Small island delivers big-time in track and field

Posted July 05, 2012, at 7:31 p.m.

KINGSTON, Jamaica — The numbers don’t add up.

Jamaica, an island that is smaller than Fiji with as many people as Mongolia, 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 atheltics, 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.

Veronica Campbell-Brown, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, Asafa Powell, Yohan Blake: All of them among the fastest in a country built for speed.

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 4×400-meter relays. This year, though, she has something even more rare. She’s the only person with a 2012 victory over American Sanya Richards-Ross, the odds-on favorite to win the 400 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. There’s the unbending focus on physical education in schools. Family support, community support and national pride get a fair share of credit, as well.

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.

“The testers can form a queue outside my house if they want to, because the more often they test me and other athletes to show that we are clean, the better it is for the sport,” he wrote.

One other explanation: There aren’t many sports to siphon off the talent pool in Jamaica. Yes, Jamaica loves football and cricket. Bolt still likes playing both, and every now and then, some story — usually untrue — surfaces about him hurting himself in a charity or muckaround football game. He knows, as do all the other sprinters, that besides the one or two athletes who might dream of becoming part of the legendary Jamaican bobsled team, 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, who finished fourth in the 110 hurdles at the 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 in 1962.

On the women’s side, Merlene Ottey enjoyed an even more impressive career, winning nine Olympic medals from 1980 to 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 the 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.

About 30 years after Quarrie’s victory, Asafa Powell took up the banner for Jamaica, lowering the world record in the 100 to 9.77, then 9.74. In many corners of the country, he’s still more popular than Bolt because he’s the one who first put Jamaica’s athletics prowess on center stage in the 21st century. His problem: He could never win the big one.

Even before Powell started dominating, women carried the banner for this country and began turning it into a track power in the new century.

In the years after Jackie Joyner-Kersee retired and Marion Jones fell from grace, there was a void in women’s track. Campbell-Brown started filling it when she won Olympic gold in the 200 meters in 2004 and led the relay team to the gold, as well.

She was the flagbearer at the Beijing Olympics, but she arrived in China only after realizing how tough the competition in her own country had become. She finished fourth at the Jamaican Olympic trials and settled for a spot in only one individual race, the 200 meters.

Once she got to Beijing, she saw that she truly had been beaten by the best. The Jamaican women swept the medals in the 100 without the woman many thought to be their best sprinter. Fraser-Pryce won gold, while Sherone Simpson and Kerron Stewart tied for silver to complete the first-ever women’s 100 medals sweep at the Olympics. Campbell-Brown repeated her 200 title. Those four sprinters head to London with a combined 10 Olympic medals.

“Most of the athletic talent you see in this country comes in track and field,” Campbell-Brown said. “Because of that, you see a lot of very good sprinters. A lot of it also has to do with our history and our culture. Jamaicans are known to be very hard-working, very dedicated. They enjoy competing. They enjoy supporting their best athletes.”

At the Jamaican Olympic trials, sprinter after sprinter brought up another point: How inspiring it is to see National Stadium packed by people in a poor country who shell out the $10 or $20 dollars for tickets to see their stars run for 10, 20, sometimes 50 seconds.

“There’s just an atmosphere and the love people have for track and field,” Kerron Stewart said. “When you see thousands of people come out to watch you run, it makes you want to put on a show.”

Inspiring as it may be, there is nothing pretentious about the shrine in which they run. But the history is there — and still being made.

Any Jamaican who ever paid attention in civics class while counting the minutes before going outside for gym can tell you exactly why athletics, national independence and this creaky old 35,000-seat stadium are all so intertwined.

It was at midnight on Aug. 6, 1962, in National Stadium that the Union Jack, the flag of the British Empire that once ruled this Caribbean colony, was lowered for the final time and replaced by the yellow, black and green Jamaican flag that flies today.

On Aug. 6, 2012 — the 50th anniversary of Jamaican independence — the medals ceremony for the men’s 100 will take place at Olympic Stadium in London.

“That’s the day the gold will go to Bolt and the anthem will be played and our flag will be raised in that stadium,” said Junior Anthony Clarke, an athletics fan who came to watch Olympic trials, glossing over the fact that another Jamaican, Blake, is also a strong candidate to win that medal. “It’s going to be very significant in terms of demonstrating not only the strides we’ve made in track and sports, but that we are, truly, a strong, independent country.”

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