Jamaica Proves To Be New Power in Track & Field

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The New York Sun

The staggering performance by Jamaica’s Usain Bolt in the men’s 100-meter finals in Beijing wasn’t a complete shock — he arrived in China as the world record holder.

What was shocking were the Jamaican women, led by the youngster Shelly-Anne Fraser, sweeping the 100 yesterday, perhaps signaling a frightening changing of the guard in international track and field for America. Yet anyone who has attended a track meet on the East Coast in the last few years (in particular, the Penn Relays or at Icahn Stadium, where Bolt set his first world record) knew this day was coming. Mention Jamaica to a New Yorker and in response you might hear about reggae, jerk chicken, and Red Stripe beer. Guess what? Add track to that enticing mix. Jamaicans, both on the island and living here, have been the most fervent supporters of a sport desperately in need of the “wow” factor that Michael Phelps provided for swimming over the weekend.

How did this happen? America has always relied on the sprints and relays to boost its medal count. This was no fluke — Jamaica’s rich track history has always flown under America’s radar. But Jamaican high schools are track academies without the stigma of the old Soviet Union/East European sports-factory mix of ideology and body-altering enhancements. There will be plenty of Monday morning quarterbacking on the dominance of the Jamaicans, coupled with suggestions of drug use and blood doping. This wasn’t a fluke, but a “bolt” of high-speed excitement for an island that has its share of domestic problems.

However, there are six more days for America to redeem itself after this weekend’s massacre. It was possibly the worst opening three-day session in American Olympic track and field history, aside from Sanya Richard’s silky glide into the woman’s 400 finals. Goodbye, Bernard Lagat, as well as the two other American entrants in the 1,500. Adios to all the American entrants in the women’s 800 and the men’s long jump. The long jump is an acute embarrassment: It’s an event with a rich American lineage, beginning with Jesse Owens’s defiant victory in Nazi Germany in 1936, followed by Bob Beamon of Jamaica High School (the one in Queens, not the island) breaking the 29-foot barrier in 1968 in Mexico City, and Carl Lewis’s four-peat between 1984 and 1996.

Today’s finals and heats will hopefully put some swagger back into America track. The men’s 400-meter hurdles, as previewed on Friday, will feature Americans Kerron Clement and Bershawn Jackson as the favorites. Foolishly, Angelo Taylor was left off the list. The charismatic hurdler, who won Olympic gold in Sydney as a 21-year-old, has spent the past two years running the 400-meter dash, with only an occasional dip into the hurdle pool. Yet his smooth hurdling over the weekend in the heats, where he led the qualifiers with a 47.94-second mark (a season best), suddenly puts him back in the spotlight. Kevin Young, the Harlem resident who won this event in 1992 at Barcelona and still holds the world and Olympic record of 46.78, likes Taylor’s chances. “Angelo’s been there before, which is a huge focus factor, and he has the most consistent stride pattern over the hurdles,” Young said.

The women’s 800 is Kenyan teenager Pamela Jelimo’s to lose. The 18-year-old won both of her qualifying heats in devastating times, and is undefeated in 10 races this year. At 35, the great Maria Mutola of Mozambique, running in her fifth-consecutive 800 final (she won gold in 2000 and bronze in 1996), startled many by making it to the finals. The 3,000-meter steeplechase doesn’t receive much press attention in America, but it would be remiss not to mention Anthony Famiglietti. The New York City resident and two-time Olympian finished eighth overall in the qualifying heats. A bronze here would earn Famiglietti the press attention he disdains. Attention will be certainly be lavished on Russian superstar pole vaulter Yelena Isinbaeva. American Jenn Stuczynski, ranked second in the world, is vaulting for silver here, as Isinbaeva hasn’t lost since 2003.

As swimming and gymnastics have exited the games, track and field has center stage, with heats continuing in the men’s 200 and 110 hurdles. The big question is not whether Bolt will pull off the double in the 200 (his preferred event), but if he can break Michael Johnson’s once-unapproachable world record of 19.32, set at the Atlanta Games in 1996. Defending Olympic champion Shawn Crawford and 100-meter bronze medalist Walter Dix are America’s hopes. Dix’s specialty is also the 200, yet it’s “Bolt” time. I can’t wait to see him come around the turn in this event.

For Liu Xiang, the defending champion in the 110 hurdles, Beijing was primed to be his homecoming coronation. But the former record holder has been injured much of the year, and hasn’t run since a tune-up race in Beijing in late May. The favorite here must be the young Cuban sensation Dayron Robles, the current world record holder at 12.87. Robles has run five of the six fastest times this year. Behind Robles and apart from Liu, American champion David Oliver looks like the most likely contender for a medal. The Howard graduate ran 12.95 in Qatar, the only hurdler other than Robles to have gone under 13 seconds this year. It’ll be interesting to see what Terrence Trammell has left in the tank. The “old man” of the event at 29, Trammell captured silver for America in the previous games in Athens and Sydney. The track world was turned upside down this weekend. Who knows what will happen today?


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