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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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"None has developed our tradition for it. But look how well Nigeria, say, has done in boxing, which calls for the same speed and power. In contrast with the Ethiopian type of slenderness, sprinters are densely muscled, with strong shoulders and big butts, and are compact, well balanced. It seems a Negroid body type. And I know that diet is important. Carbohydrates give the energy, and those are the Jamaican staples—rice every day, lots of yams and potatoes and cassava and bread.

"And there's the style of the people," continues Johnson. "Jamaicans talk fast. They write fast. They like action. They're jittery. The temper of the society is kind of like a sprinter's."

Johnson departs abruptly, stylishly. Spence offers the visitor a ride back to his hotel. En route he identifies the gray clumps of rootless plants that grow on phone wires. "Old man's beard. And the yellow vine on the fence, that's illegal in some places because it spreads and kills things it chokes. It's called love bush."

The conversation leads to another illegal plant. "Ganja used to be no big deal. It began as a medical thing. But in the last 10 years or so. a sort of culture has grown up around it. It's smoked in the schools; you can't stop it. But as an adminstrator of sports, I won't have anyone who smokes it on the team."

"What's this stuff called tonic wine?" Spence grins and says, "Jamaicans believe in tonics. Years ago we used to boil leaves and bark and drink that stuff. People came up with tonic wine. If you're sick you take it. If you're well you take it. And everyone has a good time. Myself, I drink stout."

There's a plaque beside the track in the National Stadium. ON THIS SPOT, WAS ERECTED THE FLAGSTAFF FROM WHICH WAS LOWERED THE UNION JACK AND UPON WHICH WAS RAISED THE FLAG OF JAMAICA, AT MIDNIGHT, 5TH-6TH AUGUST, 1962. The Jamaica that McKenley, Wint and Rhoden represented at the Olympics was not yet a sovereign nation.

Yet it welcomed them back after the 1952 Games with an impromptu national holiday; it collected money, and it erected a statue to the Jamaican champion. This figure, which now bolts from the starting position outside the stadium, is a composite of several sprinters, and has, most notably, the body of Wint and the eyes and hawk nose of McKenley. On this smoky morning, gray pigs crop the lawns that spread down to Arthur Wint Drive. (McKenley and Rhoden Crescents are on the other side of town.)

Up behind the highest tier of the stands, Camperdown Coach Glen Mills sits in his office. He's also a national coach. He, too, sees the psyche of the sprinter throughout Jamaican society, or the other way around. "Life here is hectic," he says. "Everything's in short supply. It's understood that there aren't enough jobs, schooling, housing, transport. Forty-two thousand take the exam to get into high school. Only 9,300 can make it. You can't stand at the back and wait your turn or you'll get left out. In the city we like to regard ourselves as quiet people, but even a small dispute brings out the aggression. Sprinting is built around that dramatic release."

This makes the visitor think of Quarrie, a Camperdown alumnus, not because he was a paragon of aggressiveness but because he seemed quite the opposite-soft-spoken and modest. "That was part of why Jamaica came to admire him so," says Mills. "But if you knew him well, you could see the drive in him. It's just that he only let it show in his races. The other thing was that he went right from winning the 100 and 200 in the Schools Championships in 1969 to a triple gold in the Commonwealth Games in 1970. He didn't go to USC until later. So kids could say, 'He was just here, right here with us.' He was the greatest lift to the tradition since McKenley and Wint."

Quarrie lives in Los Angeles now; Lennox Miller, who's a dentist and will be the Jamaican liaison to the Los Angeles Olympics, lives in nearby Altadena, Calif. Rhoden is a podiatrist in San Diego. Clearly, there's a risk in sending men such as these abroad for education.

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