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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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Let's assume you've just made your way here from the evocative scenes of the middle pages. Your hands are still a little unsteady. Your breathing seems a bit more ragged than usual. Well, whether you tremble from appetite or indignation or simply from the relief of a few moments without winter, if you keep reading back here, you're in for a further jolt. The transition from Jamaica's North Coast settings, so languid and lubricious in their perfect light, to the life and sporting concerns of the rest of the island can be jarring, even upsetting.

The contrast is that profound one between First World and Third, between visitor and native, between a most luscious manifestation of a wealthy colossus and an island with fewer people than Mississippi, less land than Connecticut and not very much money at all.

Jamaica's per capita income in 1981 was $1,340. It is derived almost totally from bananas, bauxite, sugar and tourism. The administration of former Prime Minister Michael Manley (1972-1980) had socialist sympathies which made investment capitalists edgy. Similar fears caused a near-exodus of professional and business people. Unemployment rose to more than 30%. The present government of Edward Seaga espouses a free market policy and has cut the inflation rate from 18% to 8.4%, but a quarter of the work force is still unemployed. The result is abysmally low pay for those lucky enough to have jobs. Unskilled workers in the electronics and beverage industries make between $47 and $105 a week (U.S. dollars). Meanwhile, chicken is $2 a pound, gas is $2.60 a gallon. There are some lovely homes in the foothills of the Blue Mountains behind Kingston, the capital, but in the city, most Jamaicans live very close to the bone.

Yet it's from these hardscrabble families that the nation's proudest athletic tradition continues to flow. Jamaica is a fountain of sprinters. Since 1948, when Arthur Wint and Herb McKenley finished 1-2 in the Olympic 400 meters (and 2nd in the 800 and 4th in the 200, respectively), there has seldom been a year without one or two Jamaicans near the top of the list of best sprinters. George Rhoden won the 1952 Olympic 400 and McKenley was again second. McKenley got a third silver medal in the 1952 100 and is the only man ever to make all three Olympic sprint finals. Lennox Miller's 10.04 was second to Jim Hines's world-record 9.95 in the 1968 Mexico City Olympic 100 and Miller won the bronze medal in the 100 in '72. Don Quarrie won the 1976 200 in 20.23 and was second in the 100 to Trinidad's Hasely Crawford. Last year, Bert Cameron was ranked No. 1 in the 400 by Track & Field News.

But this recurring genius isn't just coincidence. Jamaican high schools send as many as a dozen teams to the Penn Relays every year. In 1981, Quarrie's alma mater, Camperdown College (in Jamaica, a high school is usually called a college in the manner typical of British Commonwealth nations), won the high school 4x100-meter relay there in 40.90. "Our time was faster than that of the winner of the IC4A college-division race," says Glen Mills, who has coached Camperdown for 13 years. "I got tired of people asking me whether we were an all-star team from all over Jamaica. I said, 'Then where did the second-place team come from?' "

It came from Kingston. Nearly all the country's best sports schools are located in or near this city of 671,000, and any study of Jamaican sprinting excellence must proceed in its smoky, noisy urban center. Walking along North Street, for example, a mile from the docks, in search of Kingston College, one is approached by a wiry youth with the matted locks of Rastafarianism. "Ah, mon, I know what you want."

"Well, I want to find the school at this address...."

He seems able to walk a yard from one's side and at the same time rasp in one's ear, "Ah, but besides that. You want ganja [marijuana]. You want sinsemilla [higher-potency marijuana]."

"No. Lord, that would give me bad dreams."

"Not this ganja. This will let your spirit soar. This will let you see the truth of things for the first time. This will put you at rest with your soul."

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