Search is on for the new Usain Bolt – and he could be running in a British vest at the Rio Games
Sunday 17 March 2013
On the ride into Kingston town from Norman Manley Airport, the driver has the radio tuned into a broadcast from the National Stadium. Two commentators are debating the merits of a 15-year-old hurdler. "It's also live on national television," the driver says. "It's Champs fever. It takes over the town."
It does that. Champs, first held in 1910, is the national boys' and girls' schools athletics championships in Jamaica. It is a national treasure and a joyous carnival rolled into one. It has to be beheld to be believed.
It makes the front pages of both national newspapers, The Gleaner and The Daily Observer. It is on the back pages, too. You have to flick way inside to come to news of the West Indies cricket team, and even of Usain Bolt and his summer racing plans
Ten years ago the junior "Lightning Bolt" was the star of the show at Champs. In the colours of William Knibb School, he won the boys' Class One (ages 16-19) 200m in 20.25sec. Last summer at the London Olympics he struck gold in the 100m, 200m and 4 x 100m relay for the second successive Games.
There were a remarkable 20 medals won at London 2012 by graduates of Jamaica's Champs academy – among them Shelly-Ann Fraser- Pryce, who successfully defended the women's 100m crown, and Yohan Blake, the training partner who took silver behind Bolt in the 100m and 200m. If the world wonders why a tiny Caribbean island of 2.8 million souls has come to dominate the global sprint game, the answer is not difficult to find as you head up Arthur Wint Drive towards the National Stadium, passing a procession of pupils from Kingston College, decked out in maroon and banging bass drums and blowing horns. They make an even bigger racket when they reach the arena where the Jamaican flag was first hoisted to mark independence in 1962 – and where Bob Marley staged his "One Love" concert during the bloody election battle of 1980, uniting the rival party leaders, Michael Manley and Edward Seaga. It is only Friday lunchtime, with heats and semi-finals on the programme, yet the stadium is already filling towards its 35,000 capacity.
The main stand includes alumni dressed in the old school colours. Among them are Deon Hemmings, the Olympic 400m hurdles champion of 1996, and Bert Cameron, the inaugural 400m world champion of 1983.
There is also a pack of scouts from American colleges. They do not have to wait long for the sprint talent to start rolling off the school conveyor belt.
The opening semi-final of the boys' Class Three (10-13) 100m is won in a Champs' record time of 10.85sec by Jhevaughan Matherson, a 13-year-old from Kingston College. The first 100m semi-final in the boys' Class Two section, for 14- and 15-year-olds, is won in an equally jaw-dropping 10.49sec by Michael O'Hara, a 15-year-old from Calabar High.
The fastest run of the session, though, comes in the last of the 100m semi-finals for those aged 19 or under. Running in lane two, Delano Williams, from Munro College, clocks 10.41sec.
The crowd blow their horns in acclamation. They do so even more loudly when Williams returns at night, winning the final in 10.28sec.
"Are you ready to say you're the best young sprinter in Jamaica?" a local reporter asks the 19-year-old as he steps from the track. "Well, I don't know if I could claim that," Williams replies. "I'll just leave that to everybody else."
The irony is that the latest star pupil from the Jamaican schools' system is not Jamaican. Williams hails from the Turks and Caicos Islands. He moved to Jamaica in 2008 when Hurricane Ike flattened his old school. He won the 200m title at the World Junior Championships in Barcelona in July last year in a Turks and Caicos vest. He cannot, however, represent his homeland in the Olympic Games, because Turks and Caicos does not have a National Olympic Committee. Hence his appearance on a cold, windy day last June at the British Olympic trials in Birmingham.
Suffering from jet lag, a groin problem and the shivers, Williams reached the 200m final but finished seventh in 20.91sec.
As Turks and Caicos is still a British Overseas Territory Williams, like the Anguillan-born long-jumper Shara Proctor, happens to be a British citizen with a British passport. Not that he seems likely to make use of his GB credentials until the Rio Olympics in 2016. He can represent Turks and Caicos at the World Championships in Moscow this summer. "I am not sure if I will come back to run in Britain this summer," he said.
"That will be down to my manager, my agent and my coach. It was tough running in the cold at the Olympic trials last summer but it was good experience for me.
"I'm looking forward to the next three years now and preparing for the Rio Olympics. I'll definitely be running for Britain in 2016."
With the world junior 100m champion Adam Gemili already in red, white and blue, Britain has two major sprint talents blazing a high- speed trail on the road to Rio.
As for Jamaica, they can afford to let the odd one slip through the net. That much is clear as the coltish Matherson canters to victory in his 100m final in 10.86sec.
Matherson has not a muscle in evidence on his slender frame. "Just raw speed," says Gregory Spalding, one of the managers of the Kingston College track team. "He's run 10.86. It's hard to say what it is. It could be the air, but then he's from a part of Jamaica that has a lot of ripe bananas … you never can tell."
Champs at champs
Never ran the 100m at Champs. In 2003 won the Class One 400m in 45.35sec and Class Two 200m in 20.25sec, which are both still championship records.
Holds the records for the Class One 100m (10.21sec in 2007) and the Class Two 100m (10.34sec in 2006). Ran for St Jago School.
Competed twice for Charlemont High School at Champs. In 2000 he was eliminated in the heats of the Class One 100m and 200m. In 2001, the future 100m world-record holder finished seventh in the Class One 100m final.
Competed at Champs every year throughout her school career. Only won once – the 100m, aged 16. The Olympic 100m champion has been seen in the crowd watching this year's Champs, adorned in her old school colours.
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