The American essayist John Jeremiah Sullivan once wondered what made Jamaican music so special. How on earth, he asked, had this small Caribbean island spawned so many global stars, and more recorded music per head than anywhere else on the planet? “Creatively,” Sullivan wrote, “it just seems to take place at a higher amperage. It may be an island effect. Isolation does seem to breed these intensities sometimes.”
This island effect – if that is what it is – doesn’t apply just to music, I realized as I sat on the perimeter of the athletics track at the national stadium in Kingston. The Blue Mountains loomed on one side, the ocean shimmered in the distance on the other, and in the immediate vicinity everything was happening at a greater intensity, or higher amperage.
Behind me, the bleachers were a heaving, swaying mass of people, chanting, cheering, singing, dancing and banging drums. They included children, parents, mothers with babies; and there was a constant buzz, like a billion mosquitoes – vuvuzelas. Officially, the crowd was 30,000, the old venue’s seated capacity, but it was a river in spate, poised to burst its banks and spill on to the track.
The occasion was Champs, Jamaica’s secondary schools’ athletics championships. That’s right: schools. This Premier League-sized crowd was watching schoolchildren run, jump and throw. But mainly run, extremely fast.
I had been urged to attend Champs, told there was nothing like it anywhere in the world, but I had gone to Jamaica in search of answers to another question: how could such a small island so comprehensively dominate sprinting on the world stage? Led by Usain Bolt and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, Jamaican athletes won 11 of a possible 18 sprint medals at the 2012 London Olympics, including first and second in the men’s 100m, and first, second and third in the men’s 200m. Their success raised eyebrows and suspicions. America’s nine-times Olympic gold medallist Carl Lewis questioned the effectiveness of anti-doping checks in Jamaica. “No one is accusing anyone,” he said. “They [Jamaicans] say: ‘Oh, we’ve been great for the sport.’ No, you have not. No country has had that kind of dominance. I’m not saying they’ve done anything for certain. I don’t know. But how dare anybody feel that there shouldn’t be scrutiny, especially in our sport.”
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