Is nature or nurture behind Jamaica's need for speed?


Some say it’s in the genes. Others credit the local yams and green bananas. Sports analysts reckon world-class coaches played the key role. Cultural commentators credit a straightforward love of speed which, in previous eras, inspired the nation’s most gifted sportsmen to devote their careers to sending cricket balls towards rib cages at high velocity.

The utter domination of sprinting by a small Caribbean island with a population of less than three million has left commentators reaching for superlatives. Of the 12 individual medals so far awarded in London’s 100 and 200 metre events, eight have gone to Jamaicans. Three were gold. In 2008, they won all four of the men’s and women’s races.

Usain Bolt will tonight attempt to increase the haul by leading his country’s men to a second successive victory in the 4x100m relay. The women went late last night. Whatever the results, Jamaica now represents as unrivalled a force in sprint running as Kenya at the middle and longer distances. But why?

One obvious answer is genetic. Average Jamaicans are blessed with long limbs, low fat levels, and narrow hips. Previous Olympic champions such as Donovan Bailey, who won Gold for Canada in 1996, and Britain’s Linford Christie, showcased the natural potential of the build: they were born in the country, before emigrating as children.

So much for “nature.” On the “nurture” front, Jamaica’s relatively healthy staple foods play a role. Most star athletes come from rural areas, where they grow up walking long distances and drinking water instead of soft drinks, and eating lots of vegetables. When Bolt won gold in Beijing in 2008, his father, Wellesley, told reporters that his speed stemmed from yams that grow in his native north-west of the island.

Coaching has almost certainly also been pivotal. In previous eras, Jamaica's top young athletes often emigrated to top US colleges. Often they never returned. Now the world’s best coaches, including the great Dennis Johnson, and Bolt's mentor Glen Mills, are based at home. So they tend to stay.

The final piece of the jigsaw is cultural. Sprinting is now Jamaica’s de facto national sport. Children start at the age of three, and begin competing at six. They generally train on grass, which many believe is more effective than artificial surfaces for developing athletes. The national school track championships, known locally as “Champs,” are now more closely watched that West Indies test matches and national football fixtures.

Of course, to the heroes of any fashionable sport come spoils. For ambitious young Jamaicans, sprinting has duly come to represent a path out of poverty. Bolt earned an estimated $20m last year, according to Forbes. He drives fast cars, dates beautiful women, and was this week described by Reuters as: “the island’s top celebrity after... Bob Marley.” In the land of reggae, you don't get any bigger than that.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Kim Wilde began gardening in the 1990s when she moved to the countryside
peopleThe singer is leading an appeal for the charity Thrive, which uses the therapy of horticulture
Alexis Sanchez celebrates scoring a second for Arsenal against Reading
Life and Style
An easy-peel potato; Dave Hax has come up with an ingenious method in food preparation
voicesDave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Japan's population is projected to fall dramatically in the next 50 years (Wikimedia)
Caption competition
Caption competition
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own