Dr Alfred Dawes | Why are Jamaicans so fast?
Another Olympic Games has been completed. And again an island of 2.7 million people has dominated the track and captured the attention of the world. Blind patriotism aside, the Rio games belonged to Jamaica, especially the immortal Usain Bolt. Since Jamaica began to dominate the tracks in Beijing 2008, many have wondered what it is that set this tiny nation apart from other countries that spend far more on sports programmes.
Allegations of doping in a country that has difficulty feeding and transporting athletes who have no endorsement deals began to gather traction. It didn’t help that some Jamaicans in the field criticised the anti-doping programme publicly. The insanity of comparing the total number of doping tests in Jamaica and the USA, a country with over a hundred times the population, and multiple professional athletic leagues, never mattered to those intent on discrediting the Jamaican anti-doping programme. It never mattered that Jamaican athletes were selected for testing far more than athletes from other countries in international competitions.
It was ammunition for the critics when some locally based athletes tested positive for banned substances, even though not one was for a performance enhancing drug such as steroids. No major sanction was applied and in most instances a plausible explanation was found, such as contamination of supplements by a pill dispenser causing traces of a banned substance to show up on testing of an athlete’s sample.
Meanwhile, Kenya and Russia were plunged into controversy over systematic doping, steroids were found to have long term positive effects and more and more elite athletes were disgraced by positive tests for drugs known to give them a competitive edge in sports from track and field to cycling.
If Jamaica really had a doping programme, it would have to be extremely well funded in order to evade the more sophisticated tests that had caught athletes from First World countries. I strongly doubt one of the most indebted countries in the world could really afford that.
Scientists have searched for a “fast gene” in Jamaica’s sprinters. But so far nothing has been found that separates Jamaicans genetically from other athletes with a similar genetic makeup. This theory would, however, be plausible. After all, the best long distance runners are from Kenya and have a genetic advantage over other athletes. Kenyan athletes have longer legs and shorter torsos than the average person. Their Achilles tendons (heel strings) are at a length that makes them burn less energy with each stride. Even more interesting is the fact that the Nandi sub-tribe, which makes up three per cent of the Kenyan population, makes up nearly half of their best runners. So it would make sense to assume that a fast gene is present in Jamaica. But our motto, Out of Many One People, explains why this is impossible.
There is no Jamaican tribe like those that have existed for hundreds to thousands of years in the Old World. Instead, we are the descendants of dozens of West African tribes mixed to varying degrees with European, Asian and Middle Eastern ancestry. It would take hundreds of years for natural selection to create a unique Jamaican gene even as we continue to mix our gene pool.
THE PERFECT GENE
But what if there was a way to create a group with distinct genetically advantage by killing all who were weak and selecting for survival those with genes that made them stronger and hardier? The sad reality is that this has already happened and our sprinting success may be the result of such an unintended experiment in eugenics.
Up to 200 years ago, Africans were brought to the new world to be slaves, by crossing the Atlantic ocean, a journey known as the Middle Passage. This journey of several months was brutal. Millions of Africans died during the journey and only the fittest and strongest survived.
Evidence of the effects of natural selection of a certain type of African to survive the journey can be seen in the high prevalence of hypertension in Western Blacks compared to our African cousins. Africans who were able to retain salt in their blood retained water as well and were less likely to die of dehydration during the crossing. This was a fact that slave traders knew. There is a drawing of an Englishman licking the sweat of an African captive, undoubtedly testing his salty potential to survive the arduous journey.
That survival advantage has been passed down to us and we are prone to hypertension that is best treated with medications that rid the body of salt. It is also said that the taller and more muscular Africans were sent to islands with larger White populations of which Jamaica would be the most obvious. This would be super selection of the type of bulky muscles and types of body frames perfect for sprinting if this were true. Is it possible that a set of hereditary factors was passed down from our forefathers who were tough enough to survive one of the most gruelling tests of survival?
We are now realising that there are influences called epigenetic factors that control the way genes are turned on and off. These epigenetic factors are passed down from generation to generation like genes. In the right environment, the seed thrives. And where better to have a hereditary advantage than Jamaica, a mountainous country, where the majority of our elite athletes are from or have roots in the hilly interior of the island. That rugged interior has been training medalists years before they were born.
The mountains stretching from east to west are also the home of the Maroons. The Maroons are descendants of runaway slaves who lived in the most mountainous terrain, out of the reach of the English colonisers. They engaged in guerrilla warfare with the English who eventually sued for peace and recognised their autonomy and Government. Life was tough in the mountains. To survive you had to be tougher than the average human – a super human. Could this super-super selected Maroon blood be the secret of our success?
PASSION AND SPIRIT OF THE PEOPLE
Even with the hereditary advantages, other factors would have had to come into play to create a sprint factory of a nation. The people would have to be passionate about the sport. And Jamaica is crazy for Track and Field. From preschool to high school, sports days and Boys and Girls Championships are the most anticipated events in a school year. It is this culture why we continually attract kids who will, with the right training amongst a sea of competition, rise to the top of the world.
But in spite of all of the favour smiling on us, we have not always been on top. It is a recent phenomenon of Jamaica dominating the track. We always were behind the traditional powerhouses USA and were a people appreciative of silvers and bronzes and the occasional golds. It was not until 1996 that we broke a 20-year drought by Deon Hemmings winning an Olympic gold medal. Before, our GoldRush in Beijing where we won six golds, the most ever won was two. We even had one Olympics where we had to settle for a single bronze. Our comfort was in the success of Jamaican born sprinters dominating in other countries’ colours.
Then something happened at the turn of the millennium. As there was no major track and field programme at the University level, high school track stars would inevitably go abroad on scholarships, where they competed in intercollegiate track tournaments. In order to keep their scholarships, they had to deliver even in events that were not their specialities. One shot putter described how he had to be running in order to score points for his college. This led to widespread burnout and career-ending injuries and many budding athletes simply disappeared after they went abroad on scholarships.
It all changed when a group of athletes led by Asafa Powell decided to stay in Jamaica to train. The homegrown talent was soon tearing up the track and provided the impetus for more athletes to stay or even come back home to train. In the era of a Usain Bolt training in Jamaica and dominating the sport, it is unfathomable to consider going overseas to train.
The rivalry between local track clubs has ushered in a new era of excellence on the track that continues to churn out elite athletes not just for Jamaica but for export. This is the often overlooked crucial component to our success, the local coaches, in particular Steve Francis and Glenn Mills. Because of them, our athletes are staying home, avoiding burnout, and maximising on the potential gifted to them by their ancestors on an island perfectly suited for athletics training.
The complexities in creating the Jamaican elite athlete expose the vulnerabilities that exist at various levels of the official and unofficial programmes. Children need to be exposed from early to proper coaching. Nutritional programmes in schools must ensure that future stars are able to develop physically and mentally. The Boys and Girls Champs should continue to hone talent at the high school level without burning out student athletes in the name of winning points. And above all, we should strive to develop high quality coaches.
All things being well, Jamaica should once again dominate this time in the land of the rising sun.