Just 24 hours after Jamaica’s women swept the medals in the 100-meter dash, the Jamaican men, who have dominated the event for 13 years, were without a contender in the final in Tokyo.
Usain Bolt, who led that dominance, warned us this was coming. Just before the Olympics started, the eight-time Olympic gold medalist voiced his concern over the state of Jamaican men’s sprinting.
“I felt like we had a good crop of [male] athletes for the last couple of Olympics, so for me, it really bothers me to know that this is where we are right now, where most of the world is ahead of us,” Bolt said. “So going into the men’s, it’s going to be tough … I’m just disappointed because I think we do have the talent, it’s just to harvest it and people to take the training seriously and get it done.”
Bolt’s criticism is nothing new. Ever since he bowed out in 2017, bringing an end to a remarkable career that redefined the sport, the world has been waiting for Jamaica’s next male sprinter to emerge. In 2019, Bolt lamented that since his retirement “no one is there to pick it up, pick up the pieces, keep the level,” adding it was “embarrassing for the country.”
Several factors help explain Jamaica’s absence in the men’s 100-meter final for the first Olympics since Sydney 2000. Andre Lowe, the Jamaica Gleaner’s sports editor who has been reporting on the country’s track and field exploits since 2004, points to young athletes turning pro too soon, untimely injuries and the cyclical nature of sport.
“Jamaica does not lack talent at male sprinting,” Lowe said. “You just need to look at the times that are being registered at our boys and girls’ athletics championships.”
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The annual “Champs,” the nationwide team competition for high schools, is a hotbed of young talent and must-see sporting event in Jamaica. The five-day competition draws crowds of 35,000 and dominates the country’s newspapers and TV coverage. Bolt’s 200m record from 2003 still stands, while Great Britain’s Zharnel Hughes — who went to Kingston College and now trains at Racers Track Club under veteran coach Glenn Mills — broke Yohan Blake’s 100m record in 2014. Every spring, the athletics world trains its eye on the competition to find the next sprint hope.
“You’ll see 18-year-olds’ running times that could potentially get them here competing at the Olympic Games,” Lowe said.
But the increased interest leads young athletes to turn pro out of high school rather than pursue a place in the collegiate system. Both Bolt and Lowe feel young athletes are lured away from the recognized pathway too soon, then fail to live up to their potential. “The collegiate system helps them to develop commitment and dedication,” Lowe said.
Lowe says there’s also a school of thought — which long-time Jamaican sprint coach Stephen Francis agrees with — that some of the country’s promising young athletes are not transitioning from high school coaches to elite coaches.
While the men faltered at Tokyo 2020, the women, led by Elaine Thompson-Herah, dominated. Bolt feels the women are more driven for consistent success than their male counterparts. “They want to be great, they want to accomplish things in life so they work towards certain things,” Bolt said. “They want to develop and go on to do big things. I don’t think that the males are there.”
Lowe says the women’s field is even deeper than the men’s, and less reliant on a single star, such as Bolt, for success.
“Jamaican women have been dominating the short sprint for such a long time, maybe even more than the men,” Lowe added. “We have had more female medalists in the world 100m than male medalists. A lot of our medals have been won by one man.”
Elaine Thompson-Herah broke Florence Griffith Joyner’s 33-year-old Olympic record in the women’s 100 meters, crossing the line in 10.61 seconds. Griffith Joyner set the old record of 10.62 at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Getty Images
Jamaica’s potential finalists were hampered by injuries. Blake, 31, is now contemplating his future. He struggled with a leg injury and did not progress through the semifinals in Tokyo with a time of 10.14. It was likely his last Olympic race in a career that saw him win two Olympic golds, two silvers and the 2011 World Championships gold in 100m.
“Definitely my last Olympics,” Blake said after his semifinal Sunday. “You know track is not easy. I won’t be ungrateful. I’ve gained a lot. I’m still the second fastest man in history, no one can take that away from me.”
Oblique Seville, 20, has been struggling with a toe injury and other leg problems, and missed out on a spot in the 100m final as well. But he could challenge for gold at the 2022 World Championships in Oregon and then Paris 2024. Jazeel Murphy, who did not compete in Tokyo, is expected to continue building his remarkable comeback and be a medal contender in the coming years.
Bolt’s achievements, personality and star power still hang over the sport, and perhaps in this post-Bolt era, success needs to be re-defined. “With these kids coming through, everyone is expecting them to be the next Usain, or the next Asafa [Powell], and perhaps they don’t realize the amount of work that goes into achieving success,” said one agent.
“Certainly you’re not going to see another Bolt for a very long time, just like we’re not going to see another Lionel Messi or Muhammad Ali or Cristiano Ronaldo for that matter,” Lowe said.
By Paris 2024, there is widespread hope Jamaica will be back on the men’s 100m podium once again. “No one is expecting another Jamaican sprinter to win eight gold medals and break records every year,” Lowe said. “But what we do expect is a high level of performance, which we have not seen over the past few years.”