Why Are Jamaicans the Fastest Runners in the World?

Harvard University Press
4 min readAug 13, 2023

Orlando Patterson’s award-winning book The Confounding Island: Jamaica and the Postcolonial Predicament, out now in paperback, grapples with the paradox of this country: its remarkable achievements amid continuing struggles since independence. In this excerpt, Patterson offers a fresh answer to why Jamaica is so dominant in the sport of sprinting.

To understand Jamaica’s preeminence in athletics we must turn to the dynamic interaction of history, culture, institutions, public health, and socioeconomics. Also important is location, primarily the island’s proximity to the United States. Foremost in any explanation is the existence of a distinctive institutional system. It is now universally agreed that the single most important factor explaining the nation’s athletic prowess is the institution of the annual Inter-Scholastic Athletic Championship, popularly called Champs. Champs is a five-day meet including athletes from ten years of age to eighteen, which is attended by over thirty thousand fans of all ages. Jamaica’s equivalent of the Super Bowl in the United States, it is itself embedded in the broader institutional framework of athletic sports throughout the island’s educational and extra-educational sports system of youth clubs and periodic special events.

When I went to high school during the 1950s, Champs was already the preeminent national sport and great athletes such as Arthur Wint, Herb McKenley and George Rhoden by far my most adored personal heroes. All students were expected to engage in track and field, unlike cricket and soccer, which were elective, and the high point of the school year was Sports Day, when family members of all ages turned out to cheer us and our Houses (as the intramural divisions of the high schools were called, each with its own name and insignia) in the intramural contests. (I was a third-rate miler.) Devoted teachers doubled up as coaches to make all this possible. One of the most revered was Noel A. White who, with G. C. Foster, coached my high school, Kingston College, to Champs victory in 1957, ushering in a fourteen-year period of powerhouse victories between 1962 and 1975. White went on to found Hotspur Athletic Club, one of the first groups focused on the training of professional female athletes.

Champs, and the system of athletics of which it is the apex, is no doubt key to any explanation of Jamaica’s sprint dominance. Usain Bolt was basically correct in his reply to a Financial Times reporter when asked to explain his supremacy in sprinting: “It’s just that we have a good system. Boys and Girls Champs keep producing more and more athletes.” The question, however, is how to account for this development and especially the reasons why Jamaica became such an extreme outlier in its national commitment to track and field and the cultivation of sprinting talent. The island’s performance contradicts nearly all explanations of why nations succeed at the Olympics, the two most important explanatory factors usually offered being per capita national income and population size. An understanding of the island’s success requires a historical sociology of the path-dependent process by which its field and track culture emerged.

Organized and informal athletic sports were introduced to Jamaica and other British possessions by the British colonial power during the nineteenth century. This development dovetailed with British imperial culture of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The schoolmasters who led the elite British public schools “forged the link securely between sports and Empire. . . . They believed in the value of these games for the development of ethical behavior and the formation of sound social attitudes. They were loud and forceful advocates of athleticism. They held that games were the heart of the educational process. . . . And as equally convinced imperialists, they had a view of education that was not only national but also imperial.” By the late nineteenth century the local elite had “embraced organised sports as a means of establishing themselves as arbiters and agents of British culture and imperial philosophy.” And by the early twentieth century, all the leading schools had not only made cricket and track and field an integral part of their curriculum but had also imitated the British custom of interscholastic competition. Like the British, they tried to restrict this competition to only the most elite schools. In doing so, they simply made competitive sports more desirable to all of the other high schools on the island. In Jamaica, pressure was son exerted to open the system up to a larger number of schools, much more so than in islands such as Barbados, which Sandiford described accurately as “grotesquely racist and snobbish” in its sports culture as in other areas of life. By 1910 members of the colored (mainly mulatto and light-complexioned) middle classes were attending and participating in the early annual championship events.

Jamaica differed in two other respects from the other islands. By the end of the second decade of the twentieth century, cricket had far surpassed other sports in the Eastern Caribbean islands, whereas track and field continued to hold its own as an important, if still secondary, sport in Jamaica. A second distinction was the fact that several important role models devoted to track and field had begun to emerge in Jamaica. This was a largely serendipitous development, as is so often the case in the emergence of cultural and institutional path-dependent processes. Role models influence later institutional developments in various ways. Some do so solely by virtue of their unusual achievements in a particular field, which lend prestige to the activity among groups who feel a special connection to, and pride in, the role model. Others, in addition, actively promote the activity as teachers and facilitators for emerging players. And still others do so by virtue of their achievements in additional fields of endeavor, which not only enhances, by association, the prestige of the activity but also allows the model to exercise influence in its promotion.