A convincing theory for why Jamaica is so good at track

Jamaica produces the fastest sprinters in the world.

Jamaicans won 15 of the 24 medals awarded in the 100m and 200m sprints at the last two Olympics, including five of six golds. Three of the four fastest men ever are Jamaican, and so is the new women’s 100m champion from the 2016 Rio Olympics.

So how does a country with less than 3 million people dominate one of the most prestigious events in world sports?

Elaine ThompsoShaun Botterill/Getty ImagesElaine Thompson won the 100m at the 2016 Rio Olympics

In his book “The Sports Gene,” David Epstein writes about Yannis Pitsiladis — a scientist who has studied just this. While Pitsiladis’ expertise is in biology, his theory for why Jamaica is so good at track has more to do with societal factors.

Pitsiladis believes Jamaica dominates world sprinting because of their talent discovery system. Epstein characterised it a “natural sifting program” in an interview with Outside.

To put it in basic terms, Jamaica is able to identify every single kid who has the natural speed to be a world-class sprinter and turn him or her into a track athlete.

Sprinting is popular in Jamaica. Like really popular. It’s so popular that recruiting promising young sprinters to high schools to compete is track is insanely competitive (Epstein compares it to college football recruiting in the US). Because of that, every kid who has potentially world-class speed will eventually be found by a scout or coach. No one falls through the cracks. Moreover, those kids will be steered toward a career in sprinting rather than another sport.

From Epstein:

“Slow kids never make fast adults. So keeping the swiftest kids in the sprint pipeline is paramount. And in what country other than Jamaica could a boy with blinding speed and who stands 6’4″ at the age of 15, as Usain Bolt did, end up anywhere but on the basketball or volleyball our or the football field?”

Usain bolt london 2012Stu Forster/Getty ImagesThe gold medal winning Jamaican relay team at the 2012 Olympics

It sounds simple — they find all the fast kids and make them run track competitively — but it actually requires a very specific combination of societal factors.

You’re country has to be crazy about sprinting. You have to have a track and field infrastructure that’s robust enough to tackle the logistical challenge of scouting kids, recruiting them to high schools, and giving them proper training. And sprinting has to be seen as a more viable and lucrative career path than any other sport.

Jamaica has all of it, and it’s why they’re so unstoppable.

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