Jamaican-born and Coached

Published: Sunday | August 24, 2008

It was the kind of scene that takes place every day in Jamaica. A bunch of guys race across a field, one pulls away from the pack, holds out his hands in triumph, and slaps his chest in glee shouting 'A me dat!'. Then he celebrates by dropping a few dance moves to the reggae music that's always pounding in the background somewhere.

Except this time it happened in front of 91,000 roaring spectators and probably the largest television audience in history. I almost rubbed my eyes in disbelief as Usain Bolt won world record Olympic gold and danced around the stadium. Earth's biggest stage was transformed into Jamaica before the eyes of billions - 'Gully Creeper' and 'Nuh Linga' to the world!

Why is this island so larger than life? Independent for less than 50 years, with not even one-twentieth of one per cent of the global population, and even less of its GDP, it should be one of those dots on the map that nobody cares about. Instead, time and again this 'likkle but tallawah' island captures the planet's imagination in ways that make it the envy of countries a hundred times richer and bigger.

Exciting place to live!

Yes, we're far too poor and murderous. But by God, what an exciting place to live! Watching the unbridled victory celebrations of Usain and Shelly-Ann, the thought occurred yet again that Jamaicans were put on earth to show the rest of the world how to enjoy themselves. As Ity and Fancy Cat say, "Me wouldn't want to born in no other country!"

Over the top babblings of a patriotic yardie drunk on Olympic gold? Could be. But not a few foreign observers felt the same way, including Michael Rosenberg in the Detroit Free Press.

"Nobody jams like the Jamaicans. This is true in the sprints, after the sprints and as far as I can tell, in life. I've heard a lot of athletes say they are 'just happy to be here'. I've never seen anybody show it like Usain Bolt and Shelly-Ann Fraser."

The 'Bolt needs to grow up' mutterings of Olympic boss Jacques Rogge smack of the sour grapes resentment of a dried-up old man jealous of the exuberance of youth. As Shakespeare wrote, "Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?"

But let's hope success doesn't go to Jamaican heads and make us irritatingly 'boasty' like some, though not all, Americans.

Those who advocated breaking written rules to put Veronica Campbell into the 100 metres at the expense of Shelly-Anne Fraser must now feel justifiably stupid and ashamed. Indeed, the victories of Shelly-Ann and fellow inner-city denizen Melaine Walker had a heightened significance. As Shelly-Ann's mother said, it shows ghetto people, too, can achieve anything if they work hard.


The Government must be wondering how to use the Olympic euphoria as a long-term change agent. An obvious start would be billboards of Shelly-Ann and Melaine in Waterhouse and Maxfield to help inspire the area youths.

What makes Jamaica the fastest country on Earth? No one knows for sure. But the 'It's all in the West African fast twitch muscle genes' argument does not compute. Maybe 350 million persons alive are West African, or of predominantly West African descent. Only 2.7 million, or less than one per cent, live here. But Jamaica won more gold sprint medals in 2008 than everywhere else put together.

Trelawny yam and dasheen are possible factors. But the crucial components may be tradition and expertise. For Jamaica probably has the world's most vibrant track and field culture, and some of its finest coaches.

Nowhere else do high school athletes become national celebrities. Usain Bolt was a household name before he ever competed abroad. Elsewhere, the Olympics are the only dream of glory for youngsters who like to run fast. And to young minds, the Olympics can seem a pie in the sky, out-of-reach fantasy.

In Jamaica, every primary school sports day winner imagines himself/herself a star at the annual Boys and Girls High School Athletic Championships.

And the infrastructure built up around 'Champs' - Western and Eastern and Central and parish Champs and such - means Jamaica likely has a higher percentage of our population in ordered track and field programmes than anywhere else.

Most runners in other countries never see big crowds 'til they hit the international stage. But teenage Jamaicans run in front of passionate 30,000- strong crowds who vociferously acclaim victors and insult losers.

This must develop mental toughness. A gentleman named Pelpa Francis - no relation to Stephen - theorises plausibly that Asafa Powell does not perform well at big races because he was never a serious competitor at Champs, and so never got the pressure-cooker seasoning of a Usain Bolt or Veronica Campbell.

Sell-out crowds at Champs

Still, Champs has been drawing sell-out crowds for decades. So why is 2008 the first time Jamaica won either the men's or women's 100 metres, much less both? The answer may lie in drugs and coaches.

The BALCO scandal levelled the playing field for poorer nations who, even if they wanted to, could never afford the sophisticated drugs and monitoring equipment the US has obviously been using for years. In 2000, a knowledgeable friend pointed at the TV to Marion Jones' flattened breasts and manlike shoulders and said, "Only body-altering substances can make a woman look like that." How many medals did she and the likes of Florence Griffith-Joyner deprive Merlene Ottey and company of?

Yet, perhaps the biggest factor in moving Jamaica from track and field prominence to dominance is our coaches. Foreign reporters snidely imply that it's sheer genetic luck, and maybe American college coaching, that makes Jamaicans athletes successful.

But results say Stephen Francis may be the planet's best all-round track and field coach, and Glen Mills the best sprint coach, and people like Maurice Wilson are rapidly moving up into their class.

It's not just raw ability and enthusiasm that has taken Jamaican track to the top, but applied technical knowledge and intelligent hard work. Usain Bolt is obviously a wonderful talent. But it's Glen Mills' expertise that moulded him into the greatest sprinter of all time.

Glen previously coached Kim Collins to a World 100 metres title and Raymond Stewart to many World and Olympic finals. How many more medals could his charges have won had they not competed against the juiced-up likes of Tim Montgomery and Justin Gatlin? Now the slate is clean for all, and Glen is proving himself, in Stephen Francis' words, the master of sprint coaching.


Stephen Francis has detractors. But none can deny his determined success. His rise to international prominence reads like a cheesy Hollywood movie: man resigns well-paid executive job to become a track coach; starts with one underachieving athlete; goes through tough times and has to mortgage house and sell car to keep going as his water and light are cut off; athlete wins international medal; others join, including an unheralded high school sprinter who eventually breaks the 100- metre world record; takes 14 athletes - probably more than any other coach - to the 2008 Olympics in a variety of disciplines, including high jump and hurdling; most of his charges make the finals, and individually win two gold and three silver medals.

It's Francis' MVP club, allied with the UTech athletic programme, which convinced Jamaican athletes they did not have to train abroad to succeed. As with many pioneers, he has sometimes had to be aggressive to break through barriers of ignorance and self-interest.

But it's primarily due to him, and Glen Mills, that we can wholeheartedly cheer on Jamaican-born and coached gold medallists. Respect due, gentlemen.

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