Jamaica is hotbed of scorching sprinters
KINGSTON, Jamaica -- The numbers don't add up.
Jamaica, an island that covers less territory than Connecticut and has about as many people as Utah, travels to the Olympics, all but plants its green, yellow and black flag into the stadium turf and turns the soundtrack into a continuous loop of its national anthem, "Jamaica, Land We Love." The Caribbean country of 2.7 million people won 11 medals at the Beijing Olympics, all in track and field, and is a good bet to hit that number again this year in London.
Sure, Usain Bolt is part of that. But not the only part.
There are seemingly as many explanations for this success as there are medal contenders. A compelling one comes from Novlene Williams-Mills. She's a 400-meter sprinter who has two Olympic medals, won in the last two 1,600-meter relays. This year, though, she has something even more rare. She's the only person with a 2012 victory over Sanya Richards-Ross, the odds-on favorite to win the 400 meters in London.
"We're a poor country and not a lot of people have cars, so as a kid, you end up running everywhere," explained Williams-Mills, who grew up in rural St. Ann Parish on Jamaica's northern coast. "When I was young, I used to go with my mother and she wouldn't take me in her arms, so I had to run after her everywhere." As for the more traditional explanations, a nod goes to the warm, sultry climate that allows athletes to train outdoors virtually 365 days a year and the hilly terrain that gives them good places to run.
Cynics might say Jamaica thrives because everything isn't quite above-board -- that maybe there's something more than just the vitamin-rich root vegetables and clean living mixing through all that Jamaican blood. Bolt has never shied away from those questions. He devoted an entire chapter in his autobiography to the suspicions about doping in his country. He said there were times when he was tested four times a week before the Beijing Games. None of his tests have ever come back positive.
One other explanation: There aren't many sports to siphon off the talent pool in Jamaica, the way there are in the United States. There's only one obvious path for an athlete to make a name for himself on this island: Running fast.
"The sports we do have, we focus on an awful lot," said Keiron Stewart, a Jamaican who attends University of Texas and finished fourth in the 110-meter hurdles at Jamaican Olympic trials. "Plus, there's the fact that we have very good role models." Walk to the front of National Stadium in Kingston and you can see the statues of the people Stewart is talking about.
Donald Quarrie is to sprinting what Bob Marley is to reggae in Jamaica. Quarrie competed in five Olympics, won medals in four of them and, in 1976, became the first person to win a gold medal for Jamaica since it became an independent country.
On the women's side, Merlene Ottey enjoyed an even more impressive career, winning nine Olympic medals between 1980 and 2000. The end of her career was tainted with controversy -- a positive doping test that was later overturned and the drama she caused by petitioning her way onto the Olympic team in 2000, at age 40, despite finishing fourth at trials. She won a bronze medal at the Sydney Games, however, and still inspires Jamaican sprinters today.
"I always wanted to be like Merlene Ottey because she is a warrior," said Shericka Williams, who won silver in the 400 in 2008, finishing one spot ahead of Richards-Ross.
Richards-Ross has ties to Jamaica herself. Her mother, Sharon, is Jamaican and Richards-Ross lived in Kingston until she was 12. She moved to America and now competes for the red, white and blue, but still receives a warm welcome whenever she returns. Her last trip here was in May, when she lost in the 400-meter race to Williams-Mills at National Stadium.
"Growing up, everyone wants to be a track star there," Richards-Ross said. "I remember when I was 7 years old and I started running, it was a big deal. We had great coaches at a young age. I was doing block starts and working on my technique. I think that focus and intensity at a very young age gets us prepared for what's to come."