Orlando Patterson, professor of sociology at Harvard University and the author of The Enigma of Jamaica, writes about “the secret of Jamaica’s runners,” citing, among other factors, Jamaicans’ “combative individualism” and confidence, institutional support in schools, and emphasis on public health. Read the original in the Sunday Review of The New York Times (13 August 2016).
Among the most enigmatic features of Jamaica, an island of only 2.8 million people, is its astonishing supremacy in running. Currently, the world’s fastest man and woman are both Jamaicans. Nineteen of the 26 fastest times ever recorded in 100 meter races were by Jamaicans. The list goes on.
Jamaica’s global dominance is broad and deep, both male and female, and started to emerge over half a century ago. At the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, Jamaica was ranked 13th by the International Olympic Committee. By the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, it was first in sprints, with Usain Bolt winning three gold medals, and an unprecedented clean sweep of the women’s 100 meters.
How do Jamaicans do it? It’s not because of genetics, as some claim. A vast majority of Jamaicans’ ancestors are from West Africa, which has relatively few outstanding sprinters. Nor can genetics explain why Jamaicans outperform other blacks in the Americas, especially in Brazil, which has 36 times as many of them.
Ask a Jamaican like me (I was born and raised there), and we’ll give you a very different answer: Champs. Officially called the Inter-Secondary Schools Sports Association Boys and Girls Athletics Championship, Champs is an annual competition attended by 30,000 wildly enthusiastic fans. Jamaica is perhaps the only country in the world where a track and field meet is the premier sporting event.
But it’s not just Champs. The competition is one part of a broader framework — track and field is huge at every educational level, with periodic regional meets drawing athletes of all ages from the most remote rural areas. So the real question is, why is Jamaica nuts for track?
Part of the answer is institutional. The British first introduced organized and informal athletics, and interscholastic competition, to Jamaica and other colonies in the late 19th century. One of Jamaica’s founding fathers, N. W. Manley, was the greatest student athlete of his generation; later, as the revered head of state, he tirelessly promoted track and field.
Jamaica quickly stood out from other Caribbean islands in extending these competitions from elite white schools to those of the nonwhite classes. Starting early in the 20th century, several outstanding athletes, like G. C. Foster, emerged as role models, mentors and promoters of the sport, and they identified and trained the next generation of talent