By: Basil Wilson
In the 2012 London Olympics, Jamaica will return to the venue where the country’s prominence in track vis-à-vis the Olympics began. Fourteen years before Jamaica gained independence from Britain, the colonized country opted to compete as Jamaica. In their first Olympics, Jamaica would have been victorious in the 4 x 400 relay if Wint had not suffered an injury. Nonetheless, Arthur Wint won the 400 meters and McKenley came in second. Wint placed second to Mal Whitfield in the 800 meters. Fourteen years prior to obtaining independence, Jamaica had demonstrated on the world stage its greatness in the competitive world of track.
Jamaica was graciously throwing off the yoke of British colonialism. In the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, Jamaica again demonstrated its greatness in track. Herb McKenley came second in a photo-finish in the 100 meters. He was expected to win gold in the 400 meters but was clipped by George Rhoden. In a world setting time, Jamaica beat the world in the 4 x 400 relay.
How does a nation of 2.8 million people over a stretch of 64 years sustain Olympic greatness? There are perennially competing nations that have never heard their national anthem played or had any of their athletes mount a podium. In the Beijing Olympics, Jamaica’s Usain Bolt lit the world on fire when he broke the world record in the 100 meters and 200 meters. The men’s team won the
4 x100 meters and the female contingent performed magnificently. Shelly Ann Fraser-Pryce won the 100 meters and Stewart and Simpson tied for second. This phenomenal performance at the Olympics and at the World Championships has begged the question, how does one explain Jamaica’s hegemony over the sprint distance in the world of track? There is a strong possibility that the Jamaica track team will do as well or exceed the accomplishments of the 2008 Olympics.
Greatness does not come about through happenstance and greatness must be rooted in a measurable time span. The Brazilians transformed the game of soccer in the late 1950s and produced some of the great players in the game, like Pele, Zico, Romario, Socrates, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, etc. But in recent years the world has caught up with Brazil and the Spaniards have created a new kind of football that has resulted in their hegemony in the world of soccer. By winning the European Cup in 2005, the World Cup in 2010 and the European Cup again in 2012, Spain has emerged as the current masters of the soccer world.
One can compare athletic greatness to the enormous innovation that takes place in the Silicon Valley of California. The Silicon Valley is not only the venture capital but one of the citadels of technological innovation on the planet. That cluster of inventiveness finds ways to replicate itself.
In countries in North and East Africa, those athletes have risen to dominate races from the 800 to the 1,500 to the marathon. The particularities of the climate may very well give athletes from those countries the advantage of running long distances.
What one can discern at the Olympics is that there are nations that, based on national programs, are able to excel in specialized areas. The Chinese have emerged as more than competitive in gymnastics and diving. The Australians have been able to hold their own in swimming and the Americans certainly excel in basketball.
There are many areas that Jamaica is readily outcompeted in the world. The country’s business class has not developed a sophisticated understanding of exports. They are a content class that have been successful in creating wealth for themselves and are comfortable holding their corner.
There is a dynamic culture of track in Jamaica. Those seeds were firmly planted from the 1948 Olympics and nurtured not just among those who made it on the world stage but many athletics were highly motivated to represent their school in elementary meets, preparatory championships and at the all encompassing Boys and Girls Championships that is over 100 years old.
There was a time when Jamaica sought to export its outstanding athletes as the presumption was that the training in American colleges was superior. That has changed and Jamaica now has some of the more innovative track coaches in the world. Foreign athletes seeking to pounce on the world stage now come to Jamaica in search of greatness. The track clubs, MVP and Racers, have become known as sprint factories.
A nation of 2.8 million people has in succession three male athletes who have been recognized as the fastest humans on earth, Asafa Powell, Usain Bolt and Yohan Blake.
Track is a sport that requires an extra-ordinary amount of sweat and tears. In the documentary that Michael Johnson put together about the Fastest Man in the World, Usain Bolt confessed to the arduousness of the daily training. Perhaps, Bolt reached his zenith as a sprinter at the Beijing games in 2008. He is still one of the world’s great sprinters but his relegation to silver-tone in the Jamaica trials by Yohan Blake is a testimony to the culture of greatness in track that the country has cultivated since 1948.
It has been an incredible stretch for Jamaica since 1948. There are budding Fraser-Pryces, Campbell-Browns, Powells, Bolts and Blakes all over Jamaica. They are waiting in the wings to demonstrate their athletic prowess at the next schoolboy and schoolgirl championships. There are coaches scouting the next generation, getting ready for the 2016 Olympics in Brazil.
To reiterate, greatness is not a result of happenstance. As Jamaica marks its 50 years of independence, the Jamaican intelligentsia needs to study the areas in which the society excels and seek to transfer those lessons to areas where the nation is wanting.