THE population of Jamaica is roughly the same as Greater Manchester, a bit more than half that of Scotland.
THE population of Jamaica is roughly the same as Greater Manchester, a bit more than half that of Scotland. Yet when the Commonwealth Games athletics programme gets under way today, this small Caribbean island will be without many of their star names – though a couple will provide cameo appearances in relays – but still with an abundance of gold medal prospects.
Athletes you have never heard of will scorch the Hampden track, which, in some minds, will provoke suspicion rather than admiration. The doping cases last year were a red flag. Here, perhaps, was the explanation for Jamaica’s sprinting domination. And perhaps it was. Or maybe that is as unfair as claiming that recent positives for athletes from another country, a little closer to home, is proof of a systematic doping programme in Wales.
Earlier this year I travelled to the Jamaican capital, Kingston, arriving late at night, renting a car at the airport, then enduring a nerve-shredding drive through the city, past ghettos such as Trenchtown, up into the foothills of the Blue Mountains, where I stayed during Champs.
Champs is Jamaica’s secondary schools’ championships, held over five days in late March. And it is extraordinary. You are told about Champs before you arrive, that it is the biggest, best and most raucous schools’ athletics meeting in the world. You leave convinced that it is the biggest, best and most raucous athletics meeting, full stop.
For the final couple of days there were 30,000 people in the National Stadium, the sand-coloured concrete bowl that hosted Bob Marley’s One Love Peace festival in 1978, and the Kingston Commonwealth Games in 1966.
Champs had the intensity, but not the poison, of an Old Firm game. There was a tribal element, with the schools’ supporters arranged – segregated – in blocks, each with their own bands for musical accompaniment to their chanting and singing.
But the tribalism seemed to be forgotten when there was a truly exceptional performance. Then, a wave of appreciation cascaded around the stadium. It happened when Zharnel Hughes – who trains in Kingston under Usain Bolt’s coach, Glen Mills, and will run for Anguilla in the 200 metres in Glasgow – won the boys’ 100, and when Javon Francis broke Bolt’s schoolboy 400m record.
One morning, I visited the offices of the Jamaican Olympic Association, based in a house around the corner from the National Stadium (and around the corner from where Bolt has an office, staffed by more people than the Olympic association).
Inside I met Mike Fennell, president of the JOC and, for a long time, president of the international Commonwealth Games Federation (now a life vice-president). I put it to Fennell that Jamaica’s schools sport system seemed to combine British and American influences. The schools appeared to be modelled on English public schools, with their uniforms and emphasis on cricket and athletics. But they all had baseball cap-wearing ‘track and field’ coaches, not PE teachers; and the top schools, with the help of former pupils, actively recruited talented athletes, with parents allegedly offered inducements such as refrigerators.
“Maybe,” said Fennel when I suggested that Jamaican schools’ sport seemed like a cocktail of the British and American systems. “That’s one way to describe it, but I’d like to describe it better as distinctly Jamaican.
“I don’t know where it comes from,” Fennell continued. “It’s something we inherited, and in fact developed. Our school system was originally a British schools system. The old students certainly are encouraged to assist schools, and not just with sport. Like any developing country, the schools have serious challenges in terms of resources. But people have a very strong bond to the institution.”
After Champs I visited the winning boys’ school, Calabar, meeting the principal and being shown around by one of the coaches, Omar Hawes. I asked Hawes how many athletics coaches they had. “Well, there’s a coach for the throws, horizontal jumps, vertical jumps, hurdles, quarter mile programme, sprints, distance... That’s seven. And the head coach, Mr Clarke.”
They train on a rutted, bumpy oval. A grass track in theory, but really just dirt. Yet they have in their midst, in Francis and others, athletes who are already world class (Francis anchored the Jamaican 4x400 relay squad to a silver medal at last year’s senior world championships in Moscow).
Another oddity is that when the schools compete at Champs they do so in brand new, expensive kit: shoes, tracksuits, rucksacks. Calabar, like five or six other top schools, have a sponsor, in their case Puma. “Gear and stuff, we don’t have to go out and buy it,” said Hawes. “That allows the training to progress.”
The kids all come to the school in uniforms, but Hawes mentioned that some of them don’t have shoes. Really? “Yes, man!” he replied, as though it were a silly question. “Yes, man! A lot of kids come here and they don’t have shoes. But once they earn the stuff, we give it to them. Everything in life you have to earn it.”
It was only later that I discovered that Hawes, like the other seven athletics coaches at Calabar, was a volunteer. He was a policeman, yet seemed to spend more time coaching.
“There’s no miracle in Jamaica,” Fennell, a former head boy at Calabar, told me. “We’ve always been doing this.” Partly because he has been attending Champs for so many years, he wasn’t surprised when Bolt and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce won men’s and women’s 100m titles at the Beijing Olympics, or when Bolt led a one-two-three in the 200m in London four years later.
“A lot of people thought this was an overnight phenomenon,” Fennell continued. “It’s not. It’s been growing for a very long time. When you can picture, back in 1948, when Jamaica was still a colony, that we had athletes like Herb McKenley and Arthur Wint winning Olympic medals...”
Fennell was disappointed by last year’s positive tests. “I do not feel that any of our athletes set out to deliberately cheat,” he said. “But they are drawn into perhaps foolishly or innocently using things on the banned list. It’s a very complex subject, and there are a lot people internationally [who] would like to prove the Jamaicans are on something. This I think is an over-simplification, almost a campaign to find some fault in our success.”
Perhaps Fennell has a point. There are athletes in Jamaica who have cheated, certainly. But that makes Jamaica no different to anywhere else.