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Kenny Moore
February 14, 1983
For decades Jamaicans have excelled in the dashes, perhaps because running is a fast way to a better life
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February 14, 1983

Land Of Sprinters And Dreamers

For decades Jamaicans have excelled in the dashes, perhaps because running is a fast way to a better life

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"Look, all I need to relax is to get my bearings."

"Oh, mon. Relax around here and you be lost."

He slides away into the sidewalk swirl. The crush seems to affirm the need for such exhortations as the one on the billboard overhead: IT TAKES ONE MINUTE TO GET PREGNANT. THAT SOUNDS EASY. IT TAKES 20 YEARS TO RAISE A CHILD. THINK THAT'S EASY? PLAN TO HAVE ONLY TWO CHILDREN.

A minute to get pregnant? This is indeed a nation of sprinters. Another billboard advertises Sanatogen Tonic Wine—27 PROOF TONIC AND RESTORATIVE, IT'S A GOOD, HEALTHY HABIT TO PICK UP.

At last, across from the dome of the Roman Catholic cathedral, one discovers the beige-and-purple buildings of Kingston College. They are arranged around a dusty but spacious courtyard.

Students in white shirts and loosely hanging purple-and-white ties direct the visitor to a darkened doorway. Inside, past an old shower room, in a tiny, dim office, at a desk no more than two feet by three, sits Sportsmaster George Thompson. Kingston College is one of the two most powerful track schools in Jamaica. Lennox Miller graduated from KC. "And said his training was harder here than it ever was at USC," says Thompson, a muscular man with a pronounced air of solemnity. He is reputed to be an exhaustive trainer and doesn't deny it.

"Schoolboys work harder in running than any other sport," he says. "We ask, 'Can you get a college education by yourself?' They say no. 'Well,' we say, 'train hard.' "

The only major institution of higher education in Jamaica, the University of the West Indies, has an athletic department which puts very little emphasis on competitive sports. This is in the British academic tradition. But in England, competitive sports are done in university or municipal clubs. In Jamaica, they are done in the high schools or almost not at all. Thus, the way to continue as an athlete after 18 and the way out of a subsistence life are the same—an athletic scholarship to a U.S. college. Thompson can lean on 16-year-olds as hard as he wants with a clear conscience. It's their only chance. "In Jamaica, young athletes are pushed, driven more than in the States," he says. "Track is a boring sport. By the time they come to us, they already know it takes a lot to come out in first place. We add even more discipline to that."

And some reward. "Maybe a lunch for an especially hard workout," says Thompson. "Or a used sweatsuit for a good training week. Anything to motivate them." These are serious items in a country where a new sweatsuit costs $70 and running shoes $100 because of import duties. Often a school will do more for its athletes than clothe and feed them. "We have old boys [the traditional name for past graduates] who are doctors and dentists. They do things free for us. Others come in to help coach." Thompson has five assistants helping with his squad of 60. "As big-event time comes, we call on even more."

The biggest events are the Penn Relays (the trip financed by old boys and local business firms), at which young Jamaicans are seen by U.S. college coaches, and the annual Schools Championships, run over three days and before 30,000 spectators in the National Stadium. "That's the toughest track meet in the world," says Thompson with relish. "We had one boy in the 400, the 800, the sprint relay and the mile relay. Heats, semis and finals in all of 'em. And you see funny combinations, like a boy doing the shotput, pole vault and 100. That's because it's all done for points. For the school. The rivalries are deep."

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