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Is Climate a Factor in Jamaica’s HS Dominance at Penns?

Some athletes are considered good, some great and others simply incredible. These athletes make up teams that are considered on the same level. But what is the contributing factor to high-level performances? Is it genetics or God-given abilities? Is it diet or environment/climate or training or just plain discipline and desire on the part of the athletes?

The Penn Relays is a premier international athletics meet that attracts the very best teams and promises spectacular performances. As athletes from over 120 teams descend on Philadelphia, Pennsylvania next week, to showcase their talent in the annual staging of the Relay carnival, the foregoing are some of the questions and talking points among track and field fans and enthusiasts alike. Yet these questions seem to be pointing more to the Jamaican high school teams that dominate races that are two laps or shorter.

While the competition over recent years seems to boil down to Jamaica versus the USA, some argue that the Jamaicans are not more talented than any or most of their counterparts. Climate, they say, is the major contributing factor to Jamaica’s dominance. Their argument is that while most of the North American athletes, especially those in the North East, are training and running indoor meets due to the weather conditions, the Jamaican athletes are training outdoors in tropical climate.

The best indoor track is only a 200-meter oval, while most are 150. This means that the straight away on those tracks are no more than 20 meters. Therefore, for more than six months, athletes are unable to run at full throttle, which also means there is virtually no chance for real speed training. The Jamaicans and other Caribbean athletes are enjoying and taking advantage of their tropical weather, by having full-effect outdoor training. A sprinter, for example, can take maximum advantage of a 20-to-25 meter drive phase and have full acceleration over the next 60 to 80 meters. The proponents of this view also make the point that because the high school championships in the Caribbean (more so Jamaica) are held in March, just a few weeks before the Penn Relays, athletes there are trained to peak at this time of the year.

Deep in The Jamaican Culture

During this time in North America, especially in the North East, (Massachusetts, New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Washington DC), their outdoor season is open, but the temperature is low. A perfect example of this scenario is New York City’s second outdoor meet this year (King Relays), when the temperature was 46ºF or approximately 8ºC.

But there’s another angle that the world is slowly realizing.

In Jamaica, track and field is a premier sport, unlike in the USA where it is not even among the top three. And so, Jamaica, with its habit of turning out fast sprinters, proudly accepts the recent nicknames “Sprinting Nation” and “Sprint Capital of The World.” To support this notion, one sportscaster on a major US TV network once remarked that “Jamaica does not replace its sprinters, it reloads them.”

Track and field is an intrinsic part of the Jamaican culture; it is a way of life. So when a Jamaican athlete sets foot on a track, especially in the sprints, the mindset of that athlete is that he or she is the best. With that elevated confidence, their performance can be of the highest standard because they know that the entire nation, as well as Jamaicans abroad, is behind them.

Those supporting the view that the Jamaican high school athletes are far more gifted in the sprints argue that the aforementioned reasons condition these athletes to take pride in their training and performance, because they are representing the Jamaican brand, which means a great deal to the nation and Jamaicans throughout the world.

The other point the Caribbean will push is that unlike their counterparts in the USA, they lack top-notch training amenities and facilities. They point to the fact that almost every high school in the US has its own synthetic track, and those that do not, have access to a track at their local community parks.

American athletes almost all the time have proper training equipment and running gear at their disposal. The Jamaican and other Caribbean athletes train on grass and dirt surfaces and many times without proper footwear. However, some track and field experts believe that training on grass surface is more of an advantage than disadvantage. (See article: Young Athlete Discovers Secret to Jamaican Sprint Success ).

The athletes at dominant Jamaican high schools such as Holmwood Technical and Edwin Allen, run on synthetic track surface in Jamaica maybe only two or three times for the entire year, when they go to the National Stadium in the city Kingston.

Historical Data

When the facts are examined, they tend to support the view that schools with tropical climate are the ones whose athletes dominate both long and short sprints at the Penn Relays. Here are some historical facts:

a. Championship of America High School Girls 4×100 meter relay: Over the last ten years, only the Jamaican high schools and Long Beach Poly from warm California have won this event.
b. Championship of America High School Boys 4x100m relay: Since 2002 only three schools outside of Jamaican high schools have won this event, and they are El Dorado High School Trinidad and Tobago in 2002 with a time of 40.15secs, Deep Creek High (41.19) of Virginia in 2003 and Glenville High (41.11) of Ohio, two cold states. Noteworthy is the fact that since 2004, the Jamaicans have won this event every year, each time in 40 seconds or less.
c. High School Girls Championship of Americas, 4x400m relay: Within the last ten years, only one non-Jamaican high school and Long Beach Poly of California have won this event; that is Eleanor Roosevelt of Maryland in 2007 (3:39.44) and 2008 (3:37.16). It is interesting to note that the meet record is 3:34.75 set by Holmwood Technical of Jamaica in 2001. (Kerri-Ann White (55.8), Karen Gayle (53.3), Aneisha McLaughlin (53.8), Sheryl Morgan (51.9)

d. High Schools Boys 4x400m: Over the last 10 years, it is the Jamaican high schools and Long Beach Poly of California that have won this event. In the 2011 showdown, of the eight finalists five were from Jamaica, two from California and one from North Carolina. The top four positions went to Munro College (Jam) (3:11.31); Junipero Serra of Gardenia, California (3:14.39); Wolmer’s Boys High (Jam) (3:14.93) and Long Beach Poly (Cal) (3:15.18).

Consider for a moment what the difference could be if the circumstances that surround these athletes were different. What if the Jamaican athletes had to endure long winters? What if northeastern athletes had to train on dirt or grass surfaces? Suppose the western athletes had less sunny days than they are accustomed to? Does anyone of these factors have effect on performances?

The Olympics and World Championships, the two premier track and field events that involve countries globally, are staged during July and August for one major reason: to give countries with continental climates a fair opportunity for their athletes to get adequate time to prepare in reasonable outdoor climatic conditions.

Therefore, the outgoing question is: if the Penn Relays were held in June instead of April, allowing athletes in areas that have winter to get at least two months of outdoor training, would the results be the same? Should the organizers of the Penn Relays consider the possibility of this change?

Three Sure Things

In the final analysis, there are three certainties regardless of the facts:
1. The discussion and debate will continue.
2. Thousands of fans will make their annual trek to Philadelphia, the “City of Brotherly Love”, and the Jamaicans in attendance will be carrying the creed of their island motto, “Out of Many One People”, and cheering for any athlete known to have anything Jamaican or Caribbean about him or her.
3. The competition will be fierce, and in some cases scintillating, as the athletes represent their schools, and by extension, their country, in true ambassadorial fashion.
So, as the Jamaicans would say: “big up and respect’ to all athletes and their coaches who are headed to the Penn Relays next week.

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