6 Reasons Why Jamaicans Dominate the Sprints

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usainYesterday I posted a couple videos with some insight in to what MVP club coach Stephen Francis is doing with his athletes. The discussion on this blog entry got me off my butt to write another blog that I’ve been meaning to write for some time- The Reasons Why Jamaicans Dominate the Sprints.

In case you were in a cocoon in 2008, you witnessed one of the greatest sprint years by a single country in the history of the sport. The fact that it was achieved by a country that’s about the size of Brooklyn, NY makes it all that much more impressive. And while Jamaica has a long history of sprint success, her thrashing of the record books and the rest of the world in 2008 was a little unexpected. Jamaica was the best this year. There’s no doubt about it. How could an island with such a small population and limited resources be so dominant in a sporting event that practically every country in the world has the opportunity to participate in?

Here’s 6 reasons why the small island nation of Jamaica can be so dominant:

1) Genetics:

Quick- What do the following athletes have in common?

  • Asafa Powell, Jamaica
  • Sanya Richards, United States
  • Don Quarrie, Jamaica
  • Usain Bolt, Jamaica
  • Merlene Ottey, Jamaica / Slovenia
  • Linford Christie, United Kingdom
  • Veronica Campbell-Brown, Jamaica
  • Ben Johnson, Canada
  • Herb McKenley, Jamaica

If you guessed “All Time Sprint Greats” you’d only get half credit. The correct answer would be “All Time Sprint Greats Born on the Island of Jamaica.” Amazing huh? The fact that so many athletes raised in such diverse cultures provides overwhelming support to the notion that nature is having a bigger impact than nurture.

To be fair, there are arguments on both sides of the aisle on this issue. Those who argue that there success IS due to their genetic profile point to the fact that Jamaicans tend to have 2 important genes that have been linked with sprint performance: ACTN3 and ACE. Those who argue that it’s not there genetic profile state that it’s likely that ALL competitors in an elite sprint race must have this genetic profile just to be able to get there in the first place. While there’s conflicting research on whether genetic profile is THE distinguishing characteristic of the Jamaicans, this much is clear- they DEFINITELY have the underlying genetic profile that is the prerequisite to step foot on the elite sprinting stage.

Sprinters usually have the single or double copy of the ACTN3 gene. This gene has been linked with protein syntehesis and the high speed muscular contractions necessary for sprinting. It is very unlikely that an elite sprinter will not have one or both copies of this gene. Startlingly, the double copy of the ACTN 3 gene is found in 72% of Jamaican citizens. To put this in to perspective, the gene is found in 76% of Olympians. The single copy of the ACTN3 is found in 26% of ordinary Jamaicans and 23% of Olympians. If you do the math, this means that 98% of all Jamaicans have one or both copies of the gene that is recognized as being necessary to compete at the highest levels in a sprint event. For further perspective, twenty percent of Europeans lack this gene.

2) Coaching:

I have had some limited interaction with coaches from the Caribbean and my experience has been mixed. In general, my impression has been that they are quite knowledgeable but typically not on the level of a Dan Pfaff, Loren Seagrave or Boo Schexnayder as this type of science-backed approach isn’t absolutely necessary for success. That’s certainly not a knock against them but it does at least point to the fact that they probably aren’t better (or worse) than most other countries and do not have some special coaching secrets or scientific breakthroughs that are being used to make breakthroughs on the track. HOWEVER, this doesn’t mean that they don’t still have a distinct coaching advantage. There advantage comes from a systematized program with national team coaches. The best coaches on the island are paid by the government, much like the coaching system in Europe. While the NCAA system certainly addresses much of this issue in America, it also creates much more instability and discontinuity for the long term development prospects of an athlete.

3) Training:

Because of the aforementioned point, Jamaican sprinters are often trained from a very young age. Jamaican Sports Minister Grange says

We train our sprinters from their early childhood, in basic school and then primary school, secondary school, after that is professional training where they have personal coaches.

Another benefit is the 2 major training centers that Jamaica has created. These provide more stability for long term athlete development….something that similarly small countries like Bulgaria (in weightlifting) and Kenya (in distance running) have proven is very effective.One final training variable that has yet to receive much attention is the fact that the Jamaicans largely train on grass. This likely has the effect of reducing stress related injuries that lead to lost training time, and more importantly, enhancing tendon elasticity because of the more compliant surface.

4) Culture:

In Jamaica, track is second only to Cricket in terms of popularity. To top this off, there’s a passion for the sport of track that is rarely seen in the U.S. for ANY sport, much less track and field. In fact, about the only time you see the same type of passion for track exhibited in America is at the Penn Relays….by the Jamaican crowd. This is a very important factor because it ensures that a large percentage of those with the genetics to compete at the world class level actually WANT to compete in the sport. Contrast this to the U.S. where our much larger talent pool is distributed over a much greater range of sports with basketball and football taking many of the would-be prospects for elite sprinting success. This has the affect of effectively decreasing the size of our sprinting talent pool. Don’t believe me about Jamaican track passion? Watch the video-

 5) Nutrition:

Although on the surface one might think that the diet in a country like Jamaica couldn’t possibly be as good as a ‘developed’ country like the U.S., this couldn’t be further from the truth. The Jamaican diet is full of fresh fruits and vegetables and plenty of fresh seafood. Contrast this to the typical American diet where your average person doesn’t even get the suggested 5 servings of fruits and vegetables a day. And when they do, they come deep-fried or from a can. In fact, Bolt has admitted that his homemade yams and many other Jamaican foods have help him a lot in achieving the results. As might be expected, the healthier diet (and more active lifestyle) means less overweight and obese people. This is another factor that effectively increases their pool of potential candidates for sporting success.

Another benefit of their diet could be enhanced genetic expression That is, the food they eat could could help the genetic profile that we’ve already discussed be fully expressed for maximal athletic performance. This might help to explain why the Jamaicans can be more dominant than sprinters of seemingly similar genetic profiles like athletes from the Caribbean, West Africa and the Americas.

6) Environment:

usainThe warm weather of the island makes for a near ideal training climate for speed-power athletes. Although it gets humid in certain parts of the island, the year round temperature rarely dips below 80 degrees in the day and there’s only a 10 degree difference between the summer (90+ degrees) and winter (~80 degrees) temperatures. This means, no need for indoor tracks and the injuries they bring. No need for canceling practice because of snow or cold. No need for bundling up in 3 layers just to get a sprint workout in outside. We can look no further than our own borders to see how much of a difference this makes. States that have similar climates to Jamaica (Florida, Louisiana, Texas, and California) dominate the yearly high school and collegiate performance lists in the sprinting events. This is not a coincidence.

7) Drugs?

Obviously this is number 7 on a list I’ve already stated to have 6 reasons. It’s not a mistake. The reason is because at the present time we don’t have any hard evidence to suggest that doping is as rampant and widespread in Jamaica as it is or has been in the United States, Greece, and the Eastern European countries. As such, I didn’t think it would be fair to make it an ‘official’ member of the list. HOWEVER, it would be foolish and naive to think that the suspicion of performance enhancing drugs does not loom ominously over performances like 19.30, 9.69, and 13 sub 10 second 100m races in a year.

Conclusion:

There’s certainly a lot of factors that contribute to the Jamaican’s success. While we don’t fully understand the reasons for their dominance yet, I think it’s safe to say that the combination of a huge population of insanely talented individuals plus highly competent coaches and a system that fosters long-term athlete development is a great for producing champions. I’ll leave the final words for Jamaican Sports Minister Grange:

We don’t have too much money, but we have the talent, ambition and commitment. We get better every day. Our young people or youth are getting better as well. So the beauty and secret has something to do with the fact that we are born with talents, we have a school system that from early age promotes physical education. We have the fastest man and fastest junior and we have many women among some of the fastest in the world. There will just be more Bolts to come.

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  • Anon Vigil

    Its because they have more lax drug screening.