Could the results of the Moscow World Championships be sending a clear message to Jamaica? The stellar results in the men’s and women’s short sprints could lead quickly to talk of a national ‘sprint factory’. That may be a good thing to have on the national resume. Jamaica has had an effective system for identifying and nurturing athletic talent for decades. At the national level, that process has its pinnacle in the Inter-Secondary School Sports Association Championship, the high school track and field championships, affectionately known as ‘Champs’, which began in 1910. There, spectators see up-close or live on television the best talent that the high schools have to offer. Certain schools have had a revered reputation for building teams loaded with athletic talent. Some of those schools are also revered for being among the best, academically. So, the country fully embraces that sport and study can be complementary. But Champs is a major milestone on a road that passes through National Primary, All-Age and Junior High Schools Athletic Championships.
I pointed out to some friends over the weekend that the legacy of great athletes can be traced a long way back. Although Jamaicans featured in international athletics from the late 1800s, the key turning point was the 1948 London Olympics, when Jamaica entered for the first time. At those games, we secured 1-2 in the 440 yards (the ‘quarter mile’), with Arthur Wint and Herb McKenely; Wint also took silver in the 880 yards. The 1-2 in the 440 yards was repeated at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, with George Rhoden and McKenely; Wint again took silver in the 880 yards; Jamaica took the gold and set a world record in the 4×440 men’s relay final. We had demonstrated to the world that we could run fast on the international stage, and that we had some depth in the sport.
Jamaica did not win any more Olympics medals until 1968, when such success resumed and continued thereafter into 2004, with a few golds and a string of silver and bronze medals but was mainly seen in the shape of a few, notable, individual stars, such as Donald Quarrie, Merlene Ottey and Veronica Campbell-Brown.
Jamaica has seen another major turning point, recently, with a consistently high level of individual and team success since the 2008 Beijing Olympics. This undeniable success may well rest largely on the shoulders of one exceptional runner, Usain Bolt, but the country knows, and the world is understanding that he is perhaps the best of a very rich current crop of male and female track and field stars. That depth is best exemplify by the string of successes in relay races at both 4×100 and 4×400 meters finals. Ironically, that success followed a long period of dominance without major gold medals in the form of the exceptional running of Asafa Powell, who was 100 meters world record holder between 2005-8, and consistently broke the 10 seconds barrier.
For decades, though, Champs was a scouting show case, as was the famed Penn Relay, and Jamaica’s many talented athletes left these shores for US colleges, supported by scholarships. That offered an escape route for many from poor backgrounds and a real opportunity to reside in the USA, hoping for better lives. However, cultural shock and the rigours of a domestic sporting calendar that had other objectives than success at major international athletics events took their toll on Jamaican athletes. More recently, that flow has diminished significantly, and stars have been able to remain at home and develop well, without cultural dislocation. It helps that athletics has become a feasible professional career, albeit short.
More emphasis has been placed on helping athletes develop their talents in Jamaica, rather than being siphoned off into the US collegiate system. The University of Technology (UTech) and the University of the West Indies (UWI) have a strong cohort of top athletes studying for degrees in Jamaica and making use of good facilities and coaching. The need for institutions such as UWI and UTech to step up to the plate–to mix sporting metaphors–in how they nurtured this talent was well spelled out in 2009 by Neville McCook, Secretary general of the Jamaica Olympic Association. McCook said over the last 30 years, between 50-75 athletes a year received scholarships to overseas universities. He said the average student “who lands in any city and walks off the aircraft and has never seen so many lights in his life, then decides that this is home”. He indicated that, as a result, we lose a majority of our good athletes, who use overseas opportunities to change their residential status and do not return home.
UTech started giving opportunities to youngsters to develop in the sport and advance their studies here at the same time. UWI, subsequently, also offered programmes to facilitate athletic aspirations, allowing flexibility in studies, say during periods leading up to major international events, to be allowed to achieve their goals and then get back to school. This has helped to ensure that many excellent Jamaican athletes remain here in Jamaica. Keeping more talent at home seems to have paid off in terms of development and success.
From August 2012, US two-year and junior colleges were required to cut the number of foreigners on their sports team rosters, giving no more than 25% of scholarships awarded by any team to non-US residents. Though ostensibly to fix a problem of verifying credentials, this change will hurt countries like Jamaica, where these colleges were a route to traditional four-year colleges for students who did not have grades to make them eligible immediately. More athletes, therefore, are likely to,stay home. Those not eleigible for UTech and UWI have options at schools like G.C. Foster College of Physical Education and Sport, opened since 1980.
Despite its limited resources, Jamaica has proved that it has something that works, not just with homegrown talent. Jamaican-born athletes living abroad (eg, Britain’s Linford Christie; Canada’s Ben Johnson and Donovan Bailey; the US’s Sanya Richard) and athletes with Jamaican parents (eg, Britain’s Colin Jackson, Kelly Holmes, Jessica Ennis; Trinidad’s Ato Bolden; Italy’s long jumper Fiona May) have also had enormous success, leading to reasonable speculation about genetic or dietary or other reasons that could explain such processes. Is it renta yam, cornmeal porridge, green bananas, fried dumplings, slave heritage, manish water, special herbs and spices? Who knows? Whatever is the base, we also have produced excellent coaches now in-country and overseas.
Athletes from other nations in the region have sought to benefit from Jamaica’s system. Athletes from outside the region are also coming to Jamaica to train and compete. Notable track clubs, especially Maximizing Velocity and Power (MVP)–started in 2001 to thwart ‘Americanization’ and based at UTech, and Racers, now exist locally to offer competitive opportunities and structure.
Many developing countries have built on what seems to be a rich vein of national sporting talent. East African countries, especially Kenya and Ethiopia, have dominated middle- and long-distance running for several decades. Physiology, climate, social conditions, new opportunities, and more have come together to work a certain magic that is hard to overcome. But, East Africans displaced runners from other, small, industrial nations, notably in Scandinavia as the dominant middle- and long-distance forces. Other small, industrial, countries have done likewise: Switzerland, Austria, Norway, for example, have used their geographical and climatic advantages to build on domestic talent in winter sports, such as downhill and cross-country skiing. Cuba, too, also small, overcame the adversity of economic blockades and used its belief in, and application of, a different political, economic and social system to develop a wider cadre of sporting talent, that stands proudly and strongly high in the ranks of elite athletes, as well as enormous depth in many fields, even making their coaches available to a wide range of
Small has really been beautiful in showing that the economically powerful, populous opponents from the USA and Russia (and the former Soviet Union), and now China, had more than their match when elite athletes compete.
Jamaica needs to build well on the success of the past decade within the athletics field. Despite the love for, and talent in, football shown by qualification for a World Cup final, the base was weak and success has not been sustained. There are differences in sporting structures, and other issues, behind this gap.
The core strength and talents of individuals, who are determined to excel, moulded and helped by the hands of coaches and teachers, represents an apparent contrast to what seems to be how the country works in other fields. Could it be that Jamaica’s economic and social problems have behind them an inability to see that the country had some clear advantages, not in the whole schedule of events, but in a particular field? We got the focus right, sought and found the talent, and we beat off the competition in several ways.
We seem to have gotten the message with some things.
Our Blue Mountain coffee is unique and special; we don’t need or want that to be a mass crop, and its quality is all-important. The British Government saw the need for more rigorous quality control in the late-1940s. Japanese interest supported the industry with investment and purchases in the 1970-80s. But, we need to build its niche and protect its image.
Our popular music, too, is really limited, but has an appeal that far transcends these shores: we now hear it incorporated in many other musical genres; our artistes are reaching audiences built upon a love of the sounds and rhythms and also capable of adding their own local twists. With Jamaican migrants installed in England, it was really no surprise that reggae beats would infiltrate English music, as with racially-blended groups like UB40. But, reggae has taken hold in Jamaica, following Bob Marley’s success, and now it has Japanese reggae and is renowned for its dub music. Japanese reggae/dancehall dancers beat Jamaicans recently in competitions here. We should have been better warned with transisitor radios, motorbikes and cars. Our musical roots borrowed from many influences, and for decades now we have been lending our styles. DJ toasters took the style from Jamaica to New York City and laid a base for rap music. Jamaica showed it had a special place in the music industry, and saw foreign artistes coming to the island to work with its producers, local musicians were sought overseas to add their touch to major international artistes.
Some of our food, drink, and cooking styles have grabbed a place at the international table or a place in the international kitchen: jerk, patties, juices, Red Stripe, Appleton rum.
Our seemingly relaxed attitude and infectious joyfulness capture imaginations when our stars are on show. These are positives for our image. These characteristics have recently featured in ads for VW. Imagine, the onetime murder capital associated with a major car manufacturer. “Chill, Winston!”
We have managed to educate and train academically and technically many brilliant scholars and skilled workers. Did we understand that that, too, was a strength that we should showcase to the world? We did it by accident, with a flood of talent ‘exported’ as migrants to the UK when that economy needed rebuilding from the late-1940s onwards. We saw a massive brain drain of many who rejected a political experiment in the 1970s, and felt lack of job opportunities pushing them to leave. We lost, too, those who voted with their feet running on other tracks and then staying abroad. All losses from a shallow but good talent pool. But, they represent the results of failure to create conditions at home that would allow many to take their talents from home to display abroad, but stay home to inspire and help develop future generations.
We have more resources at our disposal than sand, sea, sun, land, bauxite. They’re human and they pay off well with good investment.
Did Jamaica’s national leaders have a good and clear vision for our little island, which sought to build on one of our best resources–its people, their drive and their pride? Maybe, I do them a disservice or misunderstand how the minds of politicians work when seeking to move a nation forward on its own path.