Jamaican athletes - why they do so well
As Jamaica prepares for its participation in the upcoming IAAF World Championships in Athletics to be held in Daegu, South Korea, from August 27 to September 4, the discussion, particularly among track-and-field enthusiasts, becomes rife as to the country's medal prospects, and how well our athletes will perform.
The issue of performance of our athletes is based largely on the number of athletes who medalled at the Berlin World Championships in 2009, where Jamaica picked up seven gold, four silver, and two bronze medals (see Table 1).
The reasons why Jamaican athletes perform so well continues to feature in discussions.
Only recently, Professor Errol Morrison sought to explain this live issue by putting forward a 'yam and banana' hypothesis.
There may be some merit in this argument, but as one well-known coach, whose school does well every year at Boys and Girls' Champs, said to me recently, "Hardly any of the athletes at my school eat green bananas, and only a few like yam, and fewer yet like yellow yam."
To me, the reasons why Jamaican athletes are doing so well goes way beyond the 'yam and banana' conjecture. There are four factors which I would like to advance for further consideration, lest the yam and banana theory takes permanent root.
Track and Field Programme
First, the country's track-and-field programme.
Jamaica has, arguably, the most intense, consistent and organised annual track-and-field programme to be found anywhere in the world. Patrick Robinson, writing elsewhere in 2009, gave us a peek into this almost unnoticed and hardly recognised element of the country's track and field programme when he stated, quite rightly, that:
"Jamaica's success in track-and-field athletics is not fortuitous, it is the result of a system of athletic instruction, management and administration that has been in place, tried and tested for almost a hundred years, and is now well established.
"There is no entity or area of endeavour in Jamaica, whether in the public or private sector, that is as well organised and, applying international standards, has been as consistently successful as track and field athletics."
Central to this "system of athletic instruction, management, and administration" are Inter-Secondary Schools' Sports Association (ISSA) and the Jamaica Athletics Administrative Association (JAAA).
At the heart of ISSA's track-and-field programme is the Boys and Girls' Inter-Secondary Championships. Coupled with Champs is a raft of track-and-field meets from primary to the tertiary level, organised in every nook and cranny of Jamaica, on an annual basis, under the jurisdiction of the JAAA.
None of what ISSA and the JAAA are able to do during the year-round track and field programme would be possible without the wide cross section of volunteers who, rain or shine, make themselves available to make the meets happen. Those who argue that volunteerism is dead, or near dead, need to attend these track and field meets to see volunteerism in action. Sport in Jamaica, and track and field in particular, is largely carried on the backs of volunteers.
It is these athletic meets which give our young athletes early exposure to what competition is all about. Athletes, from an early age, are exposed to the rigours of competition, thus developing an aptitude for hard work, discipline, endurance, perseverance, training, and the ability to take instructions. These track and field meets continue to be one of the principal contributors to the heartbeat of Jamaica's track and field success.
The second reason for Jamaica's phenomenal rise in international track and field is our coaches. Although some of our tertiary institutions have always had what is referred to as a physical education department, which exposed those who are interested to elements of coaching, the advent of the G.C. Foster College of Physical Education and Sport revolutionised coaching, as well as increased the proliferation of trained coaches in Jamaica.
The decision by the Manley government in 1977 to have the Castro government build G.C. Foster in St Catherine, and which was opened in 1980, was heavily criticised in sections of the society, as it was felt that this was another example of Michael Manley leading the country and, in particular, our young people, into the arms of communism. Some people who are now the first to jump and praise our athletes were at the heart of the fight against the construction of G.C. Foster College.
The campaign against G.C. Foster then was no different from the campaign between 1958 and 1961 by those who opposed the Norman Manley-initiated construction of the National Stadium. Manley was chastised by opposition forces then that the construction of the National Stadium was a waste of funds, which could be better spent on building schools and hospitals, and fixing roads. Now, both the National Stadium and G.C. Foster are taken for granted.
Staying In Jamaica
The third reason why our track and field athletes are doing so well is the fact that a lot more of those who have come through the junior system have decided to stay in Jamaica to train during their senior years.
In recent times, Jamaica, largely through the instrumentality of two of our most experienced and talented coaches, Stephen Francis of MVP Track Club and Glen Mills of Racers Track Club, have been able to establish and develop home-grown track and field organisations, which have been able to fine-tune and condition some of our greatest athletes, including Usain Bolt, Asafa Powell, Melaine Walker, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, Brigitte Foster-Hylton, Michael Frater, Yohan Blake, Kaliese Spencer and Jermaine Gonzales, among others.
In this context, the vision of one of our top track and field administrators, Teddy McCook, must not be underestimated. It was he, more than anyone else, who lobbied the IAAF to place one of their high-performance centres here in Jamaica in 2001. This centre acted as an incubator not only for home-grown talent but also Caribbean talent, exposing athletes to the finest coaching Jamaica has to offer.
The fourth and final reason I wish to advance is that of the increased funding which has been allocated to sport development, including track and field, since the mid-1990s.
The Sport Development Foundation (SDF) was established in 1995 as the body to receive government revenue under the terms of a licence which was granted, in the first instance, to Jamaica Lottery Company and, thereafter, to Supreme Ventures Limited.
It was decided by the Government then that agreed amounts paid over by Supreme Ventures would be listed as a tax and paid over weekly to the commissioner of inland revenue. The sum collected is now administered by the CHASE Fund, which was created in 2002 and under which the SDF is now subsumed.
This fund has helped numerous athletes, including a number of our recognised athletes, in times of personal distress. In the fiscal year 2009-10, for example, approximately $400 million was allocated to sport by CHASE. Of this amount, $20 million was allocated to national sporting organisations, including the JAAA, and the support of athlete welfare, nearly $7 million. The fund has also been used to establish and improve numerous running tracks and sporting facilities throughout the country, thus helping to improve the sport resources at the disposal of our athletes.
There has also been an increase in allocation by a number of private-sector companies towards sponsorship of sporting events. In a private study undertaken by this writer last year, covering 35 of the leading private-sector sport sponsorship companies in Jamaica, it was discovered that more than $500 million was allocated to sports, of which approximately $125 million went to track and field.
There is no doubt that there is the need for increased financial allocation to the country's track and field programme. What now exists for a gym in many secondary schools is a joke. Further, what now exists for a running track in many of our schools is simply out of sync with the performances of some of their athletes. Many schools can barely support the nutritional requirements to maintain their track and field programme. Despite these challenges, the level of increased capital injection by the state, by way of CHASE/SDF, and the private sector, must not be scoffed at.
As the country prepares itself to participate in yet another major international track and field event, this time the World Championships, let us do so knowing fully well that our progress in track and field has come about largely as a result of the selfless efforts of many persons.
At the heart of our performances are our young people who, despite the intentions of some to write off this generation, are heading to Daegu confident that all eyes, locally and internationally, will be focused on them as they prepare to 'run with it'.
12th IAAF World Championships 2009
Name Event Medal
Bolt 100m Gold
Asafa Powell 100m Bronze
Usain Bolt 200m Gold
Bolt 4x100m Gold
Michael Frater 4x100m Gold
Asafa Powell 4 x100m Gold
Mullings 4x100m Gold
Dwight Thomas 4x100m Gold
Lerone Clarke 4x100m Gold
Williams 400m Silver
Shericka Williams 4x400m Silver
Williams-Mills 4x400m Silver
Rosemarie Whyte 4x400m Silver
Lloyd 4x400m Silver
Kaliese Spencer 4x400m Silver
Fraser-Pryce 100m Gold
Kerron Stewart 100m Silver
Campbell-Brown 200m Silver
Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce 4x100m Gold
Stewart 4x100m Gold
Simone Facey 4x100m Gold
Aleen Bailey 4x100m Gold
Walker 400m H Gold
Brigitte Foster-Hylton 100m H Gold
Ennis-London 100m H Bronze