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Arnold Bertram | They laid the foundation

Published:Friday | August 26, 2016 | 12:00 AMArnold Bertram

The performance of the Jamaican athletes at the Rio Olympics not only confirmed Jamaica's status as a sprinting superpower, but once again exposed the enormous talent and creativity that reside in the two social classes at the base of Jamaican society - the peasantry and the urban working class.

The peasantry is characterised by its integrity, resourcefulness, capacity for hard work and the resilience to overcome the vicissitudes of peasant farming. Among the urban working class, the industrious poor daily carve out an existence in the most challenging environment without sacrificing their integrity, while performing economic miracles for themselves and their families with a minimum wage or the meagre returns from street vending.

In addition to our Olympians, a number of Jamaican icons in other fields of endeavour have emerged from these two social classes to raise Jamaica's profile in the international community. They include the mega stars Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff, two vice chancellors of the University of the West Indies - Professor Rex Nettleford and Sir Kenneth Hall - J.A.G. Smith, who is second only to Norman Manley as a leader of the Jamaican Bar and the Jamaican legislature; legendary cricketers George Headley and Collie Smith, and the amazing Reggae Boyz, who took us to the 1998 World Cup Finals in France.

However, it is track and field athletics, in general, and sprinting, in particular, that have consistently produced athletes to global standards of excellence. What accounts for this sustained excellence in this area of national endeavour and how can we replicate this success in other areas?

The first lesson to be learnt is that excellence comes with sustained hard work, and Jamaicans have been developing the art of sprinting to global standards for more than a century. One hundred and ten years ago, 21-year-old Gerald Claude Foster established himself as a world-class sprinter by winning the 100 yards in the National Championships in a time of 9.8 seconds, which was 0.2 second outside the existing world record.

Two years later, he booked his passage on a banana boat to compete in the 1908 London Olympics, only to be told on arrival that since Jamaica was not affiliated with the International Olympic Association, he could not compete.

Fortunately, G.C. was able to compete in the post-Olympic meets where he defeated two Olympic semi-finalists to establish that a home-grown and locally trained Jamaican sprinter could compete with the best in the world.




More important, he brought home a storehouse of knowledge on sprinting techniques, which he had acquired from his association with Harry Andrews, the coach of the English team. Until his death in 1966, G.C. devoted his life to the development of Jamaican athletics and, in the process, introduced the technical innovations on which the art of sprinting has been built.

His successes include Arthur Wint, Jamaica's first gold medallist; and Cynthia Thompson, Jamaica's first Olympic 100m finalist, who lowered the Olympic 200m record in the heats of the 1948 Olympics. One of his protÈgÈs was H.D. McMessam, the 1936 schoolboy sprint champion whom he coached at Calabar and who developed the athletics programme at Camperdown High School.

In 1965, the star of the team was Donald Quarrie, and McMessam's assistant coach was Glen Mills, who has since coached Usain Bolt to nine Olympic gold medals.

Two of G.C.'s disciples were Carl March, who pioneered athletics training at Vere Technical High School and St Jago, and Foggy Burrows, who became Jamaica's apostle of sports. G.C. also contributed to building a fraternity of athletic coaches among whom Ted Lamont and Noel White stand out.




G.C. Foster's successor in expanding and modernising the technical foundations on which Jamaica maintains its sprinting superpower status is Dennis Johnson, Jamaica's first record holder for the 100 yards, who, under the guidance of the legendary sprint coach, Bud Wynter, at San Jose State College, equalled the world record of 9.3 seconds for the 100 yards in four consecutive meets in 1961, and climaxed the season with a wind-aided 9.2 seconds. Then tragedy struck as his hamstring muscles gave out, from which he never fully recovered.

Johnson retired after the 1964 Olympics, and since then has devoted his life to sharing the extensive technical knowledge of sprinting that he acquired. His contribution to the development of adult athletics and the dissemination of sprinting technique to coaches and athletes is only superseded by G.C. Foster.




Jamaican athletics has also benefited from an islandwide fraternity of athletic coaches who combine technical knowledge with a remarkable capacity for mentoring. One such group, all former Olympians, meets regularly to exchange opinions and data, and it was at one of these gatherings that Pablo McNeil, Jamaica's 1964 200m champion, invited all present to come and see Jamaica's next world-beater in the sprints. He was speaking about Usain Bolt, who had not yet run at Champs. It was also at one of these gatherings that Neville Myton, a protÈgÈ of Carl March, predicted stardom for Veronica Campbell-Brown.

These men belong to a group of unsung heroes who have never been adequately recognised. They competed at a time before track and field provided the athletes and coaches with the opportunities to earn substantial incomes from appearance fees, prize money and sponsorships as professionals to afford the best nutrition and medical services.

Some died in penury and others chose exile. All carried volunteerism to new levels.




The talent at the base of the society is certainly not limited to sports and entertainment. Over the last decade, an increasing number of entrepreneurs have emerged from the base of the society to compete for a niche in the global tourism industry. AirB&B lists a US$200-per-week one-bedroom cottage in the Portland hills owned by a Rastafarian on the same page and in the same format as a US$15,000-per-week villa in Discovery Bay. There are 537 rentals of one-to-four-bedroom houses listed in Kingston alone, which include one at US$25 per night in Manley Meadows and Trench Town.

The visitor experience feedback confirms the potential of this sub-sector to become a significant part of the Jamaican economy. Can we apply the lessons we have learnt from track and field to mine even more productively the 'gold' at the base of the society?

- Arnold Bertram is a historian and author. His published works include Jamaica on The Track - The Making of a Sprinting Superpower. Email feedback to and