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Why do all top sprinters come from Jamaica?
When the fastest men on the planet contest the Olympic 100 meters final in London on August 5, it will be a major upset if the winner does not come from the small Caribbean island of Jamaica.
Injuries or false starts aside, Usain Bolt will take center stage as he bids to retain the title he won in Beijing in 2008, but if he slips up then young pretender Yohan Blake is waiting in the wings, not to mention veteran former world record-holder Asafa Powell.
With such a pool of talent, 4x100m relay success is almost guaranteed, and Bolt is an even heavier favorite for 200m individual gold.
In the women's events, Jamaican domination is also a common theme, with Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce defending her 100m crown and Veronica Campbell-Brown going for a hat-trick of golds in the 200m.
Sprinters from the United States have won the majority of gold medals in the modern Olympic era and the likes of Tyson Gay will be keen to knock Bolt off the top of the podium in London.
But Gay represents a country with a population of over 300 million people with a massive tradition in track and field through the eras of stars such as Jesse Owens, Carl Lewis and Florence Griffith-Joyner.
So how is it that they are now largely second best to athletes from an impoverished island inhabited by fewer than three million people?
And it's not only athletes who don the famous gold and green trim of Jamaica who have made their mark.
Olympic 100m champions Linford Christie (for Great Britain in 1992) and Donovan Bailey (for Canada in 1996) were born and bred in Jamaica, as was the now disgraced Ben Johnson, who also represented Canada.
So what is the secret of this remarkable Jamaican sprinting pedigree and will it continue into the future?
With role models like Bolt and Campbell-Brown, the conveyor belt of talent certainly shows no signs of slowing. The 22-year-old Blake, who won last year's world championship 100m in Daegu when Bolt was disqualified in the final for false starting, is the latest to emerge.
Bolt himself drew inspiration from a former Jamaican great -- Don Quarrie, who won the 1976 Olympic 200m title in Montreal and six Commonwealth Games gold medals.
"For me Don Quarrie was somebody to watch and to be amazed by," Bolt told CNN's Aiming for Gold program.
"That's why I love the 200m so much because I've seen Don Quarrie and I said, 'I can be that good.' Quarrie, (Herb) McKenley, these are the guys that I looked up to."
McKenley and Arthur Wint were the first Jamaicans to taste Olympic success, at the 1948 London Games.
The elegant Wint pipped McKenley for gold in the longer 400m sprint, while the latter achieved the rare feat of reaching the finals of the 100, 200 and 400m at the first post-war Olympics.
Of Jamaica's current crop of women stars, Campbell-Brown was mentored by the great Merlene Ottey, who won a record 14 world championship medals for Jamaica in the sprint events and was still competing at international level for her adopted Slovenia past her 50th birthday. Now 52, Ottey still has hopes of qualifying for London 2012.
"She (Ottey) is a very positive person, very strong, very hard working, very passionate and she is a friend," Campbell-Brown told CNN.
A hard school
Campbell-Brown went to the same high school in Jamaica as Ottey -- Vere Technical -- and both earned their trade in the ferociously competitive track and field schools competition on the island.
Bolt is convinced the key to Jamaican success is the intense rivalry of grassroots athletics from an early age.
"I feel we push our young athletes," he said. "There is this thing called the Boys and Girls Championships in Jamaica, which showcases the talent.
"The level of competition is really high because it pushes you every day to be the best in your event, in your class."
And even now as Bolt gets down on the blocks at a major championships, that early experience gained is invaluable.
"I think it helped me to get past my fear of running in front of thousands and millions of people because I'm front of a home crowd and we are under a lot of pressure."
The four-day championships play to crowds of up to 30,000 at the national stadium in Kingston, while a TV audience of over a million watch the live coverage. Many of the top stars go back to hand out medals and inspire the next generation.
As a 16-year-old, Bolt thrived in this mini-Olympics in 2003, winning the 200/400 double in 20.23 and 45.30 seconds -- times which would have been good enough to qualify for most Olympic finals.
Campbell-Brown was spotted at an early age while still at primary school and placed on the path to Olympic glory.
"My coach and teacher at the time said to me, 'You are very talented, I think this is going to be a career path for you,' and he recommended Vere, which is still a sprint factory."
Christie was unwittingly put on his course to Olympic glory by his grandmother.
"She used to get us to to run errands to the shops and told us that she would spit on the ground and did not want it to dry before we got back. It meant we ran fast!" said the 52-year-old, who moved to Britain before he got the chance to compete in the Boys and Girls Championships.
Despite the hot house atmosphere of the schools showpiece, it is still a big step to the international athletics arena. Even Bolt, with his supreme abilities, needed assistance to make it to the top.
Glen Mills grew up wanting to emulate McKenley and Wint, but he turned to coaching when he realized he would fall short. In his 22-year stint in charge of the Jamaican national athletics team, he oversaw 71 world championship medals and 33 in the Olympics.
Mills quickly recognized that Bolt was a unique talent, but one who needed persuading to work hard.
A defeat to Gay over 200m at the world championships in Osaka in 2007 proved a turning point.
"I ran hard, came off the bend slightly behind Tyson Gay and I could not catch him. I was running really hard and I could not catch him," recounted Bolt.
"After that race I went over and I said, 'Coach, I was really trying, but I couldn't catch him.' "
Mills replied: "You are weak, you are very weak because you are not going to the gym and you don't like running 200."
The rest is history.
"I really dedicated myself to everything because I really wanted to be a champion," said Bolt, who became a global superstar the following year as he won the 100 and 200m in Beijing in breathtaking, record-breaking style.
Mills stepped down from fulltime involvement with Jamaica in 2009, but still coaches Bolt and Blake and some other up-and-coming athletes.
Bolt, like many of Jamaica's sprinting sensations, comes from a rural background where hard graft is part of the daily routine.
The son of a coffee farm laborer, he grew up in a parish called Trelawny in the north of Jamaica. His house had no running water and as a child he had to walk for miles with heavy, loaded pails, building up a natural strength.
In many ways it mirrors the rural backgrounds of the great Kenyan and Ethiopian long distance runners. Campbell-Brown, who also grew up in Trelawny, believes it is a factor in Jamaica's success.
"I would fetch water from the river, so I did a lot of walking. I would walk to school, there's a lot of hills," the 30-year-old said.
"I think it's just hard work, determination and all the things that we have to do growing up as a young person that has contributed.
"Jamaica is full of so much talent. It just so happens that a huge number of those talented people were born in Trelawny."
Among them is Johnson, who lived in the area until emigrating to Canada in 1976 aged 15. His winning time of 9.79 seconds to win the 1988 Olympics 100m title was considered one of the greatest performances in the history of athletics.
But a failed drugs test in Seoul for the banned steroid Stanozolol saw him stripped of the gold and gain worldwide infamy.
Blake also had a rural upbringing, and tested his natural ability in unusual fashion.
"We grew up in the country where your only friends are animals. I find it funny, once we were running with goats and stuff. I think the sprinting really starts from there," he told CNN.
Living off the land may well have benefits in terms of diet, with yams the staple food.
"My parents used to plant their own yams, it's very natural and often eaten with fish," said Campbell-Brown.
Christie agrees: "It's often said you are what you eat, and the Jamaican diet is a really natural one, full of fruit and vegetables and protein."
Whether it's through their tough backgrounds and lifestyles, their healthy diet and then the rigors of early competition and training, Jamaica's sprinters have found the magic ingredient for success.
But those factors alone are not unique in the world, so maybe there's another factor that gives them that extra edge?
"Sprinting is a Jamaican attitude," said Christie.
"To be a sprinter you need to be a little bit of showoff. Because like the heavyweight boxing champions of the world, this is what sprinting is all about and, you know, Jamaicans just love to show off!"
The supreme "showoff" of his time, perhaps of all time, just has to be Bolt -- and it comes naturally to him.
"I'm a person who always liked to express himself, even in my younger days, it comes naturally to me," he said.
"Even when I was younger I would do stuff and notice that the crowd really clicked to that.
"I've really just continued doing it. It's fun for me and people come out also to see me run fast but also to see 'What new thing is Usain going to do today, what is he going to come up with to make us laugh?' "
Bolt's bow and arrow victory salute is his trademark, and if the form book is anything to go by he will be dusting off the routine a few more times in London -- and a host of his teammates are set to join him on the medal podiums.
the world as we write it
Sunday, June 24, 2012
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