On today’s installation of Femme FITale, we’re taking a look at the fastest women in the world. More specifically, how a small, not particularly wealthy country in the Caribbean managed to take the sprinting world by storm.
Jamaica is home to around three million people, about the same number as live in Chicago. Although it’s classified as having an upper-middle income economy, Jamaica is still struggling, in part due to slow growth, high debt, and vulnerability to natural disasters.
In 2017, nearly 20% of Jamaicans lived in poverty. Additionally, the country faces relatively high levels of crime and violence (Note: all this according to the World Bank). Jamaica’s murder rate is three times the average of Latin America and the Caribbean, and it’s been considered multiple times to be in the top 10 most dangerous places in the world, particularly for women.
Compare this with the United States. The US has a population of around 328 million (more than 100 times the size of Jamaica) and a significantly lower poverty rate of around 13%. The country is considered to be very safe in most areas and is quite wealthy, with a lot of disposable income floating around.
You would think–purely given this comparison–that the US should dominate Jamaica in running competitions. The US has way more people to choose from and find the top talent, way more money to invest in sporting equipment and practice, and way less crime and poverty that could serve as a distraction/limit on competition.
But that’s not what you see when you look at the data.
Below are the top 10 medaling countries at the Olympic Games in the Women’s 100 meter and 200 meter sprints, ordered by total medals).
Jamaica is only 5 medals behind the US overall, they are nearly tied in silvers, and are even ahead on bronze. It’s incredibly impressive, and completely the opposite of what you’d expect if you just blindly looked at the backgrounds of the two countries.
What about when we look at Jamaica compared with the whole world. How do Jamaican runners stack up then?
Below we see the 100 fastest times for the women’s 100 meter and 200 meter sprints of all time. Note that this data does not only cover the olympics, but considers all major events. Jamaican runners are highlighted in Green.
We can see that Jamaican runners have performed excellently for several decades and that they are having a standout year in 2021. Five of the eleven fastest 100m times in 2021 were Jamaicans (including the two fastest overall), alongside three of the top ten 200m times (including the fastest overall).
In fact, there is only one individual who has performed better than the top Jamaicans: the iconic Florence Griffith-Joyner (Flo-Jo), whose sprint records in the 1980s were so dominant that they have never been topped since.
Jamaican excellence in athletics is relatively unique to sprinting. When looking at other Olympic events, it’s pretty rare to see a Jamaican medal. Jamaicans have only won a total of 87 medals across all sports, meaning that their sprint medals alone make up more than 1/4 of their total winnings.
So what’s going on here? Why does this small country, wrecked by natural disasters, facing horrible crime rates, and lacking tons of money, keep producing so many of the world’s fastest runners–including the fastest women in 2021?
There have been a whole host of potential explanations posed for this high performance, including heavy consumption of magical yams and green bananas. In this post, we’ll look at some of the most probable.
1. Track is a much more publicized sport in Jamaica than in other countries.
Beloved by Jamaicans, track is by far the island’s most popular sport. While in the US we have things like the Superbowl and the World Series, in Jamaica their big event is a track competition: The Boys and Girls Championships.
More affectionately known as ‘Champs’, the event takes place in Kingston ever March. It’s a huge spectacle. Five days straight of events–broadcast to national TV–with packed stands of more than 30,000 fans. And pretty much everyone, even if they don’t make it to the event, has a team or runner they’re rooting for.
If you want to be the superstar of your country and compete in front of thousands of fans–you do track. Nothing else really comes close in Jamaica.
And when you have everyone wanting to do a sport, you’ve got a lot more potential to find the fastest runners. Pretty much everyone wanting to be someone in athletics will try it, so you’re a lot less likely to miss the best runners because they went to other sports than you would be in other countries.
Look at the two fastest Jamaican women in the world: Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and Elaine Thompson-Herah. Both competed at champs in their early days,
2. The small size of Jamaica makes it easier to find superstars.
Jamaica is a pretty small country–only 3 million or so inhabitants, only a portion of whom are young and athletic enough to be potential future stars. This means the pool of athletes is relatively small.
While this could be considered a downside–fewer athletes to choose from–I think it’s also an upside in its own way. In a small group, it’s much easier to find the best athletes. You need a lot fewer eyes looking and are less likely to miss someone. This is especially true when linked to point #1. You only really need one person to spot your running talent in Jamaica since the love of track means that everyone wants to find the best stars.
3. Greatness is a self-perpetuating cycle.
Role models play a key role in the development of great athletes. Consider a 2021 study focusing on the effects of role models in changing the self-efficacy adolescent athletes.
This study, conducted by researchers at Seoul National University in South Korea, found that when adolescent athletes have role models that they model their behavior after, they appear to–on average–have higher self efficacy. Higher self efficacy, an individual’s belief in their own capacity to succeed based on their skills, in turn seems to lead to increased ability of young athletes to achieve a flow state (being “in the zone”). Although statistical analyses always involve some amount of uncertainty, the researchers calculated that there was a less than 1% probability that their results were purely due to random chance.
According to the science, when young athletes have accomplished role models, they tend to perform better. And in a place like Jamaica, those role models are easy to come by. The fastest man in the world–Usain Bolt–is from there, alongside many of the top fastest women of all time!
When you come from the same country as those legends, it’s not so far fetched to believe that you can be just like them.
This becomes more and more powerful over time, too. The more Jamaican sprinters that dominate international competitions and break records, the more that young Jamaicans will think they can do the same. When there’s only one top sprinter, they can seem like an anomaly–but when there are dozens, you start to realize that the goal of getting up there with them is not impossible.
4. Jamaica has some of the best coaches in the world.
Coaching may play a big role too. Jamaica is known for having some of the top coaches in the world, which could help give the country’s athletes an edge.
Prior to 1999–before Jamaica made a name for itself in sprinting–Jamaican runners were not trained in their home country, but rather were sent to the United States for training. Jamaica slowly started to make a switch toward home-training, though, and sprinters kept doing better and better.
The first home-trained sprinter to find international success was Brigitte Foster (now Foster-Hylton) in 2003. She was followed by many more Jamaican-trained athletes: Usain Bolt, Asafa Powell, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, and Melaine Walker.
This switch proved successful for a few reasons. For one, it meant that sprinters had no chance of getting caught up in the US college system and being neglected or becoming more interested in college life than being the fastest in the world. But perhaps more importantly, Jamaica had fantastic coaches that kept pushing their athletes.
Again, we have the small country conundrum. How does this small island seem to magically have such great track coaches? One potential explanation is their focus on coaching training.
Even though it’s a small island, Jamaica has a dedicated college designed to train coaches: The GC Foster College of Physical Education and Sport. In a country where poverty and violence play a big role, coaching is a way to do something to escape that, and a dedicated program means lots of opportunity to develop skilled coaches.
5. Running is a way to escape poverty and violence.
In a place like Jamaica, with high poverty and crime rates, it can be difficult to break out of the cycle and escape a difficult way of life. There are not all that many great opportunities in the country.
Running, however, has proven to be an effective way to escape poverty–at least for the best athletes.
Consider the story of Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce. She grew up in a one room building with no dining table. Some nights, all she ate was a little bit of bread and butter. Her family couldn’t afford all the groceries they needed, so they relied on a kind grocery store operator to be generous and help them.
She now has a net worth of around $4 million. And she’s not alone. Look up pretty much any top Jamaican runner and you’ll likely see a similar story.
If you can be one of the fastest runners in the world and impress fans on a world stage, it can be the break you need to escape a difficult life. This is a big reason why so many young runners train–and train hard. They want a way out. And they know that with hard work and a little luck, it’s not impossible.
So there we have it. Five potential reasons why Jamaican sprinters are so good. If you came into this with any knowledge of running, though, you might be a little confused. Why did genetics not show up on this list, when we know they play a big role in distance running?
Although “genetics” has been discussed many times as a potential explanation, it’s not backed up by evidence. If we compare Jamaican runners to black runners from the US–who tend to be their biggest competition–we don’t find any significant differences in their prevalence of so-called “performance” genes.
It mostly seems to be a combination of internal motivation, national culture, and good infrastructure for finding potential superstars that has led to Jamaica’s success.
The small island nation cracked the formula, and have cemented a permanent place in sprinting history.