Jamaica, isle of speed, expects much success in London Olympics

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 world’s 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 he’s 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 women’s 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 Jamaica’s independence and the raising of Jamaica’s green, yellow and black flag inside Kingston’s 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 Bolt’s 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 it’s free. Classic reggae albums decorate the walls. There’s a gift shop with autographed gear, a cocktail called The Finish Line and videos of Bolt’s 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. It’s the national passion, superseding cricket and soccer.

Quite a scene

About 30,000 fans packed National Stadium for the Jamaica International Invitational in May, passing by the statues of Herb McKenley, Donald Quarrie and Merlene Ottey on their way inside.

“Let us use the athletes’ performances to build our confidence,” sneaker-wearing Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller said to open the competition.

It was Bolt’s first open 100 of the year. At the starting line, he went into his act, dusting off his shoulders, slicking back his hair, kissing his fingers and touching his heart. Then he leaned way back and pulled on his imaginary bow. Spectators laughed along with him, jumped up and down, blew yellow horns and kazoos and knocked noisemakers together. When the four Jamaicans in the eight-man field settled into the blocks, the racket stopped and a murmur of “Shhhhh” circulated through the stands.

After two false starts not assigned to anybody, Bolt blazed to an easy win in 9.82 seconds, a promising season debut.

Bolt, smiling constantly, waved and clapped. Then he removed his electric green spikes and jogged around the grass embankment adjacent to the stands, shaking hands and slapping palms with fans. Young girls screamed the way they used to when Elvis was nearby.

“I enjoy being the center of attention,” Bolt said. “It’s a wonderful feeling to run here. The people give me a lot of love. They truly spur me on.”

Blake, Bolt’s teammate at Racers Track Club, cruised to first in the 200 but Americans won the women’s 100 and 200.

The fans were just as energetic — or more so — for the high school portion of the meet. It was a taste of the four-day interscholastic extravaganza held each March for 102 years known as “Champs.”

“They are traveling well!” the PA announcer exclaimed during a 400-meter relay race won by Edwin Allen High. “Big cheers for your alma mater!”

Miami’s Bershawn Jackson, winner of the 400 hurdles, said the atmosphere inside National Stadium is unlike any other.

“The intensity is incredible,” he said. “The fans know the sport. It’s the closest thing to a European meet in the Western Hemisphere.”

National Stadium is where 15-year-old Bolt saluted an instantly beguiled crowd after winning the 200 at the 2002 junior world championships. At the 2003 Champs meet, he won the 200 and 400 in record time. Four years ago at the Invitational meet, Bolt introduced himself to the world with a 9.76, then the second-fastest time in history. That night, Tyson Gay ran the 200, watched the 6-5 Bolt bound past the field with longer and fewer strides and said: “Amazing. This changes the whole picture of our event.”

But there was a different outcome on the big blue track last month during Jamaica’s Olympic trials. Blake was quicker than Bolt out of the blocks and to the finish line in both the 100 and 200.

‘The Beast’ rises

Glen Mills, who coaches Bolt and Blake, later said Bolt had a tender hamstring, which required a trip to Germany and treatment from his longtime doctor, Hans-Wilhelm Muller-Wohlfahrt, known as “Healing Hans” to dozens of pro athletes.

But the losses got the gossip mill churning. Was Bolt, who likes to dance and DJ at Kingston clubs, partying harder than he was training? Had his $7 million in earnings since Beijing made him complacent? His mansion with half a dozen black vehicles in the driveway is perched high above the stadium in a gated subdivision.

What caused him to wreck his BMW recently, two years after he wrecked another BMW while driving barefoot? Or, was he psyched out by protégé Blake? In fact, there’s a persistent rumor that Bolt false-started and was disqualified on purpose at last year’s world championships because he didn’t want to lose to Blake, who became the youngest world champ at 100 meters since Carl Lewis.

Bolt, 25, and Blake, 22, are friends, and say they will remain so no matter what happens in London. They train together under Mills and hang out during trips. Their faces appear on billboards all over town — Bolt talking on Digicell, Blake in a starter’s crouch next to a sports car. Bolt has been Blake’s inspiration.

“I owe him so much,” Blake said. “He has taught me like I’m his little brother.”

Bolt, who nicknamed Blake “The Beast,” dismisses any talk of a rivalry.

“I’m training to stay on top and he’s training to get to the top, so it’s two different things,” Bolt said. “We push each other. When you’re confident there’s no need to show up a fellow athlete.”

Mills, 62, has coached Jamaican athletes to more than 100 Olympic and world championship medals. He’s a bald, barrel-chested man who speaks in a soothing baritone. Perhaps that’s why his runners appear relaxed when opponents’ nerves are frayed.

“I love both,” Mills said of the showman Bolt and the serious, soft-spoken Blake. “One is tall, one is short. Beyond that, I do not compare them. I make no predictions.”

As for former world champ Kim Collins’ declaration that “two male crabs cannot live in the same hole,” Mills laughed. He points out that Lewis and Leroy Burrell trained together, as did Maurice Greene and Ato Bolden.

“They’re not enemies,” he said. “They enjoy competition.”

Mills’ athletes place total trust in him. The former math teacher calculates the geometry of form for his runners, then adjusts their technique. Bolt came to him with poor mechanics and hamstring problems. Mills figured out that scoliosis was the cause. Bolt enhanced his core and hip-flexor strength and his forward lean, but is still a work in progress. He’ll need to improve his start in order to run the 9.4 and 19.00 he and Michael Johnson believe he can run.

Humble beginnings

Bolt grew up in the hilly countryside of Trelawny in a house with no running water; he had to carry buckets up and down rutted roads. His father was a coffee farm laborer, his mother a seamstress. Bolt loved cricket first, but his speed on the pitch impressed track coaches.

Trelawny was home to Campbell-Brown, who used to walk and jog five miles to school, and Ben Johnson, whose 100-meter win for Canada at the 1988 Olympics was annulled when he tested positive for steroids.

Yams grown in Trelawny are to Jamaicans what grapefruits grown in Florida are to Americans: delicious and nutritious.

“We’ve got rich soil,” Bolt said. “Bananas, ackee, callaloo — our diet is healthy.”

Blake grew up with six siblings in Bogue Hill, also toting water and aspiring to be a cricket player. He joined Mills’ club and had his first setback in 2009, when he tested positive for a stimulant. He was exonerated but Jamaica’s anti-doping agency made him serve a three-month suspension. Track officials and athletes are sensitive to accusations of doping.

“The testers can form a queue outside my house if they want to, because the more often they test me and other athletes to show that we are clean, the better it is for the sport,” Bolt wrote in his autobiography.

Former world-record holder Asafa Powell started the stay-in-Jamaica movement when he joined coach Stephen Francis’ MVP (Maximum Velocity Possible) club. Fraser-Pryce had U.S. college scholarship offers, but she decided to join MVP, too.

“It was a tough decision, but I wanted to be near my mother and my brothers, and I knew, even with a scholarship, it would be difficult to pay for expenses,” she said.

Johnson, Donovan Bailey and Linford Christie are among those who left. Even Ottey competed for Slovenia in her later years. But with a $2 million investment in facilities the past three years, the Jamaican government is showing its commitment to home-grown athletes who prefer home-grown coaches and home cooking. More than 100 Jamaican track athletes still leave each year to attend U.S. schools, but many in the top tier are staying and finding that Bolt has opened doors to more sponsorship money.

‘It’s in our blood’

“Jamaicans have more options today,” said Sanya Richards-Ross, a native who first starred at Vaz Prep, moved to Pembroke Pines when she was 11, became a U.S. citizen, earned a scholarship to Texas and will compete in her third Olympics as the top-ranked 400 runner. “They used to have to come to the U.S. to survive in the sport. Now they’ve got resources on the island. I would never change my circumstances, but I think it’s great that young Jamaicans have a chance to stay with phenomenal coaches and uplift their families.”

Shawn Anderson dreamed of becoming a star after finishing second in the 100 at Champs when he was 15. He knew that college recruiters, sports apparel reps, agents and rabid alumni were in the stands. But he hurt his knee playing soccer. Now he’s a security guard in Bolt’s neighborhood.

“We love tracks, and when you do something for the love of it, you do it well,” he said. “It’s in our blood. It’s part of our culture.”

Said Lisa Aries of the Jamaica Amateur Athletic Association: “If every last person in Jamaica could go to London for the Olympics, the island would be empty.”

After the meet, fans posed for photos on the medal podium. Kids raced in the blue lanes wearing flip flops, trainers or no shoes at all.

“I like Usain Bolt best,” 12-year-old Jordan Hoilett said. “He eats lots of yams, and he run fast.”

Said his friend Nicholas Henry, 11: “Bolt show off too much.”

“No,” Hoilett replied, defending Bolt. “Because him working so hard, when he win he got to celebrate.”

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