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The beginning of organised athletics in Jamaica (Part 1)

Published:Friday | February 19, 2010 | 12:00 AM

Arnold Bertram, Contributor

The centenary of Boys' Championships affords us an ideal opportunity to reflect on the road travelled to Jamaica's present internationally acclaimed superpower status in track and field.

Jamaica was a British colony for more than three centuries and, predictably, during this period, Jamai-can social, political and cultural institutions, to a large extent, were developed by importing the practices of the imperial centre. Orga-nised athletics was no exception.

By the mid-19th century, athletics in Britain had become a popular pastime for both runners and walkers who, until then, were called pedestrians and, who competed, for the most part, as professionals. Perhaps the most famous British pedestrian of that period was the Scottish nobleman, Robert Barclay Allardyce (1779-1854), popularly known as Captain Barclay. His fame assumed legendary proportions in July 1809 when he placed a bet of £16,000 on himself that he could walk 1,000 miles in 1,000 hours and completed this Herculean effort in 41 days. It was said that "during the last days of the walk he could be kept awake only by sticking needles into him and by firing pistols close to his ears".

From the perspective of the 21st century, the most peculiar feature of 19th-century athletics was the diet and training schedules of the athletes. They cleaned their system from the stomach up with regular doses of an emetic, and used a laxative to perform the same functions from the stomach down. Daily training routines, which began at 5 a.m. and ended at 8 p.m., included as much as 22 miles of walking and running. A typical breakfast consisted of beef steak, mutton chops, underdone, with stale bread and old beer, and dinner was more generous portions of the same. In-between meals and training, the routine stipulated that the athlete lie in bed naked.

The Industrial Revolution brought major changes to British athletics. The public roads which had been used for races became more heavily travelled and, in 1850, both runners and walkers were forced to use private grounds. Enclosed race courses sprang up all over London. Another consequence of industrialisation was that the rapidly growing urban population, faced with the challenges of unemployment and poverty, increasingly turned to professional running and gambling as a means of survival. Over time, both pursuits were integrated as both proletarians and aristocrats pursued athletic careers.

The Rise of the Amateurs

As gambling and professional running became inextricably linked, the public scandals and mob violence, which became features of race promotions, deeply offended the moral rectitude of the growing Christian community. They saw in professional running many of the vices which were destroying the moral fabric of Victorian England, and took practical steps to ensure that future generations of British leaders would be inculcated with Christian values. This was the context in which amateur athletics emerged.

This process began with the appointment of Thomas Arnold as headmaster of Rugby School in 1828. By the time he demitted the headmastership, he had made Rugby a place of Christian education and set the standards for British public schools. Arnold's successors carried the process a major step forward with the realisation that his objectives could be better achieved by the use of organised games to inculcate positive virtues of loyalty and self-sacrifice, unselfishness, cooperation,
esprit de corps
, a sense of honour, the capacity to be a good loser or "to take it".

Cricket quickly assumed a place at the top of the school curriculum and athletics was not far behind. In 1838, Eton became the first school to promote inter-class athletics. Oxford University followed in 1850 and, in 1857, the first Cambridge/Oxford athletics meet was held.

In this period, the doctrine of muscular Christianity emerged. Godliness and manliness, spiritual perfection and physical power became inextricably interwoven. Running the straight race was both a metaphor for moral rectitude as an obligation of a Christian athlete. From the pulpit as well as the schoolroom, boys were exhorted "to run the straight race".

The distinction between professional and amateur restored athletics as an elite pastime. The authorities defined an 'amateur' as "any gentleman who has never competed in an open competition or for public money, or for admission money or with professionals with a price or admission money; nor has at any period of his life taught or assisted in the pursuit of athletic exercises as a means of a livelihood; nor is a mechanic, artisan or labourer" (
Sears p 81

From Britain to America

The rise of amateur athletics in the United States came swiftly on the heels of the British experience. In 1866, amateur athletes, drawn from the middle and upper classes, established the New York Athletic Club. American women were as eager participants as men and, on March 26, 1879, the first major six-day race for women was staged in Madison Square Garden. For the second race, which was held three months later, the management sought to eliminate the uncouth behaviour that had tarnished the first meet by imposing the following rules: "No quarrelling, loud talking, profane or obscene language, no conversations with the audience, entrants must keep themselves perfectly neat and clean, no tights without a dress over the same and hair must be neatly arranged."

Amateur athletics took a major step forward with the formation of the Amateur Athletic Association of England in 1880. Its American counterpart, The Amateur Athletic Union, came eight years later.

Organised Athletics takes Root on Jamaican Soils

Amateur athletes were drawn from the soldiers, educators, clergymen and administrators who were among the 15,000 British professionals who migrated to different parts of the empire in the last quarter of the 19th century.

Those who came to Jamaica found a local elite who embraced organised sports as a means of establishing themselves as 'arbiters and agents of British culture and imperial philosophy'. They also found a native, predominantly African population prepared, by both genes and environment, for running.

The Jamaican people walked more than 20 miles weekly up and down the steep terrain of the countryside. This was their only means of getting to school, church, running errands and enjoying the pursuits of leisure. These activities provided an invaluable but unconscious physical preparation for athletics. This unconscious preparation was carried to another level by the coordination and rhythm acquired from hours spent performing African-derived popular dances.

The Jamaican capacity for sprinting was also attributed to genetic factors. "It was in our African forebears that generous portions of the fast-twitch muscle fibres found in the elite sprinter were genetically developed."

The British presence on the island quickly led to the promotion of athletics competition, as they encouraged the inclusion of races in the programme of activities at community fairs, garden parties and school sports. One of the earliest communities in which organised athletics made its appearance was Port Royal, which was then one of the two major locations for the British garrison in Jamaica. It was here that one of the earliest athletics meets held in Jamaica, for which records survived, took place in 1886. A report of the meet noted that the winner of the high jump event cleared the bar at 4'10".

The Pioneering Role of York Castle High School

The first Jamaican educational institution at which organised athletics became part of the curriculum was York Castle High School, established by the Methodists in 1876. Between 1881 and 1896, under the leadership of William Clark Murray, York Castle achieved levels of scholastic excellence that have never been surpassed, winning eight of the 15 Jamaica Scholarships awarded.

York Castle was also the nursery for organised games in Jamaica. It was here that the game of football is said to have been introduced by an assistant master, the Rev C.G. Hardwick. Of more immediate importance, an old boy of the school, in a letter to
The Daily Gleaner
in 1915, expressed the view, "Athletics at York Castle was every wit as honourably held as they are in the best secondary schools in the island today."

York Castle closed its doors in 1901. However, it was the past students of York Castle who took the lead in establishing the Inter-Secondary School Athletic Championships in the first decade of the 20th century, which became the crucible in which organised athletics was forged in Jamaica.

This is the first in a four-part series on track and field in Jamaica by Arnold Bertram, author of a forthcoming publication, 'Jamaica on the Track - The Making of a Superpower in Track and Field Athletics'. Read Part Two in Sunday's Gleaner. Comments may be sent to columns@gleanerjm.com or redev.atb@gmail.com.