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  • Mark Bennett

Standing on the shoulders of giants.

By Mark Bennett

In 2008 at the Beijing Olympics, the world witnessed the thunderous meteoric emergence of Usain Bolt upon the world stage in the men's 100 and 200m. This was also the Olympics where a trio of Jamaican women led by the indomitable Shelly-Ann Frazer(-Pryce) vanquished all challengers in sweeping the women's 100m final. The overall performances of the Jamaican athletes astounded the world, gave rise to millions of new admirers, fuelled skepticism amongst many naysayers who believed that Jamaica's 'sudden' rise was in itself an anomaly that warranted further investigation. How could an island nation of merely three million people produce athletes of this calibre? How could this speck on the world map announce itself so emphatically, with no apparent sign nor legacy to speak of? But truth be told, the resilience, determination and ability of the Jamaican sprinter, was always there, a consistent presence in the Olympics and subsequent world championships. The black green and gold clad athlete was always there, building a legacy of competitiveness and excellence; the world just needed to take notice. The Jamaican track athlete first graced the Olympics in 1948. The standard bearers Arthur Wint and Herb Mckenley were amongst the best in the world at 400m and 800m. Both men garnered Jamaica's first Olympic medals that year. Both Wint and Mckinley, along with George Rhoden and Leslie Laing produced a memorable 4x400m gold medal run in the 1952 games which remains etched in the annals of Olympic folklore. The 1960s standard bearer was Lennox Miller who prevailed as a silver medallist in the 100m at the 1968 Olympics famously remembered for the numerous track world records that were set in high altitude Mexico City. The 1970s belonged to the great Donald Quarrie who won a silver in the men's 100m in Montreal behind Caribbean compatriot Haseley Crawford but rebounded majestically to run a devastating corner and power home to gold in the 200m final. Quarrie competed well in earning a silver at the same event in the 1980 Moscow Olympics, yet this decade signalled the emergence of Jamaica's greatest female foundation sprinter Merlene Ottey. Ottey emerged as a teenager on the world stage and for two decades kept Jamaica in the top three of all major sprint championships, from 1980 to 2002, garnering 23 medals while running numerous world leading times perennially. On the men's side, Raymond Stewart did well and proved his longevity by getting to three straight Olympic 100m finals finishing 6th,7th and 7th respectively. Yet it was also in the 80s that a Jamaican athlete produced one of the most resilient performances in Olympic history. Bertland Cameron had emerged as the world's top 400m runner in the early 80s and he cemented his status by winning the 1983 world championship 400m final in Helsinki, Finland. Entering the 1984 Olympics as the favorite, with only American Antonio Mckay as his main rival, Cameron pulled a hamstring while leading comfortably in his semifinal. He slipped to eighth while pulling up, yet instead of stopping, he continued to run, almost hobbling and incredibly, clawed his way back into the fourth qualifying spot to make it to the Final. Unfortunately, his fantastic comeback took a toll on his fitness and he was unable to participate in the 400 m final, but his semifinal run remains an epic example of the Jamaican athlete's spirit of resilience. The 1990s still had Merlene flying the Jamaican flag high and she was aided by the likes of Grace Jackson and Juliet Cuthbert, with Merlene in particular being denied gold by the likes of Gwen Torrence and Gail Devers. However, the back to back Olympic 100m final successes of Jamaican born Linford Christie in 1992 (running for Great Britain) and Donovan Bailey in 1996( running for Canada) proved a stark reminder of the calibre athletic DNA that resided in the Jamaican sprinter born and bred on the simple dirt and pebble filled fields where so many Jamaican track stars got their humble start. It was only a matter of time before the Jamaican sprinter re-emerged to retake his/her rightful place at the apex of world sprinting. The mid 2000s belonged to Asafa Powell. No other athlete ran more sub 10-second clockings than him during his career; he actually ran 9.77 seconds twice in equalling his own world record and though, Olympic and world championship gold eluded him during his illustrious career, his drive and determination to give his best for his country kept him in the conversation of being regarded as one of the world's greatest. In the recently concluded world championships in Oregon, the Jamaican trio of Sherika Jackson, Shelly-Ann Frazer-Pryce and Elaine Thompson-Herah once again dominated the 100m and 200m, sweeping the 100m like they had done in the Olympics the year before, and claiming 2 of three medals in the 200m. Elaine became the first woman to retain the Olympic sprint double in last year's [COVID-delayed Tokyo 2020 ed.] Olympics, capping it off by breaking Florence Griffith-Joyner's long standing Olympic record in the 100m. Shelly-Ann won her fifth 100m world title in Oregon this year (2022), and Sherika blew away the field to win the 200m world title in 21.5 seconds. Added to all this is the fact that all three Jamaican sprint superstars are on the cusp of breaking Joyner's seemingly elusive 100m and 200m world records. There is no doubt that this moment, which started in 2008 is the unprecedented and incredibly sustained golden age of Jamaican sprinting on the international stage. This glittering black gold and green era is no ‘flash in the pan’, no ‘hurry come up’ moment, no 'buck up', not an anomaly type period that suggests we have been lucky to get to this point of success. This story of the Jamaican sprint athlete did not begin with Usain and Shelly-Ann, nor Asafa and Johan, nor Elaine and Sherika. This story started when two men in 1948 defied the odds and ran their best, not for a colonial empire, but for the people who call the island of Jamaica, “home”. This story started when two men in 1948 began to believe and to recognize that they too could be on the mountaintop of sporting greatness. Each decade added a new chapter to the longstanding legacy of the evolving Jamaican track athlete. Each generation of Jamaican children took notice; they took notice of Herb, Arthur, George and Leslie; they took notice of Donald, Merlene, Raymond, Bertland. They took notice of Grace and Juliet; they took notice of the incredibly durable and incomparable Veronica Campbell. Throughout the annals of time, the Jamaican athlete was always there, lining up in a world and Olympic track final, often the lone flagbearer of that unique black green and gold amidst a sea of red, white, blue of various international competitors. We shouldn't have been hard to miss. Each new generation took notice of the resilience and the determination of their predecessors. Yet, in some way, the world knew that there was a legacy there before this current glittering golden generation. When Usain Bolt broke the world record in the 200m, a sports commentator conceded that until the arrival of Bolt, the most devastating 200m curve runner he had ever seen was Donald Quarrie!!!. Where one acknowledges, others will believe, and many others will continue to witness the triumph of the Jamaican athlete. Yet, perhaps what will be most gratifying is the recognition and the anticipation that there is another generation witnessing and hungry to emulate, fearless in their pursuit. The Jamaican sprinting legacy was always there on the world stage; the next generation is coming to write the next chapter.

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