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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 ...

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.

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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.

A who’s who of sponsors

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.

Cubie Seegobin, an agent who represents Blake and several other sprinters, calls Skeene “the next big thing.” Not on this night he wasn’t. A wave of groans and cries, followed by a stony silence, greeted a false start by Skeene. Competitors in other events froze to look at the videoboards at each end of the stadium. Williams would go on to win the race and point at Murphy as they crossed the finish line just 0.02 seconds apart, then lament the lost opportunity to race against Skeene.

It is Saturday – the final day – when the school ties come out, when the relays are held and the team title decided, and when the entire inner courtyard is rimmed by truncheon-wielding members of the Jamaica Constabulary Force, brown-uniformed inspectors strolling by and barking out instructions with whip-like sticks at the ready.

It is Saturday when the bleachers fill up and when the police in bullet-proof vests will emerge from their marshalling areas. Calabar High School celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2012 by beating Kingston College in the boys team event, and students and supporters partied on the National Stadium field after the win to Bob Marley’s Rat Race, a song symbolic because the school suffered a rat infestation this year.

Days later, team manager Andrea Hardware told the Jamaica Gleaner that the 22nd championship in school history cost $8-million ( in Jamaican currency or just under $90,462 Cdn.), not including “coach’s salaries and that sort of thing,” and was based on money from “a lot of well-wishers, both corporate and individuals.” That would buy some serious pest control.

The Jamaican ‘sweet spot’

So why would the CEO of Puma, the German-based sportswear manufacturer, come to a high school track meet?

Franz Koch, bespectacled, shaven-headed and looking all of his 33 years, contemplated the question in a coffee shop at Kingston’s tony Spanish Court hotel. Just as Bolt “checks all the boxes,” in Koch’s words, as a corporate ambassador so too does Jamaica hit what he refers to as “the sweet spot.”

Its culture, as manifested in reggae music and icons such as Bob Marley, crosses all boundaries. It’s as home in the developed world as in the Third World. So Puma not only launches into relationships with Usain Bolt and, recently, Ristananna Tracey and Jermaine Gonzales to serve as what the company calls Ambassadors, Puma has also entered into an agreement with Marley’s daughter, Cedella, for the creation of Jamaica’s 2012 Olympic outfit.

Koch spent part of Saturday in the grandstand, but he moved to the raised concrete bank that separates the dark blue track from the fenced-in corner bleachers, sitting on his haunches. You dare not go into the student section, but if you must – what the hell? – you need no shame. Be prepared for a pat-down that will make you blush, and keep in mind that the student bleachers are no place for the faint-hearted, being a constantly moving dance of boy meets girl and, sometimes, fist meets face, as large school flags are unfurled and waffled along through sections of stands claimed by students from competing schools – green and black for Calabar, purple for Kingston College, navy blue for Jamaica College (just as it was when Norman Manley become the first triple winner in 1911, winning the 100-, 200- and 400-yard races) – and the aroma of ganja wafts through the air. Repeated public-service announcements on radio and television urging those attending the event to register and lock up their firearms with local constabulary and “refrain from carrying machetes into National Stadium,” were heeded this year. It was still raucous, but the lingering impression is of horns honking into the night, as teenaged voices hooted and cheered.

“Jamaica has become part of our branding,” said Koch, speaking just two hours before meeting the Jamaican PM. “We describe ourselves as bringing life into sport and sport into life and fusing it with fashion. Jamaica is the perfect expression of it, and it has many more things to offer than track and field. It’s culture, people, music and creativity. Jamaica evokes colours. And Champs is a great expression of the energy and joy of youthful people. It’s one of the top-class sports events in the region – and that’s remarkable for high-school sports.”

Remember that the next time your parents don’t go to your high-school track meet.

Setting the bar higher

Xavier Boland says God has given him many talents, just not the one most people associate with Jamaicans. So on this Thursday night, he wins what is essentially a one-man event – the open pole vault – in a stiff breeze that almost knocks him sideways on his failed attempt to eclipse his own meet record. His title is won in the corner of National Stadium, in front of empty seats except for a gathering of fellow Kingston College students in the grandstand.

Boland isn’t only the best pole-vaulter in Jamaica. He’s on the national swim team.

“I tell people I like to do things that have never been done before,” he laughed. “Everybody sprints in Jamaica. That’s what you think, right? Usually, you think pole vault and you think Eastern Europe or Ukraine. In the Caribbean, we don’t have many pole-vaulters, right? But God really has blessed me with a lot of talents. I’m just trying to use them the best I can.”

Boland says he wants to do for field events what Bolt has done for track. He will clear 4.20 metres at Champs, short of his meet record of 4.60, and well short of the five metres he swears he’s jumped.

“Truthfully: I could probably go out there right now – right now – and clear it,” he said, touching a visitor on the arm.

Wind was certainly a mitigating factor on this night, as was an unfamiliar pole, which he used to try for a height of 4.60 only after securing the full nine points for his school using his regular pole. That is the remarkable aspect of Champs; the depth to which the success of the school supersedes the success of the individual athlete.

Sixteen records were set at Champs this year, including several in throwing and field events. Chanice Porter, the 17-year-old IAAF world youth champion, eclipsed the 14-year-old Class 1 long-jump record with a leap of 6.52 metres that was the fourth-longest in the world this year. She also broke the meet high-jump record, while the girls’ Class 1 discuss record was broken on six consecutive throws before the final measurement of 50.76 metres. The boys’ shot-put record? Obliterated, by almost a full metre.

Don’t look now, but Jamaicans have set their sights on both distance and field events, and there is discussion at the highest levels about hiring Kenyan coaches for distance events ahead of the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games. “They have some coaches, now, who are specializing in throws,” said Cubie Seegobin, the agent. “They are serious.”

Michael Carr, the Wolmer’s girls track coach, smiled when Seegobin’s comments were relayed. Ashina Miller, a shot-putter, is one of the athletes gracing this year’s Champs program cover and that’s no accident.

From running away with the hearts of the world to jumping them and throwing them seems a natural progression. And it won’t be accidental or organic. “It’s just a matter of time,” Carr said. “If you get one star, you will find many stars. That’s how it works in Jamaica.”

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