There are some things that are ingrained in Jamaican culture, things that most Jamaicans engage in more than a casual interest in, and sports has always been top of the heap. Track and field, boxing, football, netball, auto racing, cricket and yes, even horse racing are of more than of passing interest to many. The daily news highlights and papers are not complete without regular updates and results, and the achievements of our athletes are celebrated and critiqued with equal levels of enthusiasm.
Of all the sports however, track and field-particularly sprint events-is the king of the mountain. From the earliest of ages, when kids in other countries are learning t-ball or kickball or how to dribble, Jamaican kids are competing in track meets and dreaming of becoming the next Shelly Ann or Usain. As I’ve often said to friends who marveled at our athletes’ exploits on the world stage, Brazilians play football, Dominicans play baseball, Jamaica, we produce sprinters.
Many people outside of Jamaica only became aware of Jamaica’s proficiency in track through the exploits of Usain Bolt et al over the last decade plus. This list however is going to highlight the best of the best. It should also provide some perspective on the history of track in Jamaica. For the purposes of this article I have listed two separate categories: pre-1976 and post 1976. I have also used three categories to come up with the top 10 – outstanding performance in their events, overall career and impact in and out of the sport. This is relevant particularly for the pre-1976 athletes.
No matter your thoughts on him politically, he has to be on this list and quite frankly at the top. The first of the Jamaican sprinters to leave a mark on the global stage, Norman Manley was the first “schoolboy” (high school athlete) to run a 10 second 100 yards race. His 10.0 record stood from 1911 till 1952 and would have made him a finalist in the event at the 1912 Olympics as a high schooler. His contributions to nation building after leaving Jamaica College and attending Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar are more renowned, and illness prematurely ended his track career, but Norman Manley was the first real schoolboy sprint star and laid the foundation for what is the best track and field country. Athlete, Scholar, Lawyer, Statesman; a life well lived.
McKenley merits inclusion on this list additionally for being not only the only athlete to reach the 100, 200 and 400 meter finals in an Olympics, but he is also the only athlete to medal in the 100 and 400 meters in an Olympics. ‘Herb Mac’ oversaw the Jamaican athletics team for almost two decades and was a major influence at his alma mater Calabar High School. His relay squad that won the 1952 4×400 gold over the US team heralded to the world the greatness coming out of this little island.
It’s impossible to discuss Herb McKenley without mentioning Arthur Wint. The two careers are forever intertwined historically due to their dual accomplishments representing Jamaica in the 1948 and 1952 Olympics, but Wint’s career accomplishments were singularly spectacular and write like a fiction novel or a Hollywood movie:
A World War 2 fighter pilot for the Royal Air Force, Olympic silver medalist in the 800 meters in two Olympics (1948 & 1952) and part of the legendary 4×400 meter quartet that won the gold medal over the USA in 1952. How big was that win? In every Olympic Games since World War II, the US has won the 4×400 meter gold they competed in except two: the first time in 1952 when the Jamaican team beat them and 2012 when Bahamas won gold.
Arthur Wint went on to become a medical doctor and also served as a diplomat for the newly independent nation for four years starting in the 1970’s. A life well lived and worthy of inclusion on any list anywhere of 20th century greats.
Donald Quarrie was one of the worlds best sprinters for the decade of the 70’s. His accomplishments are impressive: 1 Olympic gold medal, 2 silver and a bronze. World record holder in the 100 and 200 meters, one of less than a dozen men in history to hold both at the same time. Quarrie’s gold medal in the 1976 Montreal Olympics 200 meters ended a two decade drought for Jamaicans atop the Olympic podium and ushered in the next generation of Jamaican sprint titans.
The last great Jamaican quarter miler, Bert Cameron represented Jamaica (and the University of Texas El Paso) winning titles at every level. He was a 3 time NCAA 400 meter champion, Commonwealth Games and World Championship gold medalist in the 400 meters and silver medalist at the 1988 Olympics in the 4×400 relay. Despite being one of the best 400 meter runners of his generation,
Cameron never won an individual title in his event at the Olympics, mostly due to injury, but his run in the 1984 Olympics 400 semifinals after pulling a hamstring mid-race is the stuff of legend. If you have never seen it, check it out on YouTube.
There is no discussion of Jamaican sprinters without mentioning the women, and there is no conversation without reference to the majesty of Merlene Ottey.
Ottey competed in 7 Olympic Games, owns 9 Olympic medals and 14 World Championship medals. Along with Carl Lewis, Usain Bolt and Allyson Felix, she has won twenty or more medal combined at the Olympics and World Championships, the only athletes to do so. Longevity, consistency, unparalleled greatness and the standard for all that followed, that is Ottey’s legacy. At the height of the steroids era in womens track and field, Ottey challenged and competed and won, cementing her legendary status in womens sprinting.
Shelly-Ann Fraser Price
Her only misfortune if you can call it that, was blowing up in the age of Bolt. SAFP is the ultimate big race star, a runner who shone brightest on the biggest stage and has the medals and titles as proof. Shelly Ann, known by many fans as the Pocket Rocket due to her diminutive stature, has shown throughout her career that she never comes up short when it counts most. Her exuberance, radiant character pre and post race, not to mention her never ending graciousness makes Shelly Ann Fraser Price the torch bearer of Jamaican women sprinters and epitome of class on and off the track.
A career of firsts; The winner of the inaugural World Youth Championships 100m in 1999, Veronica Campbell Brown is also the first to achieve the women’s sprint double at the World Junior Championships. In 2000 she became the first Jamaican woman ever to hold an Olympic sprint title, having taken the 200m gold at Athens 2004.
VCB as she is known has top 10 times in both the 10 and 20 meters, and in her career has earned a total of 46 medals (27 gold, 16 silver, 3 bronze.)
The man who has run more sub-10 seconds 100m races than anyone else in history is a no-brainer for this list. His most notable feat however may be something other than his prolific speed or his blazing relay legs for Jamaica’s world record setting teams. He should be also be given credit for being The Godfather of the new class of Jamaica’s home based talent. Why is this significant? Because for decades, the best young sprinters from Jamaica generally followed two routes: overseas to the US on scholarships (where many were never to be heard from or seen again) or lost to the boulevard of indifference, never maximizing their potential on the world stage.
Asafa was the star who stayed home, trained with local coaches in Jamaica and showed the others that came after-including Bolt-that you could stay home and still conquer the world.
He needs no introduction or preamble, as the following title says it all: The greatest sprinter who has ever lived. Usain Bolt is the 100 and 200 meter world record holder, and part of the world record setting 4×100 meter Jamaican team. The only man to win gold at 100, 200 and 4×100 meters for 3 straight Olympics-an unparalleled decade plus of dominance. One of only 9 athletes to win World youth, junior, and senior level gold medals. Bolt resurrected track and field in the post-BALCO, post Soviet doping era and made the sport, and his races must watch TV. The manner in which he won made him equal parts enigmatic and chastised, but regardless of critics, he is the best ever and anyone who has seen him vanquish all contenders can agree on that.
Omar McLeod -while he is young and his career is ongoing, McLeod by virtue of being Jamaica’s first male Olympic hurdles champion warrants mention. NCAA champion, national champion and Olympic gold, not to mention being the only man to run a sub-10 seconds 100 meters and a sub-13 seconds 110 hurdles, his future is bright.
Marilyn Neufville -A sprinter from Jamaica who emigrated to England represented both countries in her career, Neufville broke the 400 meters world record at 17 years old-the only Jamaican woman to break an outdoor sprinting world record.