Doctor links Jamaica’s sprinting success to slavery
BEIJING – Jamaica’s Olympic team doctor, who’s prepared to fend off accusations that banned drugs fueled the country’s sprinting success at these Olympic Games, said the record-breaking run stems in part from the history of slavery.
Herb Elliott, who oversees drug testing in Jamaica and serves as the Olympic team’s head doctor, said African slaves who ended up in Jamaica were among the strongest and most determined – qualities, he says, that have helped the likes of Usain Bolt, the 22-year-old Jamaican track star.
This week, Bolt became the first man since the Games resumed in 1896 to break the world record in the 100- and 200-meter dashes during the same Olympics. He also ran the third leg on the 4x100 Jamaican relay team that erased the 16-year-old record set by a U.S. team that included Carl Lewis.
The Jamaicans also swept the gold medals in the women’s 100 and 200. As people began searching for answers that explained the amazing sprint success for such a small nation, Elliott’s theory emerged as the most provocative and controversial.
“They say that our aggression, our toughness, came out of our slave situation,” said Elliott, who is black. The team doctor said he subscribes to the view “considering that Jamaica had more slavery rebellion than any country in the world.”
“It’s not a question of genetic pool, but we have that,” he added. “It’s a cultural thing, too, that we want to achieve.”
Until Elliott’s comments, attempts to explain Jamaica’s sprint dominance had ranged from the mundane to the amusing. When asked for the secret of his success earlier this week, Bolt said “there is no secret” and attributed his success to natural ability.
Asafa Powell, an Olympic teammate who held the world record in the 100 until Bolt broke it in May, cited the Jamaicans’ early-morning workouts and the country’s passion for sprinting as sources of their dominance here.
Bolt’s father, Wellesley, speaking to Reuters after his son won the 100, credited a vegetable grown in the region of Jamaica where his son was born. “It is definitely the Trelawny yam,” Wellesley Bolt said. The yam is said to have medicinal properties, according to the Reuters story.
Victor Conte, the mastermind of the BALCO lab that triggered the biggest steroids scandal in sports history, has mocked the drug testing programs in Jamaica and other Caribbean countries. He said they’re designed to protect drug cheats rather than catch them, and his criticism intensified after Jamaicans accomplished the sprint-double in the men’s and women’s 100 and 200.
“Herb Elliott is Jamaica’s cover-up man,” Conte wrote in an email. “I think that he knows full well that his athletes have been using drugs.”
Bristling at the remarks, Elliott denounced Conte.
“Victor Conte’s an idiot,” Elliott said. “He set out to set up a lab to cheat. They caught him, he went to prison and now he’s casting aspersions on other people who have stayed in this sport the last 40 years and have been clean. …
“From 1948 until now, we have been coming to the Olympics in sprints, OK? And we have done well. This is just a culmination of what has gone on for more than 40 years.”
Though they competed for other countries, three other Jamaican-born sprinters captured Olympic gold in the 100. Ben Johnson, who later tested positive for steroids, won it for Canada in 1988; Linford Christie won it for England in 1992; and Donovan Bailey won it for Canada in 1996.
Though Jamaica’s ties to achievements on the track is indisputable, Evelyn Higginbotham, a professor of African-American studies at Harvard University and a civil rights activist, said Elliott’s theory regarding slavery has no basis in fact.
“On many levels it doesn’t make sense,” she said. “Slavery is not unique to black people historically.”
Other academicians were less quick to dismiss Elliott’s theory outright.
Claire Nelson of the Institute of Caribbean Studies said the repression of slave rebellions is thought to have contributed to the Jamaican psyche that she said is captured in the country’s ancestral saying, “We lickle but we tallawah.”
“… which is difficult to translate exactly, but could be said to mean, ‘Though we may be small, we are powerful beyond expectations,’ ” Nelson wrote in an email.
Todd Boyd, a professor at the University of Southern California who specializes in the study of race and popular culture, said he always has been leery of claims about physical or biological superiority of any one group. But he said the argument is more plausible when one considers that culture such as the one Elliott cites is learned as opposed to being genetically passed down.
“At the end of the day, though, there is a culture of track that the Jamaicans have now mastered at a very high level,” Boyd wrote in an email.
Bolt grew up playing cricket and turned his attention to track when he realized he was the fastest boy in his grade school in rural Jamaica. His personal story supports the views of Diana Thorburn, a professor at the University of the West Indies, who cited the dearth of athletic options in Jamaica.
“If Usain Bolt were born in North America or Europe, he would be now earning far more money as a professional basketball player with the odds of a much longer and more lucrative career,” she wrote in an email.
But that might seem like blasphemy to Jamaica’s team doctor, a portly, bespectacled man who celebrated every Jamaican victory and clearly relished mingling with reporters. He entertained countless questions about Bolt and, during an interview with Yahoo! Sports, touched on his theory about slavery contributing to sprinting success.
“Once upon a time they were saying we have it because we have fast fibers,” Elliott said. “So I said to them, ‘How many countries have fast fibers? Only a few areas in the world?’ Ah, these are theories that don’t hold strong when you have a complex situation.”
The complexity, Elliott suggested, involves what is known as the Middle Passage, the second stage of the transatlantic slave trade. Ships carried enslaved Africans to the Caribbean islands in North and South America in the late 1700s and early 1800s. The slaves who staged frequent rebellions in Jamaica, Elliott said, have created a culture of resolve that led to success in sprinting and academics.
“We passed exams at universities abroad because of the strength where other blacks (failed),” he said.
Though Elliott struggled to control his contempt for Conte, he said he thinks Jamaicans indirectly have benefited from Conte’s role in a scandal that ensnared former U.S. track star Marion Jones and several other U.S. Olympic athletes. The BALCO scandal is widely viewed as a catalyst for the increased enforcement of anti-doping rules.
“We feel because other people are now caught, the playing field is now more level for us,” Elliott said.
Peppered by questions about Jamaican’s drug testing program, Elliott responded with a litany of assertions: the Jamaicans have spent about $930,000 on a government-sponsored drug testing program; he personally tested every Jamaican athlete that competed in the country’s Olympic trials; and sanctions against Julien Dunkley, a 32-year-old Jamaican sprinter, indicates the country is serious about drug testing. Dunkley was removed from the team in July for what Elliott said was a positive drug test.
He said Dunkley is among four athletes who have tested positive for drugs after Jamaican officials administered the tests.
“All of them trained in the States, and we caught them down in Kingston,” Elliott said. “So that is the end of that.”
Beyond regular drug testing, Elliott said, religious conviction deters Jamaicans from cheating. He used the movie “Chariots of Fire,” based on two British athletes competing in the 1924 Olympics, as an illustration.
“You remember that guy who believed in God so strongly?” he said. “Our athletes are strong believers in the Almighty. They believe that without the Almighty they can do nothing and with the Almighty they actually can do everything. …
“We know that our athletes have trained hard, that the country would not tolerate any kind of cheating because we are a moral, Christian country.”
Kerron Stewart, who won a silver medal when the Jamaicans swept the women’s 200, paused when asked whether increased drug testing has leveled the playing field during an Olympic competition in which no American won a gold medal in the marquee sprint races.
“What do you think?” she said, eyes widening. “What do you think?”