KINGSTON, Jamaica -- The lilting Jamaican patois and swinging rhythm of reggae contradict another prominent sound heard everywhere on this Caribbean island, a sound that is not gentle but urgent, and that is the sound of soles pounding pavement, dirt lanes and oval tracks.
It is the sound of speed.
Children in their school jumpers and neckties, in their bare feet challenge each other to footraces up green hills or through cluttered ghettoes. At two track clubs in the capital, the worlds fastest men and women match strides.
If you grow up in Jamaica, you run. Or get left behind.
At the London Olympics, Usain Bolt, Yohan Blake, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and Veronica Campbell-Brown will run for gold, and their top competition could come from fellow Jamaicans, as it has since they were youngsters.
In Jamaica, Bolt said, second place might as well be last.
Bolt is the latest, perhaps greatest star to come out of the Sprint Factory, which is how Jamaicans refer to their country. World record-holder in three events the 100 meters, 200 meters and 400-meter relay Bolt is as beloved as Bob Marley, not only for his feats and charisma but also for his devotion to Jamaica.
Bolt could train anywhere, but he chose to stay home. He practices at the University of West Indies track, hardly a posh place, but it keeps him close to his roots.
If hes ever lacking inspiration not likely for the clown prince of track who stirs spectators by pantomiming an archer shooting a lightning bolt into the sky he need only reflect on the history of Jamaica, which produces medal winners in numbers disproportionate to its size.
Jamaica, a nation of 2.8 million that is smaller than Connecticut, has won 54 Olympic medals in track and field. At the 2008 Beijing Games, Jamaicans captured 11 medals in track and field, including gold in the individual sprints and even a sweep of the womens 100 in a dominating performance that humbled the U.S. team. On Aug. 5, Bolt and Blake are expected to duel each other and a loaded field in the 100-meter final in a city with a large Jamaican community. The medals ceremony Aug. 6 also will mark the 50th anniversary of Jamaicas independence and the raising of Jamaicas green, yellow and black flag inside Kingstons National Stadium.
Tradition is one reason for success in tracks, which is how Jamaicans refer to the sport. So is Champs, the annual national school meet that attracts sellout crowds and prepares athletes for pressure-packed events. The warm climate. The muscle-building terrain. And yams, those magical yellow yams tuber of champions.
At Bolts restaurant, he offers the Fresh Out Da Blocks special lunch featuring jerk chicken with yams, hardoo bread and fire slaw in 9.58 minutes (his world record in the 100 is 9.58 seconds) or its free. Classic reggae albums decorate the walls. Theres a gift shop with autographed gear, a cocktail called The Finish Line and videos of Bolts races.
Track and field is a source of pride and potential celebrity in a poor country where the average yearly income is less than $4,500, jobs are scarce and the crime rate is high, especially in areas where gangs run the drug trade.
When a track meet is on, everyone calls a truce on their troubles. Its the national passion, superseding cricket and soccer.