It was at the Beijing Summer Olympics that the world stood still, watching in awe as Jamaica’s first son, Usain Lightning Bolt powered down the track of the Bird’s Nest, copping three gold medals with three world records. Such a glorious moment, accomplished by the quick steps of one man, spurred yet a great leap for the small Caribbean nation, Jamaica. Jamaica’s dominance at the sprints is nothing new to the world.
Former greats such as Arthur Wint, Merlene Ottey and Herb Mackinley graced the tracks of meets across the word with dazzling performances in years gone by. Since then, Jamaican athletes have separated themselves from the pack, proving to be world class athletes and establishing their small homeland as the sprinting powerhouse of the world. So, why does a small dot in the Caribbean Sea called Jamaica rule the world of sprint?
The question is one that physical therapist, anthropologists, nutritionists, and geneticists have been doing doctoral dissertations and extensive research to discover what unique physical and psychological conditioning gives Jamaicans such sprinting prowess.
Jamaicans love to sprint. Track in Jamaica is epitomised by the prestige, popularity and huge following. In the same way that particular nation adores football or cricket, Jamaicans adore sprinting. From an early age, children can be seen frolicking about, trying to beat each other in mini races. As such, the sprinting spirit is cultured into Jamaicans from a tender age.
Sprinting is cultured in Jamaica from the elementary level. Students are formally introduced to sprinting by means of various sporting events and annual ‘sport days’. This is continued through to the university level as schools fine tune their sporting programs to make sure that their athletes are the best. The sprinting culture in Jamaican schools is amazing; and the competition among students to decide who is better than who and the readiness to compete is second to none.
Every year, Jamaica features a number of sprinting events. These include the National Secondary School Girls and Boy Championships (Champs) and the Gibson Relays. At Champs, for example, youth battle it out to be the best from an early age, something not often seen elsewhere in the world.
Something Imbued In Their Nature
An article in the Jamaica Gleaner dated July 8, 2008 disclosed the preliminary findings of a joint study by the University of Glasgow and University of the West Indies. According to the article more than 200 Jamaican athletes were tested and found to possess the Actinen component (ACTN3) in their fast-twitch muscle fibres – the rapidly contracting muscle fibres that enable sprinters to run quickly.
The early data is that for the fast-twitch fibres in the muscles, there is a special component called the Actinen A, of which the gene was identified in the fast-twitch fibres found in 70 per cent of the athletes from Jamaica compared to 30 per cent of Australian athletes.
However, an article posted on the Genetic Future blog states that ‘An excessive emphasis on ACTN3 as a major explanation for Jamaican success does a grave disservice to the complex interplay of genetic and environmental factors required for top-level athletic performance’. To this end, there is still great disagreement in the scientific community regarding the ACTN3 postulation.
Also, there is something called, in Jamaican parlance, a cock bottom. The shape of the backbone and the hip is angled this way with the pelvis, and the front muscles afford high knee lift as opposed to when the back is straighter. Many believe that this contributes to the extra power Jamaicans exert when they drive their legs down; this is also caused by genetics.
It has been a long time stereotype that Jamaicans are aggressive. However, to some extent, this may account for their blinding speed. In the animal kingdom, the fastest animals are the ones that are most aggressive. It stands to reason then, that there is a positive correlation between speed and aggression in a gene pool.
Professor Errol Morrison, president of the University of Technology, Jamaica, having done extensive studies on ‘why Jamaicans run so fast’ has purported that yams and green bananas are partially responsible.
According to Professor Morrison, yam produces a substance called hypo steroids which acts as a stimulus, while green banana produces phytate, which is four times the concentration in the yellow yams and replenishes the energy supply. He adds “This is a hypothesis. This is not gospel and fixed in stone. It is a hypothesis based on a lot of biochemical research and anatomical research and I will put it down as succinctly as this: genetics, dietetics, and athletics.”
Jamaica’s impressive investment in the infrastructure and training system required to identify and nurture elite track athletes is extensive. The effects of a culture that idolises local track heroes, and the powerful desire of young Jamaicans to use athletic success to lift themselves and their families out of poverty is even further motivation towards success.
Today, the zeal and spirit of Jamaicans is beautifully captured by the current and future Usain Bolts, Asafa Powells, Veronica Campbells, Sherone Simpsons and Sherika Williams waiting to be discovered in the island under the sun. Perhaps in the near future we will discover the secret, or the true reason behind this phenomenon. In the meantime, with the same passion, discipline, hard work and talent Jamaica will continue to dominate the sprinting sport.
By: Norvan Martin
Note: Updated with image of Usain Bolt