Jamaican Sprinters Such as Usain Bolt Quickly Reshape Nation's Identity

Usain Bolt cools his heels (for a change) after a record-setting run Sunday.
Usain Bolt cools his heels (for a change) after a record-setting run Sunday. (By Anja Niedringhaus -- Associated Press)
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By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 21, 2009

It's not just Usain Bolt who has been showing his golden-spiked heels to the world's fastest humans at the world track and field championships this week. The whole Jamaican team seems to be on its own special people mover, running in another gear, maybe another dimension.

In addition to Bolt's jaw-dropping records in the 100- and 200-meter races -- he broke the former by the largest margin since electronic timing began -- Jamaica's male and female sprinters have dominated the sprints like no nation has since, well, since the United States, which until a few years ago had consistently produced the world's fastest athletes.

No more, and not since last year at the Beijing Olympics when Bolt and his teammates accelerated in a blur of bright yellow and green. At the championships in Berlin this week, Jamaicans have circled the track in flag-caped victory four times. Through Thursday, the country's runners had captured eight medals in the sprint races, with several more medals likely to come before the championships conclude on Sunday.

Surprised? Ease up, mon. Jamaicans have been fleet afoot for some time (it wasn't entirely crazy that they had an Olympic bobsled team, given the need for sprinting speed at the start). But this is something else: In 11 previous world track championships, Jamaica had never won more than one gold medal at a single meet. As recently as 2005, its runners didn't win a single race.

Now, the world trails and wonders: How does a tiny, impoverished island nation of 2.5 million people produce such an astonishing cadre of athletes, and in such a short time?

Save your cynicism about better running through chemistry -- we'll get to the drug stuff in a bit -- and consider the Jamaican sprint miracle as a kind of national signifier, a worldwide trademark. Just as Italy produced Renaissance painters and stone carvers, just as the French churned out copper-potted gourmands, and Japan produced world-mincing swordmakers, some nations, through history and culture and national perseverance, attain a global standard of excellence.

That is certainly the way Anthony Johnson, Jamaica's ambassador to the United States, saw it on Thursday, after Bolt disassembled his own record in the 200 (19.30 seconds) and replaced it with an unimaginable standard (19.19).

"It is the oldest story in the book -- a lot of hard work," Johnson said. The gold medal athletes, he noted, have tended to come from Jamaica's peaks-and-canyons countryside, which has intensified the celebration in certain parts of the island. "To have someone beating all of the people of the Americas, it is a very big deal. We hope it will be an inspiration, and lead us to be successful in other areas. We are a poor country."

Sprinting may be the oldest and most basic of human athletic endeavors; surely there were Cro-Magnons challenging each other in a race to the next cave, or to outrun the saber-toothed tiger. But sprinting champs, to torture the cliche, are made, not born. Despite its elemental dynamic -- be the first one to run from Point A to Point B -- sprinting takes refinement and technique in addition to raw athletic talent.

Unlike the magnificent distance runners of East Africa, whose highlands are thought to convey the development of more efficient heart-and-lung functioning, Jamaican sprinters have no special geographic advantage. Although Jamaica and some of its neighbors (the Bahamas, Trinidad and Tobago, even microscopic St. Kitts and Nevis) have produced great sprinters in the past, there is nothing in the Caribbean air that makes people run faster (Jamaicans, however, might contend about the special properties of mannish water, a spicy native soup sometimes made from goat testicles).

But Jamaica may have been pointing to this moment for a few decades. It first registered on the world scene during the 1948 and 1952 Summer Olympics, when its 4x400 relay teams, led by the legendary Herb McKenley and George Rhoden, stunned the world with record-setting times. In the 1970s, its leading sprinter was Don Quarrie; from the 1980s onward, its banner was carried by the ageless Merlene Ottey, who won medals in four Olympics between 1980 and 2000.

Johnson, the Jamaican ambassador, cites several reasons for his country's sprint surge: a long-term national development program, dramatic gains in literacy and formal schooling, and emigration and technology.

Jamaica already had a system of local, regional and national track championships, he said. What it did not have was the full participation of its young people; when he was going to school thirty-odd years ago, he said, high school enrollment in Jamaica was perhaps 10 percent of the eligible population. Now it's 95 percent, which has greatly deepened the potential pool of young athletes.

In years past, many of Jamaica's best athletes left to run for American universities (they still do) and never returned. Jamaica exported talent; Olympians Donovan Bailey and Ben Johnson (he of the drug-tainted 100-meter victory in the 1988 Summer Games) competed for Canada, and Linford Christie ran for Britain. More recently, however, many of Jamaica's fastest have returned, adding their experience and know-how to the national stock. The Internet has pared worldwide coaching differences still further, Anthony Johnson says; advice pours in daily.

There is, unfortunately, no running away from rumors of drug use among Jamaica's best. At the Jamaican national track championships in June, five sprinters failed tests for banned substances, although one athlete, Sheri-Ann Brooks, was eventually cleared for competition (given the uncertainty over their fate, Jamaica has pulled all five from its team).

The good news? Track's governing body, the International Association of Athletics Federations, announced earlier this week that all of the finalists in the 100 meters, including Bolt, tested negative after the race.

Which made Bolt's achievement not just stunning, but pure.

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