Jamaica's Sprinting Glory: Is It the Yams or the Genes?

BEIJING - Jamaica, an island of 2.6 million people, has produced the fastest man and the three fastest women at the Olympics. The explanations for the country's success range from the power of root vegetables to the study of genetics. Yesterday, Shelly-Ann Fraser led a Jamaican sweep in the 100 meters, with compatriots Sherone Simpson and Kerron Stewart sharing silver after a photo finish.

The all-Jamaican podium came a day after another Jamaican, Usain Bolt, shattered his own world record and left his rivals trailing behind in the men's 100 meters during a weekend where the yellow, green and black flag flew with pride.

Once known for being the land of laid-back reggae culture, Jamaica's athletes are giving their country a new image as the island of power and pace, and plenty are asking why this has happened.

"It's part of the natural ability of Jamaicans. I don't know, maybe it's in the water," Sports Minister Olivia Grange told reporters recently.

Bolt's father credited the local yam for his son's success, and while that might raise smiles, there are plenty on the Caribbean island who believe their diet - full of root vegetables and herbs - is behind the swift pace of their youth.

Tradition, tradition

The popularly held idea among Jamaicans that they are born quick has been given some academic support by Prof. Errol Morrison of the island's University of Technology. Morrison told the Jamaica Gleaner newspaper that research conducted with the University of Glasgow has found a special component, called Actinen A, in the "fast twitch fibers" in muscles.

Morrison says the gene is present in a disproportionately high number of Jamaicans and others of West African descent. "What it says to us is what is happening is not a flash in the pan, but there will be many potential Asafa Powells, Sherone Simpsons and Sherikas (Sherika Williams), because the genetic predisposition is there," he adds.

"The question is always there. What is it, nature or nurture that makes us so good? The answer seems to be that there seems to be a strong, underlying genetic or nature predisposition as to why we are able to perform like this."

There is also the power of tradition: Athletics has long had strong roots in Jamaica. Arthur Wint won the 100-meter gold medal at the 1948 Games, the first the country had entered while still a British colony. Herb McKenley won four medals from 1948 to 1952, and later Merlene Ottey enjoyed success throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

The country has won a total of 46 Olympic medals - all but one of them in track and field. On top of that, Jamaican-born runners such as Linford Christie (Britain) and Donovan Bailey (Canada), enjoyed Olympic success after moving abroad.

"I think it's a combination of factors," Jamaican athletics chief Howard Aris says. "We have the tradition from way back, from 1948. We have the talent, we have the certified coaches. From the very early stages, [athletes] are taught the right things - how to eat, how to train, how to sprint."

Whatever may be pushing Jamaicans to run fast - it is certainly working in Beijing.