A glorified school sports day sets the platform for Jamaica's sprint kings and queens
The world's fastest man, Usain Bolt, believes competition is the key to the dominance
The United States’ population might be 100 times the size of Jamaica’s, but when it comes to the development of sprint talent the Caribbean island is in a league of its own.
Of the 12 sprint gold medals on offer at the last two Olympic Games – in the 100 meters, 200m and 4x100m – Jamaica’s men and women won nine, plus five silvers, while they performed a clean sweep of titles at the last World Athletics Championships in Moscow two years ago.
It’s an astonishing haul and, on the eve of the 2015 worlds in Beijing, which start Saturday, the question is: Who can stop Jamaica?
For Usain Bolt, a triple gold medalist at the past two Olympic Games and the 2013 world championships, the explanation for his nation’s hegemony is simple.
“The level of the sport in this country is so high in track and field as we’re pushing to be great,” the world’s fastest man told CNN Sport.
“To just make the trials in Jamaica you have to run 9.9 seconds at least. You push yourself so hard to be the best as the competition level is just so high.”
However given Jamaica’s population is three million compared to the 300 million of the U.S., Bolt’s explanation doesn’t quite tell the whole story.
It’s a story that begins at the national schools’ championship – better known as “The Champs,” an event watched by as many as 30,000 people.
“You couldn’t get a greater school sports day if you tried,” author Richard Moore, who recently published a book examining the dominance of Jamaican sprinting, told CNN.
“The intensity is very real and it’s clear it really, really matters. It tips into something more than sport.”
Jamaica’s sprinters are its leading sports stars, hogging the headlines while their pictures adorn the sides of buses and billboard posters.
“Football is big here, but track and field is king, and it’s really dominated even more since what Usain did in Beijing in 2008,” says sports journalist Andre Lowe, of the Jamaica Gleaner.
“Right now, it’s clearly number one and its stars are huge.
“The cricketer Chris Gayle is perhaps the only one that comes close to the trio of Bolt, Asafa Powell and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce.”
Lowe also points to a school system that helps nurture sprint talent in Jamaica, which he says allows the “youngest talents to express themselves in a very high level of competition early on.
“A lot of Jamaican kids have grown up wanting to emulate Jamaican sprinting talent and that goes back to the 1940s through to Don Quarrie in the 1970s and with Usain Bolt now.”
“It’s basically in the system, perhaps a bit like British Cycling,” added Moore, referring to the UK’s recent international success in that sport.
“It takes time to produce that on the world stage but Britain’s cyclists have done that at Olympic level and now the Tour de France.
“In Jamaica, it’s the same. The setup is geared to success from the very outset.
“And from the outset there’s unbelievable competition. It’s a bit like the Jamaican music scene, which is huge. That competition and talent around you just pushes you on further.”
The majority of Jamaica’s sprint stars in Beijing are coached by either Glen Mills, who oversees the likes of Bolt and Yohan Blake, and Stephen Francis, who has Fraser-Pryce and Powell under his tutelage.
Mills, in his own words, was a failed sprinter with a love of athletics growing up.
“I never had the talent and it was early when I realized. I was disappointed I wasn’t able to measure up to the others. But I didn’t let it get me down, I got over it and realized my talent was in coaching,” said Mills.
Having overseen 71 world championship and 33 Olympic medals during his tenure as head coach of the Jamaican national athletics team before setting up Racers Track Club, Mills says his approach doesn’t just focus on sport.
“Perfection is what we’re trying to achieve but it’s a hard thing to do. But I also like to help them develop into total human beings,” he says.
“You try to be involved in the rest of their lives as much as they let you. I’m always letting them know that they need to realize there’s life after the track.”
As for whether Jamaica’s dominance can continue, that remains to be seen.
Of the younger crop of athletes, it is less over 100m and 200m where they are the top dogs, more so over 400m – possibly spawning another era of dominance on the track.
For now, though, Bolt remains the sprint king.