As if the commentator is unable to compute what his eyes are telling him, the voice is incredulous “Look at the clock!” he urges as a tiny Jamaican sprinter, Brianna Lyston, powers clear of the field to win the 200m in 23.46sec. “She absolutely demolishes the record … she has just produced something out of this world!”
It is rare that the sporting exploits of a 12-year-old go viral. But Lyston’s performance at this year’s Champs, Jamaica’s boys’ and girls’ inter-schools championships, was so spectacular that TV stations and newspapers across the globe rushed to proclaim her as the heiress to Usain Bolt.
Of course that was premature. But to put Lyston’s time into context, it would have been good enough for fourth in the senior British Olympic trials last year, ahead of athletes such as Bianca Williams – who won 200m bronze at the 2014 Commonwealth Games and went to Rio as part of the British 4x100m relay team.
Yet Lyston is merely the latest supertalent to emerge from Champs – which, since its formulation in 1910, has become not only a Jamaican institution but the biggest high school track and field competition in the world and the bedrock of the country’s athletics success.
Every year 3,500 athletes gather at the national stadium in Kingston, hoping to follow in the spike-steps of Olympic champions such as Bolt, Elaine Thompson, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and Yohan Blake, who also first made their name at Champs. Every year 30,000 pack the stadium over five days of competition, to create a joyous cacophony of appreciation and noise – blowing vuvuzelas, banging drums and singing the songs of the schools involved. It is both beautiful and brutal; the ultimate survival of the fastest.
As Andre Lowe, a senior writer at The Gleaner, puts it: “Jamaicans by nature are very competitive people and, in many ways, Champs serves as the perfect encapsulation of this trait. It resonates deeply within the Jamaican culture, one that has grown for over a century and one that has created the vast majority of the nation’s athletics stalwarts. It is an event that is cherished and celebrated. It’s a part of the blueprint; the conveyor belt of Jamaican athletics talent.
“It’s not an exaggeration to say that Jamaican athletes face greater pressure as teenagers competing at Champs than they do at the Olympics. It’s a feverish kaleidoscope of passion, rivalry, intensity, dedication and historical sentiment.”
That is evident in every frame of The Sprinters’ Factory, the latest Guardian documentary, which follows some of the athletes involved in this year’s competition. All are hoping for a prominent role in the latest edition of Jamaica’s Got Incredible Sporting Talent. But despite their bold predictions beforehand, they soon learn that life doesn’t always turn out the way they had hoped.
One athlete in the film talks about how it is “just a matter of time” before she competes in the Olympics but is deprived of victory in the final by an injury. Another former young star has spent the best part of three years trying to get over two major hamstring injuries only to crash out in the semi-finals.
It is a tough environment, to be sure, but few doubt the benefits are enormous for those who battle through. As Travis Geopfert, an Arkansas State athletics coach, explains in the film: “I think Champs is the reason that Jamaican track and field athletes for a population of only three million people are so dominant. What these kids go through in terms of the pressure gets them ready for a bigger stage when they go to a world championships or Olympic Games. They have been brought up in this atmosphere and they are ready for it.”
Of course genetics and other factors also play a significant part in Jamaica’s sprinting success but no one doubts that the culture – of which Champs is a key component – is vital too. As David Epstein, the author of the Sport’s Gene, puts it: “If a kid shows speed, it’s pretty hard for him or her to get out of sprinting in Jamaica. Even Usain Bolt was intent on becoming a cricketer until he was steered in the sprinting direction.”
For those who missed out in this year’s renewal, perhaps there is hope in Bolt’s story. The first time he appeared in the Champs, as a 13-year-old in 2000, he finished fifth in the 200m class three competition in 24.03 seconds. The following year he was seventh in the 400m in 51.16. But in 2002 having shot up in height he finally tasted victory in the Champs – and followed it up quickly by winning the world junior championships over 200m as a 15 year-old, running against boys of 18. Six years later he was Olympic 100m and 200m champion and became a global icon.
Nowadays dozens of coaches and agents come to Jamaica looking for the next Bolt – with inevitable consequences. As Lowe explains: “Champs has become a commercial machine. The Bolt phenomenon and the drive to find the next Jamaican megastar is always at the core and fuels much of the fiscal muscle behind the event. So it’s no surprise that sponsorship dollars around the event have so drastically increased over the past few years.”
Even so it remains a sporting event to savour. As Lowe explains: “There won’t be another Bolt, quite like there won’t be another Ali or Jordan, but one thing is certain, Champs will continue to provide a unique platform for the nation’s best talent to be exposed to the highest level of competition and attention at an early stage of their development.
“Bolt and the other Jamaican track and field stars are all sparkling jewels. But Champs is the real Jamaican treasure.”