For now the public-address announcers at National Stadium sound very much like the voice of authority, but in two days they will compete and often lose a fight with a hormone-fuelled choir of 30,000 mostly teenaged voices and almost as many vuvuzelas.
The PA will be called upon to introduce the Prime Minister, several Olympic medalists, the chief executive officer of German sportswear giant Puma and make sure event sponsor GraceKennedy Group is name-dropped – “I say ‘Grace’ you say ‘Kennedy’” – but in these early stages of the Jamaican boys and girls athletics championships, Ed Barnes and his crew are the voice of God, while providing a running commentary for Champs, the Jamaican boys and girls high school athletics championship that will hold this nation of sprinters in rapt attention for four days.
And so Jazeel Murphy will not just win his preliminary 100-metre heat, but do so “in a stroll in the park.” In lane five of heat seven, Romaine Andrade is “another dangerous customer,” while Odail Todd in the third heat doesn’t just win. He is “going forward, and he won’t disappoint you.” The drummers under the videoboard are thanked, but are also asked to “please put down your instruments, you are affecting the field events.” Once done, they are thanked “for the peace.”
Champs, as the Inter-Secondary Schools Sports Associations four-day championships are called, is big business and it is bursting at the seams. Western Union, Puma and the mammoth GraceKennedy Group of companies sponsor the meet, and there are concerns about ticket hoarding and over-loading competitors with events and suggestions that maybe the National Stadium needs to be expanded.
Glen Mills, who is Usain Bolt’s coach and also the meet director, is among those voicing concerns. Some competitors will run in seven events, and smiles are few at the start, the gaily coloured hair and mismatched knee-high socks that are de rigueur, especially in the girls’ races, belying the seriousness of the endeavour. Fame, money and the odd Olympic medal await – and not always in that order.
History of success
Fifty years ago, Norman Manley negotiated Jamaica’s independence from Britain. At the London 2012 Summer Games, Jamaica’s sprinters and hurdlers will demonstrate their gratitude by laying siege to the Olympic Stadium.
Manley would approve. Long before Bolt became the fastest man on the planet or before Donovan Bailey found gold and glory in another country’s colours or even before Arthur Wint won Jamaica’s first track gold in 1948, Manley was a runner of some renown. Long before he founded the People’s National Party or earned a Rhodes Scholarship or sired a son named Michael who would himself become Prime Minister, Manley ran the 100 yards in 10 seconds flat. It was a Jamaican record that held up for 41 years.
Since the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Jamaicans have won 15 gold medals in distances of 400 metres and less, and five of the top seven men’s 100-metre times in history have been set by Jamaican runners, topped by Bolt’s world record 9.58 seconds. It is in some ways a reminder of the dominance of the old sports machines of Soviet-era Eastern Europe.
The easy narrative would be it’s all organic, with a dash of developed world suspicion, or that perhaps there is a sprinting gene in Jamaicans, or something to the stories of the yams from Bolt’s home in the Trelawny Parish. The truth is, it’s as much a product of hard work and planning, buttressed by lottery and sponsorship money and enjoying support at the highest political levels.
“To run is a cultural thing for Jamaicans – as Brazil sees [soccer] that’s how we see track and field,” said Michael Carr, the celebrated coach at Kingston’s Wolmer’s School, who has mentored women’s 200-metre defending gold medalist Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce. “We are a country of runners, who from a young age aspire to be stars.”
The ones who become stars do so at Champs, which has sent 26 athletes directly to the Olympics, including Bobby-Gaye Wilkins of the bronze medal-winning women’s 4x400-metre relay team in Beijing. Small wonder that when this year’s Class 1 boys 100- and 200-metre champion, Delano Williams, was asked to describe what his win meant, he smiled and said simply: “It means you are the best in the world.” Williams’s British passport has come through; he could be No. 27.