Athletics is Jamaica’s favourite sport. Our love for athletics is inculcated from the primary school championship level to watching international meets on TV while banging pot covers to support, to watching the races at the corner shop bar or even in the middle of Half-Way-Tree. You can’t not love athletics as a Jamaican. Track and field is an immeasurable source of national pride at every major meet and we have produced the world’s fastest man and woman alive. For that reason, people often wonder why do Jamaicans run so fast. Here are five secrets behind Jamaica’s global excellence in athletics.
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History of Athletics in Jamaica
The modern Olympic Games was first held in April 1896 where 311 athletes from thirteen countries were invited to Greece to compete. This was the result of an international congress held in June 1894, where it was thought that sports could be used to promote world peace and friendships which transcend national borders. Our excellence in athletics dates back to 1896 where Alfred Downer, a Jamaican born to Scottish parents in the hills of St. Andrew, competed in the first ever modern Olympic Games. He came to prominence after winning the 100, 220 and the 440-yard races at the Scottish Championships for three successive years, beginning in 1893. He went on to win the 100-yard race in 10 seconds, 220 yards in 22.2 seconds and 440 yards in 51.5 seconds at an international meet in 1895, emerging as one of the leading sprinters in the world.
Jamaica’s next successful sprinter was G.C. Foster. However, Foster did not get to compete in the Olympics because the Jamaican Olympic Association was not created until 1936. Nonetheless, Foster become the first home-grown Jamaican sprinter to establish world-class credentials by running 100 yards in 9.7 seconds at a local meet, 0.1 second outside the existing world record at that time. G.C. Foster may not have been an Olympian but he competed in numerous British track meets then returned to Jamaica with a wealth of knowledge which he used to nurture Jamaican athletes for 40 years. Foster’s foundation made it possible for Jamaica’s first showing in the 1948 London summer Olympics. Arthur Wint secured a gold and silver medal in the men’s 400m and 800m races respectively, with Herb McKenley securing a silver medal in the 400m at Jamaica’s first Olympic Games.
Other famous Jamaican Olympic gold medalists include Donald Quarrie (1976 Montreal), Deon Hemmings (1996 Atlanta) and Veronica Campbell (2004 Athens). Jamaica had also won a long string of silver and bronze medals over the decades, finishing as high as #13 on the overall medal tally despite often sending fewer than 40 athletes in a smattering of events.
Jamaica transcended to athletic superstardom with Asafa Powell in June 2005 when he broke the world record for the 100m with a time of 9.77 seconds. He went on to break his own record in May 2008 with 9.74 seconds. Asafa is now hailed as the Sub-10 King, having ran the 100m in under 10 seconds 97 times, breaking the previous record for number of sub-10 runs. Asafa Powell is a true national icon. However, his world record was soon broken by Usain St. Leo Bolt later that year. Bolt ran 9.69 in the 100m race at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, then went on to smash his own record exactly one year later at the Berlin World Championships in 2009. Bolt is now the world record holder in the 100m and 200m races with times of 9.58 and 19.19 seconds respectively, hence he is considered to be the greatest sprinter of all time. Bolt’s humility, charisma and sportsmanship on the track has made him a memorable character. His name is now synonymous with Jamaica’s identity worldwide.
Our Jamaican women are just as stellar. Elaine Thompson-Herah is now the fastest woman alive over 100m with a record time of 10.54 seconds. Right behind her is another Jamaican: Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce with a time of 10.60 seconds. Shericka Jackson recently broke the world record for fastest woman alive over 200m with a record time of 21.45 seconds in the 2022 World Championships. The previous record for fastest woman alive over the 200m distance was none other than Elaine Thompson-Herah as well. Well, how do we do it, huh?
Jamaican sprinters have been found to have genetic advantage. The “D allele” variant of the angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) gene makes it more likely for one to have a larger than average heart capable of pumping highly oxygenated blood to the muscles more quickly than the average human. Jamaicans have been found to have the highest proportion of this gene compared to other studied populations. It is theorized that the presence of this gene made it more likely for a slave to survive the Middle Passage en route to Jamaica, the final stop for Caribbean slave ships. This gene has been passed down through generations, a process known as natural selection.
A second gene linked to Jamaica’s athletic prowess is the 577RR variant of the ACTN3 gene. This gene encodes instructions to create a protein called alpha-actinin-3, which helps “fast-twitch” muscles generate strong, repetitive contractions. A 2010 study found that 75% of Jamaicans possess this 577RR ACTN3 gene variant whether they are athletes or not. Jamaican sprinters have a high proportion of “fast-twitch” muscle fibres which produce energy from the body’s sugar without oxygen, and are good for short, intense bursts of activity. East African long distance runners, on the other hand, have been found to have a higher concentration of slow twitch muscle fibres which are great for endurance.
Jamaican soil may convey another sprinting advantage. Researchers from the University of the West Indies (UWI) have discovered that a disproportionate number of Jamaica’s Olympians come from parishes with large bauxite (aluminium ore) deposits such as Trelawny and Manchester. These bauxite-rich parishes are also major farming parishes, which explains why Jamaican food crops contain high amounts of aluminium. Researchers suspect that high aluminium content in the mother’s diet promotes the activation of these genes from as early as in utero. Therefore, the Jamaican diet which is rich in ground provisions such as yam may convey a sprinting advantage from the foetal stage.
3. Sporting Culture
Jamaicans begin competing in track and field from as early as childhood with the National Primary and Preparatory School Championships. These youngsters spend weeks preparing for these annual meets, therefore raw sprinting talent gets identified from as early as eight years old! This is important for budding professional athletes who then get chosen by high schools with robust sports programmes to ensure their continued success. The ISSA/Grace Kennedy Boys and Girls Championships is an annual high school meet which is very well supported by students, parents and alumni. Supporters will come decked out in the colours of their choice high school, and if they can’t attend, they’ll even wear the colours to work in support. This means that by time our athletes are old enough to become professional athletes, they have already been seasoned competitors for at least a decade.
4. Big Dreams
For many Jamaicans, professional sports is seen as a sure ticket out of poverty. Many of our athletes hail from deeply rural communities where they have to walk for miles each day to get to school, or even fetch water. Individual sports like athletics may not be as profitable as team sports, but that does not deter our athletes. That zeal to make something of oneself and improve the standard of living for one’s family is the greatest motivation possible to become a successful athlete. Usain Bolt is possibly the best example of this, hailing from the deeply rural district of Sherwood Content on the outskirts of the inhospitable Cockpit Country. There’s also the option of getting a sports scholarship to further one’s education, and this is the surest prospect for many high school students to graduate from college debt-free.
5. Excellent Coaching & Mentorship
Raw talent and zeal are not the only ingredients to success. A good coach is required to instill discipline, improve technique and bring out the best potential from an athlete. Thankfully, Jamaica has been blessed with several excellent coaches such as Stephen Francis and Glen Mills. Mills has coached athletes to 33 Olympic medals and 71 world championship medals during his illustrious coaching career. Behind every successful athlete is a knowledgeable and hardworking coach.
Well, now you know why Jamaicans run so fast. Take Home Message: Dung here so, we nuh ramp. We take running serious.
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27 thoughts on “Why Do Jamaicans Run So Fast?”
Wow! Impressive research. Impressive achievements by the athletes as well.
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Thank you so much! I agree, their achievements are very inspiring
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Interesting. Thanks for this article!
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Thanks for reading! 🙂
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wow, this is a really detailed investigation into the question! Nice work Ro! the commonwealth games are upon us, but personally its not my thing,, Australia wins loads of medals each time, but it’s hardly a fair competition. but Jamaican athletes are the envy of the world!
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It’s funny how we don’t pay as much attention to the Commonwealth Games either in Jamaica. We mainly focus on the World Champs and Olympics. That’s true, the number of athletes from the different countries will always be uneven due to population size differences, which makes it easier for some countries to do well. Thanks for stopping by, Andy!