Photo: wikimedia commons
This Sunday, Usain Bolt will run the 100 meters final, defending the gold medal and world record he set in 2008. Expectations are so high that scientists wondering just how fast he actually can actually run — 9.36 by some calculations.Bolt’s success is fascinating and audacious (remember that incredible 100 meters 2008 finish?), but he’s not just a randomly gifted athlete. If he doesn’t win on Sunday, the odds are that his compatriot Yohan Blake will.
Since 2008 Bolt, Blake and the rest of the Jamaican team have effectively ended the long US-domination of the 100 meters.
This becomes even more remarkable when you consider how many factors the US has in its favour.
For one, Jamaica has just 2.8 million or so people, the USA has around 314 million — that means the US has more than a hundred times more people to find their sprinters in. GDP per capita is $9,100 in Jamaica, and it’s $49,000 in the USA — that’s five times the money to buy starter pistols, studded boots and Gatorade.
What is behind Jamaica’s remarkable athletic success?
Genetics may play a role. The country is primarily made up of people of West African descent — a people that some scientists believe are genetically predisposed to be built for speed. This aspect somewhat falls apart when you consider that most African Americans (and people actually from West Africa) have that same advantage.
Another good theory suggests that in other countries there are a variety of sporting and athletic disciplines that compete for youngsters attention (for example, in the US track stars may also have the option of playing baseball, soccer, basketball or football when they are younger). In Jamaica, everyone wants to be a sprinter (though cricket does enjoy widespread popularity).
Bolt’s coaches point towards other elements of Jamaican training — such as running at night and running on grass tracks. Bolt himself points out that many of Jamaica’s great sprinters come from the hilly regions of Jamaica. These factors too may help.
Whatever the reason behind Bolt’s success, its another example of the incredible legacy Jamaica has for such a small country. 2.8 million people is about the same as Albania, Namibia and Oman. It’s around a million less than Puerto Rico. None of these countries have produced the fastest man in the world.
Sports are not the only way that the country is exceptional. Jamaica also produced Bob Marley, a singer who sold 25 million albums worldwide and had one recording named the album of the century by Time Magazine. It spawned internationally popular musical genres like reggae, ska, dub and ragga. It’s cuisine is well-known throughout the world, with “jerk chicken” and “Red Stripe” international shorthand for the country. Jamaica even developed a religion-like movement that is one of most instantly recognisable in the world.
Of course, it’s not always exceptional in a good way (drug crime has helped make the country one of the murderous nations on the planet) but the extent to which Jamaica punches above its weight is pretty much unique.
The only countries we can think of that are of a smaller size and quite so well-known on an international stage are Qatar and Iceland, which enjoy unique financial and geographic situations. What’s the secret for Jamaica?
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