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An athlete competes in the boy's long jump at the Jamaica's Inter-Secondary Schools Boys and Girls Athletics Championships in Kingston March 28, 2012. The Boys and Girls Athletics Championships, also known as Champs, is one of the oldest athletic championships in the world, with a history of 100 years. About 30,000 people gather to support their schools annually during Champs. Sporting events such as Champs have produced Jamaican athletes such as Asafa Powell and current Olympic gold medallist Usain Bolt, who is the fastest man in the world. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado (Ivan Alvarado/Reuters)
An athlete competes in the boy's long jump at the Jamaica's Inter-Secondary Schools Boys and Girls Athletics Championships in Kingston March 28, 2012. The Boys and Girls Athletics Championships, also known as Champs, is one of the oldest athletic championships in the world, with a history of 100 years. About 30,000 people gather to support their schools annually during Champs. Sporting events such as Champs have produced Jamaican athletes such as Asafa Powell and current Olympic gold medallist Usain Bolt, who is the fastest man in the world. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado (Ivan Alvarado/Reuters)

London 2012

Jamaica: training ground for track and field's best Add to ...

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Glen Mills prowls the infield at National Stadium on a blazing Friday afternoon. Usain Bolt’s coach does not suffer fools when he’s in charge of a couple hundred middle school and high school students and their psyches.

“Not now,” he snaps as a reporter approaches him. “I’m busy.”

Mills is the meet director of the 102nd edition of Champs, which benefits from wall-to-wall television coverage in Jamaica as well as healthy on-line viewership around the region. This year, the CBC, BBC and NBC showed up for the event. So, too, did the new chief executive officer of Puma, Franz Koch, whose company is one of the event’s sponsors. Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller attended both Friday and Saturday night’s events, sharing the government seating area with sprinting royalty such as Asafa Powell, Yohan Blake and Bailey – the one-time fastest man in the world who was born in Manchester, Jamaica, before moving to Oakville at age 13 and winning a gold medal for Canada.

While Mills growls and prowls and misses naught – “Pick it up!” Mills says sharply to 13-year-old Jhevaughn Matherson when the youngster angrily tosses aside his baton at the finish line during one of Saturday’s relays – Alfred Francis sits or stands impassively, walkie-talkie and clipboard in hand. ‘Frano’ is something of a spiritual presence during Champs, a hugely popular figure who is starts co-ordinator and can be spotted by looking for his tam. He has managed Jamaica’s junior teams abroad, and organizes the biggest marathon on the island.

Francis has been involved in Champs for a decade or so, and says that “grass-roots investment” means that Jamaica’s high-school coaches “have perfected the dynamics and mechanics of running.”

Brian Smith is the meet director for the Douglas Forrest Invitational, and says from May to June there will sometimes be 6,000 students competing in races across the island on any given weekend. Smith says that Jamaica’s track roots include a dalliance with Eastern Bloc countries and Cuba during the Soviet era – Michael Manley, the son of Norman, was a leftist who developed ties with Fidel Castro – and a substantial period in the wilderness that started to end in 1993 at the world indoor games in Toronto, when a group of like-minded Jamaican track officials negotiated a sponsorship agreement with Reebok. Five years later, according to Smith, brain-storming sessions were held with athletes and coaches, at which time it was decided that increasing the calibre of coaching in remote areas made as much sense as pilfering athletes. Dovetailed with a growing desire on the part of Jamaican athletes to train at home, instead of going to U.S. colleges, it has created a culture of mutual reinforcement that has flourished in a schools system based on the old British colonial model.

And the stars do not forget their schools. Last year, Bolt came back, put on his old school tie and sat in the section of the bleachers with students from William Knibb. As Carr, the Volmers Schools girls coach, might say: you can reach out and touch the stars en route to becoming one of them.

The next big thing

Champs doesn’t end until the winning boys and girls team gets to parade around the National Stadium after Saturday’s relays, but the marquee event of any Champs remains the Class 1 boys 100 metres, run this year on the penultimate night of the meet. Yet even by its lofty standards, the 2012 race was remarkable.

Williams, a native of Turks and Caicos who attends Munro College in St. Elizabeth, Jamaica, and whose British passport gives him a chance at representing Britain at the Olympics, won the race in 10.37 seconds, just 16/100ths off Blake’s meet record. Todd, the world junior 100- and 200-metre champion, was pulled after developing knee soreness but Murphy, the under-20 Caribbean champion and Odane Skeene, the world youth Olympic champion, were still on the track with Williams.

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