Tokyo 2020: Long track of a sprinting island

Updated on Aug 02, 2021 08:13 AM IST

Jamaica is the land of yams and jerk sauce, fast bowlers and wicketkeepers, reggae and the Rasta life. In the last two decades, it’s also come to be known as the land of the champion Olympic sprinters.

Former Jamaican sprinter Herb McKenley(Twitter) PREMIUM
Former Jamaican sprinter Herb McKenley(Twitter)

Forty years after Jamaica lost its talisman, his chimes of freedom ring on. In any corner of the country, Bob Marley tends to creep up on you unannounced, often through a busker in the distance singing what Three Little Birds told him (if you’re wondering, they said, “every little thing is gonna be alright”).

Jamaica is the land of yams and jerk sauce, fast bowlers and wicketkeepers, reggae and the Rasta life. In the last two decades, it’s also come to be known as the land of the champion Olympic sprinters.

Sprinters who will be in focus on Saturday as three Jamaicans -- Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, Elaine Thompson-Herah and Shericka Jackson -- go head-to-head for the women’s 100m gold at Tokyo 2020 in the first post-Usain Bolt Olympics.

But the country’s sprinting tradition, like the food and the music, goes back much longer.

To trace the roots, you need to drive east from the capital Kingston for an hour on the A2 highway (the more popular A1 leads to the tourist town of Montego Bay) to Clarendon. Here, in the village of Pleasant Valley, Herb McKenley was born in 1922. His father, a doctor, wanted him to be doctor too, and his mother wanted him to be a violinist, but all young Herb wanted to do was run.

And so he did.

McKenley could clock 51 seconds in the 400m when he was still in high school – the record in the 1940s stood in the mid-46s – and by the time the Olympic Games resumed after World War 2, he was the fastest ever seen. McKenley set the 440 yards record of 46.3 seconds in 1947, lowered it to 46 seconds flat in 1948, and ran the two yards shorter 400m in 45.9 seconds just before the Games.

But he still had to settle for silver at London 1948. And here’s where the story of Jamaican sprinting becomes fascinating.

Another 40 minutes down the A2 from Clarendon is Manchester parish, where Arthur Wint, the second of five children, was born two years before McKenley in the hamlet of Plowden to Presbyterian minister Reverend John Wint and his wife Hilda. A Jamaican school champion in the 400m and 800m who continued to make heads turn across the Americas into his 20s, Wint joined the British aircrew training scheme at the start of World War 2, and became one of the few Caribbean pilots to see active duty for the Royal Air Force. After the war, Wint did what Herb McKenley’s father had wanted his son to do – joined medical school.

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When they both went to London 1948, the American press admitted that McKenley was the odds-on favourite for gold. In the final, he was leading into the homestretch, as expected, when he heard footsteps rapidly catching up to him. “Boom, boom, boom,” McKenley later said, according to Frank Litsky in a 2007 New York Times article.

Wint won gold, McKenley silver; and together these two pioneers put Jamaica on the world sprinting map.

Four years later at Helsinki 1952, when another Jamaican, George Rhoden, won gold in the 400m, McKenley took silver again. But McKenley, Wint, Rhoden and Lesley Laing won Jamaica’s first relay gold in the 4x400m.

Wint became a Member of the British Empire in 1954, served as Jamaica’s high commissioner to Britain and ambassador to Sweden and Denmark in the 1970s, and died in 1992. McKenley coached the national athletics team from 1954 to 1973, and later served as president of Jamaica’s Amateur Athletic Association. He died in 2007.

From the 1960s onwards, American, British and Canadian sprinters caught up with the Jamaicans – often relying on Jamaica-born athletes (Linford Christie, Donovan Bailey, Sanya Richards and Ben Johnson, to name a few) – but the medals kept coming. There was Lennox Miller in 1968 and 1972, Don Quarrie in 1976, Merlene Ottey from 1980 to 2000, Deon Hemmings in 1996, Tanya Lawrence in 2000, and Veronica Campbell-Brown in 2004.

Then came the lightning Bolt, and we know the rest.

But if you thought that the two men who started the revolution were forgotten over the decades, particularly in the Usain Bolt frenzy, they weren’t. Bolt, born in 1986 in Trelawny, two hours up from Manchester parish, always maintains that Wint and McKenley were his heroes and his inspiration.

Just as the spirit of Bob Marley still hangs over Jamaica, so does the memory of its sprinting pioneers.

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