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Why Jamaicans Are The Sprint Kings: A Scientific and Historical Explanation

Usain Bolt at the 2012 London Olympics
Usain Bolt at the 2012 London Olympics
Jean-François Toussaint

The athletic potential of a nation relies on several cultural, social, biological, genetic and environmental factors. These are hard to dissociate and their role only partly explain the current Jamaican hegemony.

First let me remind you that dignity, tolerance and respect are the best values and must serve here as guidelines. Exposing the correlations between the factors should not lead to any dubious interpretation - openly racist or even underhandedly discriminatory.

There is no such thing as a human race, there are just differences between individuals within the same species. These differences are progressive and appear and evolve gradually according to a set of laws.

There are also no such thing as a sprint gene, there are just a large amount of genes which continuously interfere with each other. While some genes code for muscle proteins, others determine cell energy production, fat metabolism or brain development. Evolution is continuously affecting these interactions.

On the subject of sprint runners, Jamaican athletes often refer to the singularity of their history. Like many of their contemporaries in the Caribbean region, Jamaicans are descended for the most part from men and women deported to the Caribbean islands from West Africa between the 17th and 19th centuries to work on plantations.

The athletes say they are the descendants of men and women who survived slavery and the fight for its abolition (which took place in 1834 in the British Empire) and the fight for independence (whose 50th birthday was cheerfully celebrated by Usain Bolt). This hypothesis must be taken into account.

As everywhere else in the world, history, culture and genetics cannot be separated from one another. History has a double influence on the human genome: one is temporal (the succession of generations) and the other one is spatial (geography and climate have a slow influence on each generation and the best-suited genes for local conditions pass on to the next generation).

The human (culture) or natural (altitude in particular) environments as well as diet have an impact on gene expression, and therefore affect the physical potential as well.

When history impacts genes

The Jamaican athletes’ history could have definitely helped the emergence and interaction of genes that favor speed. Through genetic testing, it has been shown that some genotypes, such as the ACTN3, are directly linked to athletic performance. Some genotypes are linked with stamina, others with strength and power.

Yet the influence of genetics over athletic performances remains unclear and must be approached very cautiously.

For example, Usain Bolt’s height (196cm) plays a key role in his outstanding velocity. Everybody stresses the size of both his stride and feet. Regarding body size, Bolt follows a logical progression initiated from Jesse Owens (178cm) to Carl Lewis (188cm).

Height is mostly hereditary: children with tall parents are very likely to be tall themselves. We know of more than 200 genes that are associated with height, yet they account for only 10 percent of ‘heritability.’ In other words, even when using the best DNA sequencing techniques, we don’t know what accounts for the other 90 percent of this highly transmissible phenomenon. Scientists know it has to do with genomics, but the answer to the puzzle is still inaccessible.

In a world with non-linear, multi-dimensional patterns, it is difficult to come up with proof of such a complex determinism; multiple causes and an infinite number of interactions come in play.

It is impossible to isolate a child’s genes to predict future athletic performances, but the myth of early detection based on genomic factors is still widespread.

A cultural identity

Jamaica’s success in sprint running also lies in the effort and investment the country deploys in this field. Sprint has a special place in Jamaica’s sporting identity. It is everywhere and remains highly valued at school. The popularity of sprint as well as the large amount of skilled coaches has led the emergence of young talents who are influenced by the outstanding performances of their fellow citizens at world-level competitions.

Recent economic growth in Jamaica has brought top-quality infrastructure to the country. Athletes now enjoy better training facilities, with optimal weather conditions.

For many years, Jamaican athletes had no choice but to choose the United States as a training ground, which did not always help them succeed. Some even went as far as giving up their citizenship. But the situation has changed. Usain Bolt trains at home under Jamaican coach Glen Mills’ guidance.

The only cloud in the sky is doping. One should not forget that a third of the athletes who made Jamaican sprinting team at the 2008 Olympics have already been sanctioned for at least one positive test.

Yohan Blake started his international career with a three-months ban after using a prohibited substance. Even Shelly-Ann Fraser, who has won two Olympic Gold medals, tested positive for drugs in 2010.

Behind each success lie many different factors. In this context, sport still achieves to create emotional experiences, whether in victory or defeat. Yet it must also stay fun.

As he is reaching the peak of his career, young Usain Bolt is perfectly aware of it.

* Jean-François Toussaint is the director of France's Biomedical and Epidemiological Institute of Sport (IRMES)

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