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Jamaica's road to the Olympic Games (Pt I)

Published:Saturday | February 4, 2012 | 12:00 AM

This is Part I of a two-part series by noted historian Arnold Bertram. Part II will be carried next week Saturday.

Arnold Bertram, Contributor

Up until the revival of the Olympic Movement in the last quarter of the 19th century, athletic meets were dominated by professional runners and gambling was inextricably linked to athletic competitions.

Over time, gambling led to public scandals and mob violence, which deeply offended the moral rectitude of the Christian community in Victorian England.

It was against this background that the doctrine of 'Muscular Christianity' emerged and a conscious effort made to equate Godliness with manliness and spiritual perfection with physical power. From the pulpit to the classroom, boys were exhorted to "run the straight race", which became a metaphor for moral rectitude.

Birth of modern Olympics

In 1883, a young Frenchman, Baron de Coubertin, made a tour of British educational institutions, and after observing the extent to which organised sports was being used to inculcate the positive values of public morality and personal integrity, became convinced that international athletic competition could become a major contributing factor in the promotion of world peace and the building of friendships across racial and national boundaries. The idea of the modern Olympics was born.

As the Olympic Movement gathered momentum with its emphasis on morality and virtue, the amateur athlete replaced the professional. The amateur athlete who satisfied the criteria of the Olympic Movement was defined as a "gentleman who had 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).

The next step towards the revival of the Olympic Games was the convening of an international congress in Paris in June 1894 and the establishment of an International Olympic Committee (IOC), which appropriately chose Greece as the first host country. In April 1896, 311 athletes from 13 countries descended on Greece to compete in the first of the modern Olympic Games.

Alfred R. Downer story

Among the athletes preparing for the first Olympic Games was a Jamaican, Alfred Downer, born of Scottish parents in the hills of St Andrew in 1873. Downer did not develop his athletic career in Jamaica as he migrated with his mother to Scotland at a tender age, but in his autobiography published in 1902, he proudly proclaimed his Jamaican origins.

He came to prominence after winning the 100, 220 and the 440 yards at the Scottish Championships for three successive years, beginning in 1893. Then in 1895 at the international athletic contest between Scotland and Ireland, he won the 100 yards in 10 seconds, the 220 in 22.2 seconds and the 440 in 51.5 seconds to emerge as one of the leading sprinters in the world.

Unfortunately, in 1896 he was suspended by the Scottish Amateur Athletic Association from competing in amateur sports after accepting payments, which compromised his amateur status.

With Downer's suspension, the prospect of a 'Jamaican' competing with the world's leading sprinters in the first modern Olympic Games evaporated.

He continued to run as a professional sprinter, was credited with the time of 9.8 seconds for the 100 yards and acclaimed "champion sprinter of the world" (Running recollections). He visited Jamaica in 1897 where he was pleasantly surprised to find that his fame had preceded him. He died in 1910 at 37 years of age.

Era of G.C. Foster

Jamaica's next world-class sprinter and Olympic prospect was Gerald Claude Eugene Foster. Whereas Downer came to prominence as a world-class sprinter outside of Jamaica, Foster was the first home-grown superstar to emerge in Jamaican athletics.

Born in Kingston on November 30, 1885, he entered Wolmer's Boys' School in 1894.

Sports and physical exercise were a way of life for the young 'GC'. As a boy, he walked everywhere and on weekends he and his friends would ride their bicycles from their homes in central Kingston up to August Town, some seven miles away.

As a young man, his daily regime began with calisthenics on his medicine board and often included a three-mile hike to the Wareika Hills before going to work at the Administrator General's Department. He also swam regularly across the Kingston Harbour.

At Wolmer's, GC's exceptional talent as a sprinter became evident when as a 14-year-old schoolboy he was given a 10-yard handicap in a 100-yard race against the city's leading sprinter, M.L. Ford, and won by three yards. In 1904, before his 19th birthday, he ran the 100 yards in 10 seconds, a time that was clearly comparable to the 11 seconds run by Archie Hahn of the United States to win the Olympic 100-metre finals in St Louis that same year.

Jamaica's First Open competition

In 1906, Jamaica's first open track and field competition was staged at the newly refurbished Kensington Cricket Club. GC won the 100 and 220 yards while his brother, 'AJ', took the 440 and 880 yards. In 1908, G.C. Foster shocked the Jamaican athletic community by winning the 100 yards in the Open Championships in 9.8 seconds to establish a new Jamaican record, beating the island's leading sprinters, H. Simms and M.L. Ford, in the process.

In a subsequent meet, he lowered his time to 9.7 seconds, 0.1 second outside the existing world record. He had become the first home-grown Jamaican sprinter to establish world-class credentials.

G.C. Foster and the 1908 London Olympics

The fourth summer Olympic Games was scheduled to be held in London in 1908. With a 9.7 clocking under his belt, GC had clearly earned a place among the world's leading sprinters.

The leader was John Owen Jr of the Detroit Athletic Club who, on October 11, 1890, had become the first amateur to break the 10-second barrier when he ran 9.8 seconds at the AAU Championships that year.

In 1902, Arthur Duffy, who attended Boston High School, lowered the record to 9.6 seconds in the AAA Championships held in New York on May 31.

Then, in the Olympic Games of 1904 and 1906 Archie Hahn, Nate Cartnell and Fay Moulton, all of the United States, joined the ranks of elite sprinters.

Finally, by 1908, Reggie Walker (South Africa), Robert Kerr (Canada) and James Rector (USA) emerged as the leading contenders for the Olympic crown.

This was the field against which GC sought to compete when he wrote to the celebrated British athletic coach, Harry Andrews, to assist him in his bid to enter the 100 metres at the Olympics. He booked his passage on a banana boat only to be told on his arrival that since Jamaica was not affiliated to the International Olympic Association and individual applications were not accepted for the Games he could not compete.

Fortunately for GC and Jamaica, Andrews persuaded him to remain in England and participate in the meets which were held after the Games.

In the Olympics that year, there were 62 entries from 17 countries in the 100 metres. The winners of the 17 heats went on to the semi-final round and the winners of the four semi-finals qualified for the finals. The winner was Reggie Walker of South Africa in a time of 10.8 seconds, and fourth place went to Nate Cartnell of the United States in a time of 11 seconds.

There is no doubt that GC could have been a finalist had he been able to compete.

The proof came in the meets after the Games. Foster ran the 100 metres in 10 post-Olympic track meets held in England and Ireland. While his win over Irish-American sprinter A.J. Northridge is the most celebrated in Jamaica, it was his defeat of John Morton (Great Britain), Nathanial Sherman (USA) and Patrick Roche, the Irish national champion, which confirmed his class.

In the Olympics, Morton had run 11.2 seconds in his heat to place second, while Sherman and Roche had each run the same time as Morton to win their respective heats and gone on to second place in their respective semi-finals.

GC returned to Jamaica, having established that a home-grown, home-trained Jamaican athlete could compete with the best in the world. He also brought with him a storehouse of knowledge acquired from his association with Harry Andrews.

Over the next 40 years GC, more so than any other Jamaican, established the technical foundation on which Jamaican athletics was built and prepared the team which proudly established 'Brand Jamaica' at the 1948 Olympics.