Mon | Dec 10, 2018

Keys to Jamaica's athletic dominance

Published:Sunday | February 15, 2015 | 12:00 AM
A section of the Cockpit Country in Trelawny.
Glenville Ashby
A section of the Cockpit Country
Men's 100 Final Moscow
Deon Hemmings (centre) celebrates after winning the 400m hurdles at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996.
Donovan Bailey

Book: Jamaican Gold: Jamaican Sprinters

Edited by Richard Irving and Vilma Charlton

Publisher: University of the West Indies Press, Jamaica

Reviewer: Dr Glenville Ashby


Genius and artistry bedazzle and confound the most insightful thinkers. Unquestionably, decoding the near mythical stature of Jamaica's sprinters is one such example.

In a leap of faith, 'Jamaica Gold' attempts the improbable, positing a slew of theories by authors, all of whom possess weighty credentials in their area of expertise, and in the process, lending credence to this elucidating offering.

The authors' eclectic approach and extensive range and scope will enthrall sports commentators and aficionados.

Blending physiological, socio-psychological and cultural elements, this body of work distills the essence of athleticism by offering the most comprehensive narrative on Jamaican heroics to date.

Admittedly, readers will have little tolerance for layers of complex scientific jargon and might think they are best served by avoiding particular chapters. But throughout, there is clarity and lucidly presented theses. For example, biochemical and biomechanical arguments are advanced by Errol Morrison and Patrick Cooper. In addition to blacks' anatomical advantage of having longer arms and legs, less subcutaneous fat and narrower in hip breadth, "the black athlete", they contend, have "a higher ratio of fast-twitch muscle fibre", and will convert glucose into energy more rapidly than their white counterparts." They also inject the role of the eugenic effect and natural selection into the debate, citing a seminal study taken after the 1968 Games in Mexico City that noted that "a sizeable number of Negroid Olympic athletes manifested the sickle cell trait. In the chapter, 'White Men can't Jump: Is there scientific evidence?' Robert Scott and Yannis Pitsiladis, weigh in on this contentious subject with some provocative, if not irrefutable explanations.

They caution against the over arching reliance on genetics and other scientific data, opting for a far more sociological view. They write, "Many of the scientists pursuing a biological or genetic explanation will ignore the socio-economic and cultural factors." They contend that, "A consequence of strengthening the stereotypical view of the superior black or African athlete is the development of a self-fulfilling prophecy by coaches for white athletes to avoid sporting events typically considered as favouring black athletes. This self-selection has resulted in a vicious cycle where the avoidance of these athletic events by whites has further strengthened the aforementioned stereotypical view to the extent that the unsubstantiated idea of the biological superiority of the African athlete becomes a dogma."

A geographic rationale for superiority is also brought to the fore. Rachael Irving and Vilma Charlton sound the opening salvo, laying the foundation for proceeding arguments. "The actinin 3 gene is a performance-related gene, and one must have the strong form of 577RR to produce the protein alpha actinin 3 that is associated with power sprinting," they contend. They assert that this particular gene is found in persons of West African ancestry. However, they are mindful that other elements are at play. They introduce the concept of 'gene environmental effect.' "We postulate that there are special minerals in the Cockpit Country, akin to bauxite....... that Jamaicans eat in yams and other tubers. Many Olympians, such as Usain Bolt, Veronica Campbell-Brown, Donovan Bailey, and Deon Hemmings come from that region," and "the phenomenon seen in the Cockpit Country region of Jamaica could be similar to the one found in the Rift Valley region of Kenya, which has proved to be a fertile area for the development of world-beating athletes in long-distance events."

Long-standing positions are also challenged, for example, black athletes having better running economy, lactate accumulation and higher VO2 max (a measure of the volume of oxygen used by your body to convert food energy) at race pace. Scott and Pitsiladis argue, however, that this assertion is difficult to reconcile with earlier studies ... that "black male individuals are well endowed to perform in sports events of short duration."

That Jamaica athletic programme is hamstrung by economic constraints is highlighted and only adds to the mystique of the island's runners.

Sharmellia Roopchand-Martin, Carron Gordon and Gail Nelson, state the unforgiving reality. "Several athletes and their coaches and teams are unable to retain the services of a physical therapist for coverage of training and competitive meets ... . The Jamaica Association of Sports Medicine report that approximately 20 therapists regularly work with athletes. This is inadequate to provide coverage for annual track meetings; the various track clubs and all high school track teams."

But the $64,000 question remains: Why do Jamaican sprinters dominate competitors from bigger, wealthier countries that possess all the resources at their disposal? 'Jamaica Gold' isn't conclusive and does not offer a monolithic view on this highly-charged debate. However, the theories advanced are valid and serve as a pedagogical tool for further research.

Ratings: Highly recommended

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