Usain Bolt hovers over the London 2012 Olympic Games as no other athlete has cast his shadow before. Nor is he alone among his compatriots, as there are also Asafa Powell, Yohan Blake and, in the women’s team, Veronica Campbell Brown. All of them are not just proven champions but outstanding champions of the track. So what makes the Jamaicans so special? For an answer, Clayton Goodwin goes back to the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, Finland, in this instalment of our special countdown to the London 2012 Olympics.
Three years ago, the flags of Jamaica, which flooded the stadium, the streets, and the public transport system of Berlin for the World Athletics Championships, will again bath the very air of London in hues of black, green and gold.
Yet in 2012 there will be cause enough to remember the outstanding records of Jamaica’s sprinters and middle-distance runners, which would be the case even if there were no Usain Bolt and no Olympic Games. It is the 60th anniversary of the world record-breaking performance of the Jamaican men’s 4 x 400 metres relay team in the 1952 Helsinki Olympic Games. No single event – the historic triumph of the West Indies cricket team in England two years earlier notwithstanding – has stamped this small Caribbean island on the consciousness of the world to such effect.
Because his achievements in Berlin in 2009 so captured the public imagination, Bolt has been compared inevitably to the legendary Jesse Owens, who won four Olympic Games gold medals in Berlin in 1936.
While the American’s feat, quite rightly, will never be forgotten, it has overshadowed some outstanding track performances by other sportsmen and women in his team. Contrary to popular misconception, Jesse Owens was not the first African-American to win an Olympic Games medal – gold or otherwise.
Hurdler George Poage is regarded generally as being the first African-American to win medals, at the 1904 Games in St Louis. Nevertheless, our study here concerns short-distance running on the straight – that is, the 100 metres up to 400 metres.
The impetus over these distances was sparked by the 1932 Games, which were also held on the Americans’ own territory in Los Angeles. The Games coincided with the migration of a substantial number of the country’s black population from the South to the northern cities where whatever few opportunities that did exist were available.
Ralph Metcalfe and Eddie Tolan, both African-Americans, ran 10.38 sec in a memorable, almost dead-heat, finish to the 100 metres, when only an extended study of a photograph decided it in Tolan’s favour. For good measure, he also won the 200 metres.
Metcalfe was one of history’s “nearly” men. He added a bronze in the 200 metres to his silver in the 100 metres, and four years later again finished second in the 100 metres to new star Owens – while consoling himself with a team gold in the relay.
Built around Owens’ remarkable success, which has been reported extensively already over the years, 18 African-American athletes came to the fore in force at Berlin in 1936.
Cornelius Johnson, whose hand German dictator Adolf Hitler is said to have refused to shake (a perceived insult transferred subsequently to the better-known Owens), and Dave Albritton were first and second in the high-jump; John Woodruff and Archie Williams won gold in the 800 metres and 400 metres respectively; and Jimmy Luvalle took the 400 metres bronze.
By the London 1948 Games, at which high jumper Alice Coachman became the first African-American woman (and the first “woman of colour” anywhere, as they used to say at the time) to win an Olympic Games track and field gold medal, interest in the sprints was focused primarily on the clash between the Americans and the several talented Jamaicans who were then either studying in American universities and colleges or had just come out of the wartime armed services.
The Jamaicans dominated in the 400 metres. Herbert McKenley, 26 years old, who had risen to prominence while at the University of Illinois, was the advance favourite after he had broken the world record twice (bringing it down to 45.9 sec).
His main rival was his compatriot, the 28-year-old Arthur Wint, who was popular with the crowds in London, where he was a medical student at St Bartholo-mew’s Hospital, after having experienced active combat with the RAF in the Second World War.
McKenley set a cracking pace from the start – really too fast because the tactics which were designed to kill off the challenge of “Marvellous” Mal Whitfield of the USA, the winner of the 800 metres, caused him to fade in the finish as he was beaten to the line by Wint. Whitfield came third. Wint, by the way, had already won a silver medal in the 800 metres. Trying afterwards to explain his defeat – probably the upset of the competition – McKenley said that, unusually, he had felt bored in training and lacked competitive edge.
And so to the 4 x 400 metres relay which Jamaica had high hopes of winning – oh yes, the 4 x 400 metres relay – an event which would have “lived in infamy” in that country’s memory if it had not been erased by the exceptional achievement of the same quartet of runners four years later. There were some 80,000 spectators for one of the blue-ribbon events of the championships. It was USA v Jamaica.
George Rhoden, the 21-year-old Jamaican, held his American rival, Arthur Harnden, level on the first leg. On the second, the 23-year-old Leslie Laing, another Jamaican who had served in the Royal Air Force, was less experienced at this distance and fell some 15 metres behind Cliff Bourland.
The margin should not have been too great for the individual champion Wint to make up on Roy Cochran – but instead of starting slowly and increasing his pace, as was his normal practice, Wint went after the American straight away as quickly as he could.