How Brazilian Shoes Explain the Olympics Part 2

The Caribbean Sprinting Cluster

100 m women Berlin 2009

At the 2009 World Athletics Championships, the women’s 100m final (above) included four sprinters from Jamaica and two from the Bahamas. The athletes from the United States were the only two not from islands with populations of less than three million.

How could such small countries compete with the medal-producing miracle that is the US college system? Well, actually, they couldn’t. An even more amazing statistic is that seven of those eight finalists studied in the United States, including five of the six from Caribbean nations. Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, who won the race, was the only exception.

Until recently, the Caribbean strategy was not to develop Olympic quality athletes, but rather to make them good enough to get track scholarships to US universities. This will allow them to move up to international class at little cost to the countries of their birth.

The Craftier Games

One reason why so many of the region’s sprinters get picked up by American agents is its geographical proximity, which makes scouting them easier, but there is much more to it than that. When it comes to making life easy for agents, the Caribbean goes a lot further.

The key is the CARIFTA Games, a youth event similar to the Jamican Champs. Just like Champs, it is a magnet for scouts but, unlike Champs, athletes from all of the Caribbean take part. Much as recruiters from US colleges would like to spend many weeks cruising around small islands, they do not have time – CARIFTA means that they do not have to.

By accident or design, CARIFTA replicates the model of the Brazilian shoemakers. By co-operating and pooling resources, in a way which is attractive to those who can help them, they have all benefited. It succeeds because it is a cluster, not despite being one.

Networking for Success

Of the six Jamaican and Bahamian sprinters in that 2009 final, all had competed at the CARITA Games and three had won the Austin Sealy Award for its outstanding athlete.

Savatheda Fynes, a star of the Bahamas’ Golden Girls relay team, did well at CARIFTA too but no scout picked her up. Fortunately, her high school coach got her a scholarship through her contacts. Going to school in the Bahamas is as useful for aspiring sprinters as going to Eton for aspiring British politicians (even if they may say that it is all genes).

James and Bartholomew Daegu 2011

It is romantic to believe that being small, and lacking in resources, confers some kind of advantage, for example that training on grass tracks is actually helpful. However, Kirani James (above left) succeeded only because he went to the University of Alabama, away from the grass tracks. James is another former winner of the Austin Sealy Award, and is a fine example of how CARIFTA is even more important for small nations like Grenada.

Jamaica has discovered that it does not need American help any more. Fraser-Pryce is one of a generation of Jamaican athletes trained at home by local coaches, many who have learned from their counterparts at US colleges. But hopefuls from other islands will still go overseas. Shaunae Miller of the Bahamas was at the University of Georgia.

And some of the smaller Caribbean countries are keen to share the spoils of Jamaica’s success. Daniel Bailey of Antigua and Barbuda, and British-Anguillan sprinter Zharnel Hughes, both share a coach with Usain Bolt, Glen Mills. The shifting centre of gravity, from the United States to Jamaica, could give the CARIFTA Games yet more influence.

Next week: Why do Kenyan marathon runners come from such a tiny geographical area?

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