Good for sprinting, but not for the long haul?
In another few weeks, the Rio Olympics will be here. Already there are discussions on how well Usain Bolt will perform. We are also keen on seeing how Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, Warren Weir, Yohan Blake, Hansle Parchment, Omar McLeod and company stack up against their rivals.
Our reputation as the world's sprint factory is well earned. We have dominated the sprints and the 4x100-metre relay in unprecedented fashion from 2008 until now. Scientists and scholars and coaches have come up with various reasons why we run so fast, ranging from our anatomy (with the 'cock' bottom being specifically mentioned) to our eating of yellow yams, to us being born with a greater degree of fast-twitch fibres than anybody else.
Some have even theorised that one explanation is that the more rebellious slaves came to Jamaica and they had a proficiency to run fast because they wouldn't stay on the plantation, and that fast gene has somehow been passed down through different generations.
None of these theories make sense. The Americans, over the years, have produced just as many great sprinters as we have. Therefore, none of our theories can be the real explanation.
The Americans certainly don't eat the same amount of yams as we do, and one day somebody might well suggest that the eating of American burgers is why they produce so many great sprinters.
The simple reason why we run so fast is because WE LOVE TO SPRINT. It sounds simplistic, but the answers to many problems are not as complex as we like to believe. Every Jamaican I know has sprinted against others somewhere. Sports day at most institutions, church, school, youth clubs, etc., is really not about throwing day or hurdles day, but every little organisation that has a sports day, has people running fast against each other. It could well be called sprinting day.
So, yes, we like to run fast, and no one can explain that anymore than we can explain why Jamaican like dominoes, or rice and peas on a Sunday, or reggae music. The social and historical convergence of reasons that explains this phenomenon is something that needs to be studied separately. So, yes, we like to run fast, but that's only half the reason.
The other half is that Jamaica is unique in that nobody who runs fast is allowed to fall through the crack. From as early as six years old at Prep and Primary Champs, a good sprinter is treated specially. Coaches and parents make a fuss over them. High schools queue up to get them. Once you are faster than your peers in Jamaica, you become an instant celebrity.
Then there is the high-school Champs, where every child dreams of winning the 100 metres. That, not yams, or anatomy, or any accident of the Middle Passage, is what causes us to do well in sprinting internationally.
Our misguided belief why we go fast has somehow prevented us from doing well in distance from 800 meters up. The 'reasoning' is simple. If we are born with certain advantages to run fast, we were not born with the prerequisites to run long distances. This is why you may see a hundred entrants for the sprints at our high-school Champs, but a mere trickling of people for the 3,000 metres.
Everybody wants to run fast. Nobody wants to run long distances, and because of this we will produce more sprinters and then claim it's some biological reason!
The time has come for the JAAA to do something about our lopsided performances at the Olympics. If we can produce winners in the sprints, we can produce winners in the distance events.
We need to give our youngsters some extra incentives when they do well at the longer distances. A boy or girl who comes close to world-class times in the distance events at Champs should be given an award, be it cash or kind, but it must be substantial.
We need to make distance events attractive to the youths in a way that it is not now. All our Champs sprint winners are well-known names and enjoy far greater glamour and popularity than those who slug it out over 5,000m. When those long races are on, most of us get up for food or head to the bathroom, while we are riveted to the sprints.
If we create incentives for distance runners and kill the theory that we have built-in advantages in the sprints that we don't have in the distance events, maybe in future Olympic Games, we won't only be producing world-class sprinters, but we will also beat the world in the distance events, too. It's all in the mind.
- Orville Higgins is a sportscaster and talk-show host at KLAS ESPN Sports FM. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.