A quest to find out Jamaica’s ‘fast’ secret (Book Review)

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Title: The Bolt Supremacy – Inside Jamaica’s Sprint Factory; Author: Richard Moore; Publisher: Yellow Jersey Press/Random House India; Pages: 330; Price: Rs 499

When Jamaica started participating in the Olympics in 1948, its first few medals came usually from long-distance track events like the 400m or 800m. But since 1968, there has been no edition where at least one Jamaican, man or woman, has not been present on the medal stand in the challenging 100m or 200m and in the 21st century, they have been dominating these events. How did a small tropical island achieve this?

Usain Bolt, who has effortlessly and utterly dominated the 100m, 200m and 4x100m relay in the last three Olympics, several World championships and set a number of records to become the fastest man in the world, is well-known, but he is not the only speeding Jamaican.

Recall the opening ceremony of the Rio Olympics? The Jamaican contingent was led by a petite woman athlete, who had coloured her hair in the colours of her national flag, but Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, who bagged the the 100 m gold in the previous two games, unfortunately could not become a “female Bolt” with a third medal and had to be content with a bronze.

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Then there are Yohan Blake, Nickel Ashmeade, Kemar Bailey-Cole, Nesta Carter, Asafa Powell, Michael Frater (men), and Veronica Campbell-Brown, Aleen May Bailey, Tayna Lawrence, Elaine Thompson, Melaine Walker (women) and others, past and present legends and future hopes. Trying to find what makes this Caribbean nation of three million outrace the rest of the world in freelance journalist and author Richard Moore.

Moore, who has six books to his credit, mostly dealing with cycling and the Tour De France (he himself represented Scotland in the discipline in the 1998 Commonwealth Games) however shifted focus to athletics with “The Dirtiest Race in History: Ben Johnson, Carl Lewis and the 1988 Olympic 100m Final” (2012).

Having discussed this event, marking the nadir of sporting – Johnson, who broke the world record and won gold, tested positive and was disqualified and the runners-up moved one step above – but it later turned out two of the immediate ones were not spotlessly clean too, Moore is not shy to ask to ask questions with the dreaded ‘d-word’ (doping) in his latest work.

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In fact, he deals a lot with the subject, following up with those responsible for compliance and chronicling the demoralising effect on athletes when scandals broke or infractions were reported.

However, Moore has far from a single-point agenda, and in his account, tries to understand, from across various disciplines like genetics, human and social evolution, social environment, physiognomy, and even diet – in determining what makes Jamaicans keep a pace ahead (several paces in cases of Bolt) in sprinting.

Through discussions with various athletes (save Bolt, though he has many conversations with his father at the family home), coaches, sports administrators, aspiring athletes and students, and more, the author doesn’t get a definite answer to his question but at least comes to understand what powers Jamaican athletes.

There is a splendid description of an over-century-old national institution which is a give away in explaining the origin of Jamaica’s athletic prowess – the Inter-Secondary Schools Boys and Girls Championships (known better as the Champs), a four day high school athletics programme which has created generations of athletes.

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Other reasons Moore finds out and tells us are a growing trend of training athletes domestically instead of letting them get sporting scholarships to US universities as the practice earlier, some maverick but inspired coaching, some determined athletes keen not only to make their name but ensure a better life for their family and neighbourhood, and a culture which respects but doesn’t idolise sportspersons.

Then there is also, as he discovers, a long sporting tradition (remember Michael Holding and Chris Gayle) but which other country can claim a founding father who was record-setting noted athlete (Norman Manley, though he couldn’t become its first prime minister, but his record in the Champs lasted for over four decades).

Packed with insights into life and training of Bolt, Fraser-Pryce and other meteoric runners, Moore’s work is not only a must for sports-lovers but for any one who interested in humans’ capacity to want something and work for it.

(Vikas Datta can be contacted at [email protected])



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