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The History of Track and Field in Jamaica

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ISSA Boys and Girls Champs (image source: nationwide90FMHistory of track and field in Jamaica| ISSA Boys and Girls Champs (image source: nationwide90FM

By Venesha Johnson | Associate Writer

Growing up in Jamaica we simply can't possibly avoid taking part in organized sports. We have the opportunity to compete at every educational level. At age three, we begin our first interaction in kindergarten and every year, schools hold a sports day where the entire student body competes to win points for their team (house) while showcasing their athletic prowess. This is starting ground of every Jamaican track and field athlete.

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Things get kicked up a notch once we get to the high school level though. The largest high school track and field competition in the world is held here in Jamaica. There is only one competition of its sort that I know of, the Inter-Secondary School Association (ISSA) Boys and Girls Championship. Six schools participated in the inaugural boy's championship in 1910 at Kingston's Sabina Park. It was planned by the principals and officiated by volunteers, teachers, and coaches. It developed over time and now plays a major role in our culture. The Girls Championship first took place in 1914, but it wasn't until the 1960s that it really took off. However, because of poor financial performance, it merged with the Boys in 1999.

For the World Championship and Olympics, the ISSA Boys & Girls Championship is the ideal practice ground. According to several competitors, the enthusiasm during Champs is even higher than it is at the Olympics. All of Jamaica's top athletes experienced their first intense competition there. ISSA Boys and Girls Championship is really and truly the breeding ground for our Track and field athletes. If you can conquer this championship or even manage to stand out, you will do well on the international stage.

The largest international competition for track and field athletes is the Olympics. Jamaica's first Olympic gold medalist, Arthur Wint, won the 400m event at the 1948 Olympics in London to secure our place on the global stage. Likewise, Herb McKenley, Leslie Laing, George Rhoden, and Arthur Wint, were heroes of the Helsinki, Finland, Olympics in 1952.

However, the success of Jamaica's track and field program is largely due to Herb McKenley, known as the "Godfather of Jamaican Track and Field," although he never won an individual gold medal in the Olympics. He was a talented sprinter who competed in the 100, 200, and 400 meters at the same Olympic competition. He was also a superb coach who shaped the minds of many young people and contributed to the development of Jamaica's track and field system. He steered the national team for several years while serving as the JAAA's president.

Following 1952, Jamaica only failed to bring home a medal at the Tokyo and Melbourne Olympics. They did not participate together in 1960. Then, in 1976 Montreal, Donald Quarrie won Jamaica's first Olympic gold medal since independence. He came in second in the 100m and first in the 200m. This rekindled Jamaica's love of athletics and had an impact on the subsequent star, Merlene Ottey. She has medaled in every Olympics since earning Jamaica's first female Olympic medal at the 1980 Masco Olympics, except Seoul, Korea in 1988. Merlene Ottey's desire to win an Olympic gold medal was sadly never fulfilled. She repeatedly drew close. The second-place finish in the 100-meter event at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics was the closest and most contentious. Many still had the opinion that they defrauded her of the gold medal.

At the same 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, Deon Hemmings became the first woman from Jamaica to win an Olympic gold medal. Setting a new standard for women's track and field on the island by breaking an Olympic record.

Some consider Jamaica Track & Field's Golden Era to be from 2004 to 2016. Jamaica's most prosperous period began with the Athens Olympics. Veronica Campbell Brown served as the inspiration by winning the first female sprint gold medal for Jamaica. Asafa Powell paved the way for male sprinters in Jamaica by repeatedly setting or breaking world records. He is one of Jamaica's finest sprinters despite never having captured an individual Global title.

In 2008 is where Jamaica’s true dominance of the sport shined. Usain Bolt broke his own 100 m World Record by 0.03 seconds in the final, clocking a timing of 9.69 seconds, on Saturday, August 16, giving us our first of many gold medals at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, China. The women's 100 m occurred the following day, and Jamaica and the United States were scheduled to compete. Kerron Stewart of Jamaica had impressed in the preliminary rounds, but in the final, Shelly-Ann Fraser finished far ahead of the competition, earning Stewart and Sherone Simpson a shared silver medal for clocking in at the same time. As a result, Jamaica became the first nation to win all of the medals in the women's 100 m at an Olympic Games.

Jamaica broke the previous national record, set in 1952, by winning 6 gold medals, 3 silver medals, and 2 bronze medals after the competition, placing 13th overall in the medal standings across all sports. Jamaica finished third overall in the number of medals in athletics.

Jamaica has continued to earn medal after medal, breaking record after record and is home to the fastest man, Usain Bolt and woman, Elaine Thompson Herah. In just athletics over the past 90 years, Jamaica has won 42 Commonwealth Golds, 14 World Championship Golds, and 17 Olympic Gold Medals, plus even more in silver and bronze. What can I say except, “wi likkle but wi tallawah”.

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Return to History of Sports in Jamaica from History of Track and Field in Jamaica 
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References & Sources For History of Track and Field in Jamaica

  1. Brown, E. (2021, April 5). How Track And Field In Jamaica Progressed From 1910 - EDBTRAVEL. Edbtravel.com. https://edbtravel.com/jamaica-track-and-field-1910-to-present/categories/culture/
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