After the sprinters, Jamaica seeking track and field depth
KINGSTON, JAMAICA >> The most dominant runner at Jamaica's national track and field championships this summer was not a superstar sprinter like Usain Bolt, Yohan Blake or Veronica Campbell-Brown.
It was Kemoy Campbell.
Meet the best distance runner in Jamaica — yet unlike Bolt, Blake and the sprint stars, he's far from being a favorite for a medal at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics this summer. Campbell literally lapped the field at the national championships, winning the 5,000-meter run by 2 minutes over the second-place finisher. That's an absurd margin for a big-time race, one that basically equates to someone prevailing in a 100-meter dash by 2 1/2 seconds.
Campbell has no competition in his homeland. Jamaica is an Olympic sprinting superpower, but when it comes to the rest of the track and field program the tiny nation is on shaky footing at best.
"When I come here to race, I'm racing by myself," Campbell said, somewhat dejectedly.
Jamaica has won 66 track and field Olympic medals, coming home with at least one in each of the last 12 Summer Games. Of those, 63 were claimed in events where runners needed to go 400 meters or less, two others were won in 800-meter runs (in 1948 and 1952) and only one — James Beckford's silver in the long jump at the 1996 Atlanta Games — came in a field event.
This summer's team is again speedster-dominant: Of the 59 track athletes Jamaica plans to send to Rio, 42 will be running or hurdling over distances of 400 meters or less.
Even after all of Bolt's success and stature as a global superstar, even after Jamaica winning 10 gold medals in the last two Summer Olympics, there's still not enough resources to go around to every discipline in the track and field program. So the athletes in the "other" events tend to toil in anonymity, some of Jamaica's national champions unable to even hit the Olympic qualifying standards and earn a spot in Rio.
"We need more resources," said Orlando Thomas, the Jamaican national champion in javelin — with a winning throw that would have earned him 17th place at this year's NCAA Division I men's championships. "Better quality equipment, better support, better resources."
Thomas isn't going to Rio, after not reaching the Olympic minimum to be part of the elite field. Jamaica is sending seven throwers, including three women in discus for the first time. Each of those women had met the Olympic qualifying standard before the national meet, but still needed to finish in the top three there to earn the Olympic berth — and did so despite the surface from which they were throwing from being less-than-ideal.
"I did what I needed to do," said Florida State junior Kellion Knibb, one of those three Olympic discus qualifiers, adding that the conditions were "terrible."
It's not uncommon for Jamaicans to find their way to the United States for college or training. Campbell, the 5,000-meter champion, ran at Arkansas and now trains in the Boston area. Clive Pullen, who will represent Jamaica in the triple jump at the Rio Games, also competes for Arkansas. College coaches from all over the U.S. were at the national meet in Kingston earlier this month, looking for talent.
"The facilities here aren't the worst, but aren't the best," Pullen said as he overlooked National Stadium in Kingston. "That's why you see field event athletes like myself move on to the states, to study in college and get the gurus over there to help nurture us. For sure, if I was a sprinter, I would be here. We have gurus here for sprinting. But for what I have, I am grateful. And I'm grateful to have a chance to represent my country."
Pullen knows Jamaica doesn't have much, but takes immense pride in what it has.
"Compared to other Third World countries," Pullen said, "we are doing phenomenal."
He says there's reason for hope, and he wasn't the only one to say so even after a meet where there was one — that's right, one — person to clear any height in the pole vault championship, no male or female high jumpers able to reach the Olympic standard, yet where the last-place finisher in the men's 5,000 got some of the loudest cheers of the weekend.
And that was for finishing 4 minutes behind Campbell's winning time.
"The depth in every event isn't there yet for Jamaica," Thomas said. "Not yet. Maybe someday we will get there. Maybe someday I will get there and put Jamaica on the map for javelin, too."
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