Jamaica’s domination of international sprinting has triggered a boom in young athletes hoping to follow Usain Bolt out of poverty and into the record books.
By Tom Leonard
Published: 6:30AM BST 14 May 2010
Rolando Berch, 19, from Kingston College, says, ‘Nobody in Jamaica is happy with second place’ Photo: MARTHA CAMARILLO
Athletes from the William Knibb Memorial High School, Usain Bolt’s alma mater in a rural parish on Jamaica’s north coast Photo: MARTHA CAMARILLO
On the parched grass of the competitors’ training area, 19-year-old Rolando Berch and two dozen teammates shelter under canvas from the afternoon sun. The atmosphere inside their tent, decorated in the purple and white colours of their school, Kingston College, is tense.
They are waiting their turn to be led past the security guards surrounding their compound into the harsh glare of Jamaica’s National Stadium, where a 30,000-strong crowd is bellowing its excitement. Jamaica’s Inter-Secondary School Sports Association Championship – better known as Champs, and celebrating its centenary this year – is not your average sports day. For many of the young athletes here, it is an opportunity effectively to run their way out of poverty.
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Usain Bolt: how do Jamaicans run so fast?The four-day competition at the end of March, the culmination of regional heats around the island, is regarded as the highlight of Jamaica’s sporting calendar. It draws pupils aged 12 to 19 from more than 100 schools, plus alumni from all over the world, as well as sportswear manufacturers looking for rising stars to endorse their brand, and a number of American university scouts sizing up worthy recipients of a scholarship – a potential lifeline for young men such as Berch, Kingston College’s star 400m runner. ‘I can’t afford to go to college without a sports scholarship and that’s the same for nearly all of us,’ he says, as he goes through some final stretching exercises. ‘That’s why most of us do track and field in this country.’
Jamaica is not a wealthy nation. Unemployment stands at 14.5 per cent and the average annual income is just under £1,740. Crime levels are high – last year a record 1,680 people were murdered.
Berch, one of the oldest competitors at Champs, lives in Maxfield, a neighbourhood in Kingston’s gang-plagued downtown area; his dream is to study business management at an American university. This is his seventh Champs (last year he helped his school become the overall boys’ champions); a runner since the age of five, he has competed for Jamaica internationally at youth level and came fourth in the world junior championships. ‘I was built to run so I just continued,’ he says simply. He trains before and after school, three hours a day for five or six days a week.
Jamaicans have long been known for their sprinting prowess, but in the past couple of years their dominance at international level, and the extraordinary success of Usain Bolt in particular, has intensified an already competitive athletics scene.
Its runners snatched all four sprint titles at the 2008 Olympic Games and seven gold medals at last year’s World Athletics Championships in Berlin; Jamaicans sometimes refer to their small country (population: 2.7 million) as ‘the sprint factory’. Bolt, the world’s fastest man at both 100m (9.58sec) and 200m (19.19sec), has become the most celebrated and inspirational Jamaican since Bob Marley. Like every other young athlete one talks to on the island, Berch does not aim to be as good as Bolt – he wants to be better. ‘Nobody in Jamaica is happy with second place,’ he says.
‘In my years of coaching, including in the States, I’ve found that track is not a rich person’s sport,’ Berch’s coach, Wainsworth Small, says. Rich kids might have the talent, but they don’t have that ‘extra oomph’, he says. ‘A lot of people here are living in poverty and they want to get out.’ Like many of the other coaches, he offers his services free of charge. ‘You’d cry if you knew what went on in their lives – it’s heart-wrenching. Some are living in real poverty, some are exposed to extreme violence, some have parents who just aren’t there.’ There is no point trying to talk to them about their problems, he says. ‘Most of them are kind of proud. Sometimes it takes years of working with them to find out what their lives are like.’
Usain Bolt’s background is not uncommon: the son of a former coffee farm labourer and grocery shop owner, he grew up in a village in the north of the island, in a house that had no running water. (He has said that his famed strength comes from carrying heavy loads of water for miles as a child.)
It was at Champs that Bolt – a passionate cricketer who was persuaded to switch to athletics by a coach who noticed his speed on the pitch – first came to the attention of the Jamaican public. He dominated the sprint events for years; at his final Champs, in 2003, he ran the 200m in 20.25sec and the 400m in 45.35sec, smashing the records by half a second and just under a second respectively. Bolt, who with performance fees and endorsement deals earned an estimated $3 million last year, appears to be a one-off, but that doesn’t stop thousands of Jamaicans from wanting to follow in his footsteps.
On the other side of Kingston, the 18-strong team from William Knibb Memorial High School, Bolt’s alma mater, are relaxing in a tiny two-bedroom house where they have been crammed for the duration of the championships. Their school rarely fields one of the strongest teams but it has a reputation for occasional flashes of brilliance, such as Bolt.
The team coach, Dwayne Jarrett, has just delivered a pep talk (‘track and field doesn’t respect anyone’), though much of his job, he explains later, is about managing inflated expectations that were high even before Bolt started shattering records. He does his best, he says, but grumbles that his young charges are not always willing to put in the required effort. There is also ‘a lot of room for improvement in their equipment, facilities and nutrition’. Their families’ lack of money is partly to blame, of course. ‘They’ll often leave for school without eating a proper breakfast and then they don’t eat a proper lunch,’ Jarrett says. ‘We try to talk to the parents – some of them are helpful, some are not.’
One of Jarrett’s more promising runners is 17-year-old Deron Rodney. The son of a carpenter and one of five children, Rodney says, ‘Our lifestyle is very different to that of other teenagers. They’ll party, but we’re told to calm down and relax, eat properly, avoid unnecessary playing and stuff. So no late nights – I keep to that.’
Despite the mantra from their headmistress and coaches that they are ‘students first and athletes later’, it is hard to be both, Rodney says. Athletes have a habit of falling asleep in lessons, he says, though he insists that he personally has managed to keep his academic head above water. He wants to study physics in America, a country he has never visited and where life, he concedes, might be ‘strange at first’. He adds, ‘They say it’s a wonderful experience and a great thing to work for.’
Bolt’s success, Rodney admits, has raised expectations at his school. Every young athlete at Champs appears to have met Bolt at least once and Rodney is no exception. ‘He came back to the school. We asked him what he did in his spare time, what it felt like to be famous, what he ate…’
What the athletes eat, or should eat, has become a national obsession. A popular local theory is that Jamaicans run so fast because they eat so many yams (starchy tubers, rich in vitamin C and potassium, popular in West Indian cooking), an idea that seems far-fetched, though some studies suggest the vegetable possesses steroid-like properties.
Inside the house, Dane Clarke, the William Knibb chef, breaks off from listening to the English football results on the radio to dash off and fetch me ‘the secret of Usain Bolt’s success’. He returns with a tin of mackerel in tomato sauce, which he calls ‘jungle bongie’. The team members fall about laughing at what is obviously a favourite in-joke. What else does he serve the athletes? ‘Fish, chicken, yam, callaloo [a spinach-like delicacy] and cornmeal porridge. I keep them off processed food.’
The tinned mackerel theory is as good as any to explain the island’s sprinting brilliance. Everyone you meet has an opinion, some more plausible than others. At the Beijing Olympics, Jamaica’s team doctor, Herb Elliott, said the island’s history was
a big factor: the African slaves who ended up in Jamaica were the strongest and most rebellious, he said. Others, such as Victor Conte, whose Balco clinic in California was at the centre of sport’s biggest drugs scandal, have openly criticised Jamaica’s perceived lack of an effective drug-testing system. ‘To see the fastest people in the world coming from one island, I’m highly suspicious,’ he said last year. ‘I believe there’s rampant use of performance-enhancing drugs in the Caribbean.’
Other theories are more mundane. Claude Bryan, a Jamaican-born, US college-educated and now Atlanta-based agent for many of the country’s best athletes, believes Jamaica’s success is the result of a combination of factors. First, success breeds success – the large number of former champions provides plenty of inspiration for each new generation, and helps raise standards further. ‘In Jamaica, a 12-year-old boy used to running the 100m in 11.3sec at Champs will have four boys in front of him,’ Bryan says, ‘so the next year he’ll come back stronger. In any other country, he wouldn’t need to improve as he’d already be the star.’
Second, Jamaica has few other sporting options. Cricket, once the number-one sport, is not as popular as it was (American sports dominate the television channels). Third is genes: ‘I just think we’re genetically predisposed to run fast,’ Bryan says. Fourth is what he calls Jamaicans’ ‘irrepressible nature’, a determination to keep on going. Fifth is the terrain. Jamaica is a hilly island where the relative lack of transport means that a lot of people have to do a lot of walking. Bryan believes it is
no coincidence that Trelawny, the island’s hilliest parish, has spawned the most successful runners, including Bolt, Ben Johnson, the Jamaican-born Canadian sprinter (brought low by a doping scandal), and Veronica Campbell-Brown, the reigning 200m Olympic champion. Bryan introduces me to Campbell-Brown, who lives in Florida but returns to Jamaica each year for Champs. She explains how she used to walk five miles each way to school every day: ‘If I was late, I would have to jog. A lot of us have to do that here. The point is, we’d be developing as runners and not even know it.’
Last but not least, Bryan says, is the fact that Jamaican athletes are exposed to such a competitive environment from a very early age. Children start running competitively at primary-school level. For the older children, Champs provides vital experience which helps athletes deal with the added pressures of competing in major international championships.
‘When you’re a 13-year-old walking into a stadium with 30,000 people shouting for you, by the time you’re 21 you’re a seasoned vet,’ Bryan says. ‘Can a little boy from Brixton or New York say that? We’re tempered and tried by the experience of Champs and there’s nothing else like it in the world.’
Usain Bolt has spoken of the importance of Champs in conditioning him to cope with the pressure of running in front of a huge crowd. ‘The Jamaican crowd is one of a kind,’ he explained to me on the phone last month. ‘If you can perform in front of a Champs crowd you can perform anywhere, so it is a major factor for Jamaican athletes. Champs was good for me.’
Up in the crowd, Matt Martin’s sunburnt face and lily-white knees instantly mark him out as an American scout. Martin travels the world looking for young talent on whom to lavish a share of the University of Nebraska’s multi-million-dollar annual athletics budget, and describes Jamaican athletes as ‘genetically gifted but not highly trained’. Nebraska is one of the top five athletics colleges in America. Martin usually recruits one or two a year from Champs. ‘I already have one young man – a 19-year-old sprinter – who’s signed the papers to come to Nebraska, and another two promising ones for next year,’ he says, stressing that US universities are interested only in sporting kudos. ‘We’re not trying to rob Jamaica of its national athletes.’
Martin reckons there are at least 25 rival US scouts in the crowd, all of whom will have to wait until the competition finishes before they can approach parents. The university invites athletes to visit Nebraska before committing themselves. The move is often a ‘big culture shock’, Martin says. With so many institutions fighting over potential stars, not everyone plays fair, he adds, with some scouts suspected of bribing coaches.
Dwayne Extol, 18, one of Jamaica’s fastest teenage sprinters and the captain of the eventual boys’ winners, Wolmer’s, has been particularly popular with scouts this year. Extol wins gold in the 400m and silver in the 200m (he tells me he allowed his teammate Julian Forte to win because he ‘could see he really wanted to win’). Extol reels off the names of seven US universities to have offered him sports scholarships, and takes pains to emphasise that one of them has also offered him an academic one, which prioritises classroom achievement over sport. He plans to visit the colleges in early summer.
A level-headed young man, Extol acknowledges that ‘a lot of the athletes here neglect their schoolwork. I don’t think coaches should advise athletes they could be the next big thing. They should stick with the education, and the track and field will come. The education you’ll have for ever.’
But some find it harder to prioritise their schooling. At the stadium’s training area, Petra Fanty, an 18-year-old 400m runner, is preparing for her next race. She and her teammates from Holmwood Technical High School, the defending girls’ champions, are the most colourful competitors in town, and have incorporated the school colours – maroon and yellow – into all manner of exotic hairstyles, including a far from aerodynamic mohican. The school is in Spanish Town, Jamaica’s original
capital, which has a growing gang problem and high unemployment.
Fanty is in no doubt that it is the current crop of Jamaican champions that has spurred her on to become a professional athlete. ‘I want to be better than them,’ she says (the familiar refrain). ‘When Jamaican athletes are doing so well, everybody wants to be like them. Usain Bolt is training Jamaica. His presence is an inspiration.’
Fanty’s father is unemployed; her mother is a farmer. She appears not to have thought too deeply about what she might do if pro status does not materialise. ‘Teaching?’ she suggests. What subject? ‘Social studies? I’m not sure. I’ve got my heart set on athletics.’
Historically, the majority of successful Jamaican athletes have come through the US college system, but things have changed dramatically in the past few years. Bolt’s iconic status has been cemented by his decision to remain based on the island, despite being offered several American scholarships. Many in Jamaica say that its facilities, as a result of large-scale investment from the government and local businesses, are as good as any in the world (though this has sparked a debate over whether such a poor country can afford to spend so much on sport when education and health care are so basic).
Olivia Grange, the Jamaican minister of culture, youth and sports, sits in the stadium’s VIP box. She says the government has spent £1.27 million in the past two years through its Institute of Sports, which, among other things, has been providing a number of new school coaches. ‘Athletics is a great tool for wealth creation and poverty alleviation,’ she says. ‘We definitely see athletics as an important economic tool, with major sporting organisations now keen to stage events in Jamaica.’
Bolt lives on a hill overlooking the national stadium; his great rival Asafa Powell, the former 100m record holder, lives next door. They are the stars of the country’s two main rival athletics clubs, Racers Track Club and MVP (Maximising Velocity and Power). The latter was set up in 2001 by a local coach, Stephen Francis, who felt that Jamaican athletes were becoming too Americanised as a result of the scholarship programme, and unwilling to return home (many Jamaican-born athletes
have ended up taking American or Canadian citizenship and representing their adopted countries). There are now about a dozen well-run track clubs in Jamaica. Some young athletes have signed sponsorship deals while still at school.
Natoya Goule, 18, another Holmwood athlete and the winner by a huge margin of the 3,000m in her age group – her 13th Champs gold – already has a deal with Adidas. She explains that she has been offered ‘a lot’ of sports scholarships, but hasn’t made up her mind whether to take one, or which one to choose. ‘I just train hard, listen to my coach and put my mind to the race,’ she says.
Ray Stewart, an Olympic silver medallist at the 1984 Games, says that Jamaica’s training infrastructure is considerably more sophisticated than in his day. Now a sports adviser to Texas Christian University, which gave him a scholarship, he concedes that there is more to keep an athlete in Jamaica than when he left in the 1980s. ‘Back then most of us were just thinking about getting the hell out of here,’ he says. ‘We wanted more than just running, we wanted a life that was a lot better overseas than it was here.’
Stewart believes that because Bolt decided to stay at home, other gifted Jamaican athletes are turning their backs on American scholarships. ‘Bolt and Powell’s success has encouraged a lot of young Jamaicans to think they can be professionals when they just don’t all have what it takes,’ he says. ‘The Jamaican clubs seem to be encouraging people to stay at home and give up on their education.’
Sandie Richards, a former Jamaican team captain, worries that young Jamaicans are being misled by unrealistic hopes of sporting success, encouraged to pursue a professional athletics career at home rather than take up the offer of solid
education in the US (she took a scholarship to the University of Texas). ‘Many of us come from poor backgrounds,’ she says, ‘and if you go to a mother who has five kids and say that one of them can either become a professional athlete in Jamaica
and earn thousands in sponsorship or go to [an American] university, they’ll choose the money.’
With staying in Jamaica to train now a viable option, the number of young athletes taking up scholarships is falling, the scouts I speak to admit. Matt Martin says it is getting harder for scouts to bring young Jamaicans to the US and, unsurprisingly, questions the wisdom of passing up on a university degree. The vast majority of those who stay at home will never make enough money from athletics to justify staying in Jamaica, he says. ‘If you don’t perform at a tremendously high level [in athletics], then there is no money.’
It does not prove to be a good year for Rolando Berch or Kingston College. A young hurdler limps back into the Kingston College tent after being knocked out of the heats and, distraught, simply lies down on the ground with his face covered by a towel to hide his tears. His teammates and their coach crouch around him, trying quietly to raise his spirits, but evidently in vain. Kingston College is pushed into third place in the boys’ standings and, hampered by a hamstring injury, Berch finishes seventh in the 400m final, more than a second behind the winner.
The star of the championships is Julian Forte, 17, one of the fortunate few whose determination to stay and pursue a career in athletics in Jamaica is unlikely to prove a mistake. After his performance in this year’s Champs, in which he wins both the boys’ 100m and 200m (in 10.49sec and 21.32sec) his school, Wolmer’s, wins the boys’ competition for the first time in 54 years. The latest teenager to be considered a potential world-beater, Forte is intent on following the ‘big man’s’ example. There is no talk of college degrees, no mention of moving overseas. ‘I want to stay here,’ Forte says. ‘With good training and good conditioning, I don’t see why I couldn’t be the next Usain Bolt.’