Why do Jamaicans run so fast?

According to Nazma Muller in Kingston, it really is the grass

  • Prince Harry copies Usain Bolt’s trademark move after their race in Jamaica earlier this year. Photograph by Aston Spaulding

On August 16, 2008, in precisely 9.69 seconds, planet earth changed for ever. Usain Bolt flashed across our television screens, and before Ali G could say ‘Boomshakalak”, it was all over.

The world went wild.

And then, just in case we thought it was a fluke, on August 16, 2009, exactly one year later, he broke his own record – in 9.58 seconds.

The branding experts went wild.

But if you think Dr The Honourable Ambassador Usain St Leo Bolt OJ, CD can relax on his laurels, think again. Lightning Bolt, the Don Dadda of track and field, the man with the golden boots, knows the runnings. You see, here, in Jamdown, the crucible from which have sprung Rastafari, reggae, and all things irie, sprinters know what time it is. Down yah so, dem nuh ramp. Dem tek running serious.

Two words: Yohan Blake.

In the last four years since that absolutely wicked Olympics, before Bolt could say, “Wheel and come again, selector”, there was Blake hot on his heels, gunning for gold. One false start from Bolt was all he needed to win the World Championship. In March this year, facing the Jamaican Olympic trials in June against Bolt, Asafa Powell, Nesta Carter and Michael Frater, Blake was frank. “All the guys are running really fast and most could get in a 100m final at the Olympics,” he said. “It’s going to be a really difficult one because nobody’s spot is guaranteed, and you have to be ready on the day. I think it’s going to be tougher than the Olympics!”

So of course every Tom, Dick and (Prince) Harry has been trying to figure out how Jamaicans run so fast. And the list of theories, hypotheses, claims, myths and nancy stories proposed by university researchers, sports experts, rum bar drinkers, seer men and taxi drivers range from the feasible to the utterly bizarre. The psychic influence of the untameable runaway slaves known as the Maroons, the mystical ecology of the Cockpit Country and the Blue Mountains, the magnetic energy of minerals like bauxite in the soil, the effects of eating yam …

“A de curry goat, man,” one sage posited. “All dem goat a run up and down de road, fast, fast, dem never get lick. De man dem just tek in de goat speed when dem nyam it.” Another, just as insistent, through a mouthful of flaky pastry and beef, stated firmly: “A de patty.”

The most scientific explanation thus far is the identification of a “speed gene” in Jamaican sprinters, which is also found in athletes from West Africa (where many Jamaicans’ ancestors came from), and makes certain leg muscles twitch faster.

There’s an anthropological theory that links to the gene pool idea: Jamaica being the last port of call in the Caribbean, the slaves who survived the horrors of the Atlantic crossing would have been the strongest, most resilient and determined to live. Hence their legendary fighting spirit.

A Rastafari brethren, wreathed in smoke, declared, “A jes’ Jah works, yuh nuh see it? It’s in the air. Natural mystic.” After all, he reasoned, the greatest Jamaican sprinter ever was called “Herb” McKenley, nuh true?

But no, it’s not that grass, it turns out. It’s the other one. The actual grass in fields that Jamaican pickney a run pon from the time them likkle bit. Most train in whatever open field they can find because their school doesn’t have a proper track. So when they do run on an official track, they’re even faster. And the desire to shine at Champs, the sporting highlight of the year in Jamaica, the secondary schools track and field championship, is an obsession with children as young as three.

All you have to say to a pickney in Jamaica is “Ready” and they drop to the ground, one foot in front the other. “Set”, and they stick their bums up in the air, poised to take off, like a bolt of lightning.


Funding provided by the 11th EDF Regional Private Sector Development Programme Direct Support Grants Programme.
The views expressed on this website are those of the the authors and do not reflect those of the Direct Support Grants Programme.