports enterprise and a complementary system of public health is a positive story, but it raises another question: Why have they failed so badly in developing a successful economy?

The answer is complex and incomplete. But it might lie in a deeper truth about the island. Political and economic successes are often top-down, relying on leadership that adapts and manages appropriate institutions that also benefit the non-elite. But things like health reform and sports success - and the reggae industry, for that matter - are largely bottom- up. Jamaica is yet to acquire the leadership for national development it deserves. But it has no lack of talent, energy and self-reliance - qualities as evident in health statistics as they are on the track.

NEW YORK TIMES

  • The writer is a professor of sociology at Harvard and the author of The Enigma Of Jamaica.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 21, 2016, with the headline 'The secret of Jamaica's runners'. Print Edition | Subscribe