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Track’s heartbeat is fast as ever in Jamaica

By Michael Powell
06 April 2015   |   11:29 pm
KINGSTON, Jamaica —Sound rises like a cliff wall — drums, trombones, trumpets, the ubiquitous vuvuzela, the odd French horn and 10,000 fans screaming. On the blue track below, 15-year-old boys have shot out of the blocks for the 400 meters, postures erect, arms slicing through the tropical air like knives.

Competitors in the 100 meters at the celebrated five-day high school competition in Jamaica known as Champs. Inset: Bolt PHOTOS: The New York Times.

KINGSTON, Jamaica —Sound rises like a cliff wall — drums, trombones, trumpets, the ubiquitous vuvuzela, the odd French horn and 10,000 fans screaming.

On the blue track below, 15-year-old boys have shot out of the blocks for the 400 meters, postures erect, arms slicing through the tropical air like knives. Faster, faster, they curl around the track as if astride that wave of sound. This is the high school competition known as Champs, in which long-limbed schoolchildren from valleys and fishing villages and industrial cities descend on this capital city.

For five days, they lay down astonishing times, often only a few ticks off world records. I came here to interview the mellifluously named Usain Bolt, certifiably the fastest man in the world. He is preparing for another Olympic push, his last. There are serious questions to ask about his plans and his future.

To understand how Jamaica came to dominate sprinting like the Swiss dominate the clock business — and therefore to make sense of Bolt, who came flying out of the country village Sherwood Content — it helps to take the measure of the national mania that is Champs, in which Bolt ran as a schoolboy.

I walked into Champs for the first time on a recent Wednesday, the second day of the competition. Purple thunderheads piled high above the ridges of the Blue Mountains. The crowd clapped rhythmically as a teenage girl, Tamara Moncrieff, hurtled down the track toward the long-jump pit. Moncrieff went on to win a championship two days later. “I cleared my mind, I hopped, I stopped, and I jumped,” this shy young woman explained then.

“And I got the record.” I sidled over to Orville Austin, a 54-year-old hospital technician who sits high in the grandstand. He attends every year. Who do you root for? “Kingston College!” he said, showing me his navy blue tie. Hundreds of middle-aged adults were dressed in the colors of their alma maters.

To read off the school names — Calabar, Kingston College, Wolmer’s, Glenmuir, Camperdown, Oberlin, Happy Grove — is to summon a surge of memories. Each school has colours, chants and high-pitched cries. (The Wolmer’s cry calls to mind a seal bark.) Do you live around here? “Canarsie,” Austin replied. That is in Brooklyn. A bag at his feet was filled with school ties, which he was going to distribute to friends upon his return.

Members of the Jamaica diaspora, whose numbers are vast and often accomplished, are known to wear such ties to cocktail parties. Several friends attended Kingston College’s archrival, Calabar High School, a perennial athletic power. (The track announcer pronounced this “Caaal-a-Bahrrr,” with a Scottish roll of the R.) “Mine is a very deep hatred for Calabar,” Austin said. He texted a Calabar friend with a photo of himself: “Look what I’m wearing: A T-shirt! It’s 84 degrees, and Kingston is beating Calabar.” He chortled.

I walked into a thicket of teenage boys from St. Catherine’s who had completed their races. Dressed in sky blue slacks and matching backpacks, they lingered in the grandstand to cheer for the St. Catherine’s girls, who ran in the early evening.

They joked and laughed, moving effortlessly between rapid-fire patois and crisp, British-inflected English. How’d it go today, I asked 15-year-old Thor Samuels.

He beamed. “I love running,” he said. “I feel like I’m riding the wind.” There is much joy to be heard and seen, although races are no teenage lark. The corporate sponsors, as well as college and pro scouts, line up six deep.

The teenagers acknowledge great pressure to set record times and perhaps obtain scholarships in the United States or, better, a pro contract. Top high schools compete ferociously, sometimes offering refrigerators to poor families if their children will transfer.

Girls and boys can run three races each day. Some collapse, grabbing at cramped muscles. “It’s too big, if you ask me,” Kingston College Coach, Neil Harrison said. “Every year it gets more intense.” Harrison is one of Jamaica’s most successful track coaches.

He has a restless eye for talent. Several years back, he was in the Turks and Caicos Islands and noticed the center fielder in a baseball game sprinting after a double into the gap.

By autumn, Harrison had that boy at Jamaica College, running under his tutelage. Now the runner sprints for the British national team. Harrison shrugged. “We Jamaicans know running straight through,” he said.

To better understand that heritage, I hailed a taxi the next morning and set off up the hills to Manor Park, where the breezes are persimmon-scented and there are sweeping vistas of the glittering Caribbean Sea. Dennis Johnson was waiting on his veranda. A handsome man of 75 with snow-white hair and sideburns, he is a godfather of Jamaican track. Once upon a time, he was recruited to race at San Jose State.

In 1961, he three times equaled the world record in the 100 yards, at 9.3 seconds. (Another Jamaican, Herb McKenley, won three silver medals and a gold in the 1948 and 1952 Olympics combined. Norman Manley, the island’s most revered prime minister, ran the 100 yards in 10 seconds flat at the 1911 Champs, a record that stood for 41 years.) Johnson studied under the esteemed San Jose State coach Bud Winter and returned to Jamaica as an apostle of the scientific method of running.

He helped found a college to train coaches. To reach more remote outposts on this poor and mountainous island, Johnson loaded up his van. “We spread the gospel of sprinting,” he said.

Many struggle to explain the success of Jamaican sprinters. Some Jamaicans argue for genetics while a local professor champions the extraordinary dietary effects of green bananas and yams.

Johnson rolled his eyes. “It’s not magical yams,” he said. “It’s a poor island, and if you have a pair of cleats, you can compete. We brought in the best coaches and the best training.” The results are on display at the national stadium. The Champs athletes run erect, arms thrusting forward, not side to side.

Their cores are powerful; their strides carry no hint of wobble. Johnson walked me to the door. “Every little kid running in kindergarten believes they could be Usain Bolt,” he said. “We’re going to dominate sprint for the next 50 years.” Great expectation comes married to worry, so I had a last stop before talking to Bolt.

In 2013, Renee Shirley, a former executive director of the Jamaica Anti-Doping Commission, revealed that the group had failed to conduct out-of-competition blood tests on athletes in the months leading to the Olympics.

She and another prominent former official of the commission, Dr. Paul Wright, have characterized Jamaica as halfhearted in confronting the menace of doping.

For her candor, Shirley was consigned to a purgatory. This is sad twice over. She adores her island’s track and field accomplishments. And recent test results underline the wisdom of waving a yellow flag of caution. Several of Jamaica’s most illustrious runners, including the Olympic gold medalists, Asafa Powell and Sherone Simpson, have tested positive for stimulants.

(It’s worth noting that Justin Gatlin, the leading sprinter in the United States and perhaps the leading challenger to Bolt in the 2016 Summer Games, is coming off a four-year suspension for the use of more serious banned drugs.

At age 33, when most sprinters are retired, Gatlin is again laying down top times.) Shirley wants to see a testing regimen applied to Champs.

“A teenager runs the 400-meter race and shows up three hours later for a 200-meter race?” she said. “Who is to say someone is not handing them an energy drink that might have unlabeled prohibited substances?” The high school principals spoke of testing this year, only to back off. “You need a sense of urgency,” Shirley said.

“This is a beautiful sport.” Time to search for Bolt. I sat in the soft-shadowed lobby of the Spanish Court Hotel. Bolt was late, and his coach did not answer texts. I looked up from my phone, and there he stood, a muscled sweep of a man in a pastel yellow running shirt, blue striped shorts and Pumas. We walked upstairs.

“Usain!” A young chambermaid ran into the hall. “Can I hug you?” Bolt opened his arms, and she embraced him. I asked if this happened often. He nodded; it’s a perk.

He acknowledged that he needed to stay away from prolonged hugs. “I am dating fully now; I think I’m almost there official with a girl,” he said. He took a seat on the veranda. As a child in Trelawny Parish, he played soccer and cricket. Running was easy, like breathing, and not to be taken seriously.

Then he traveled down country and laid down astonishing times. His Champs record in the 200 meters still stands. “It was just fun,” he said. “I never thought I could make a career of it.” A coach persuaded him otherwise. Bolt’s workouts are rigorous and extend 11 months a year. (He takes a month off after the end of the season.

“Now my coach wants me to do active rest, with more running,” he said with a roll of his eyes). • Culled from The New York Times He bench-presses 200 pounds and saves his running for the cool of evening, two and a half to three hours each day. “I do abs and core work every day,” he said. I started to ask about performance-enhancing drugs.

He smiled and interrupted. “Drugging?” he said. “I have been asked that so many times. It’s just one of those things. Other athletes have tainted the sport.

It takes a while to get back to the point where people say, ‘O.K., I believe in this person.’ ” His running is magnificent; he accelerates, and the world’s best sprinters fall away like so much shucked corn. His times are revolutionary. His joy is infectious.

He has taken drug tests, and anti-doping officials have never publicly charged him. As to belief: Who would not hope? Bolt, 28, can see the shadow of athletic old age. “In track and field, I’m middle age,” he said.

“You don’t want to be one of the athletes who stick around for too long.” He plans to compete in June on Randalls Island in New York — the site of his first world-record time, in 2008 — and then at the world championships in Beijing in August.

He had expected that the 2016 Olympics in Brazil would be his last call. • Culled from The New York Times Puma, his sponsor, persuaded him to take a one-year victory lap.

He will try to make it memorable. “I will work hard to put more strain on my records,” he said. Then that will be that. “You don’t want the young guys to start beating you,” he said, smiling faintly.

“It takes away your glory.” He shook hands and slipped down a staircase to a waiting car, which was to carry him to his afternoon workout. On Saturday, the ticket line formed hours before the gate opened for the Champs finale. Horses carrying officers trotted about.

I stopped by Fatty’s Food Court to pick up jerk chicken and coconut bread wrapped in tin foil. I squeezed into a bleacher seat. The grandstand was a sedate neighborhood, everyone pressed in tight. There was none of that recorded “Make Some Noise!” baloney as at Madison Square Garden. The sound was organic and rolled like the ocean.

I ran into Orville Jackson, the hurdles coach for Calabar, by way of Laurel, Md., where he drives a tractor-trailer. This is amazing, I told him. He grinned. “It’s like religion, man.” • Culled from The New York Times