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Vusi Thembekwayo 11 July 2016

Why Jamaica produces the world’s fastest athletes

Consider this as a case study: over the past 30 years the Caribbean Islands have produced an unusual amount of sprinting champions. Jamaica, in particular, has produced a high rate of sprint champions. In 75 years, Jamaica has won 42 Commonwealth golds, 14 Olympic gold medals. During the last Olympics, Jamaica took all pole positions in the 200meters to achieve a single nation flag raising celebration. A celebratory voice rings in my head of a fan screaming, “Jamaica. One. Two. Three!”

More recently we have seen the half-breed, part man part element of weather, Usain Bolt dominate the track with an insatiable hunger to win his unfair share of sprint races. Today, without question, the greatest sprint athlete the world has ever seen, Usain Bolt has completely decimated the sprinters of once great USA. The Jamaicans are so dominant that they have dwarfed the well-resourced athletes of their arch-nemesis and of many better-resourced nations.

How does this happen, how does a small island nation achieve at this level?

Here are the facts. Jamaica is a country of 2,85mln people. Its population CAGR has maintained at 0.78% over the past decade. The USA has a population of 400mln people (that is until Donald Trump becomes president). So, the USA has a far larger population pool – 140 times that of Jamaica – from which to pull talent, with much deeper tax revenues to support sports and all the national pride required to train and become the best in the world.

Why then are they not?

This is not an anomaly. In the 1940s, 50s, 60s and 70s, the USA was losing more than its fair share of sprint and middle distance races to the United Kingdom. The UK, another set of islands, also had then and continues to have today a much much smaller population than the USA.

So here is the question, does size matter?

How is it possible for the USA to struggle against nations with far fewer resources and much smaller population? What can entrepreneurs learn from these examples?

  • Win at a single thing

Notice that Jamaica is not beating the USA at the bobsled contest in the Winter Olympics. Whilst Cool Runnings is a very entertaining movie with many iconic scenes, the sport management of the Jamaican government has understood their best odds at building a formidable competing nation that is able to compete beyond its structural constraints is if they focus their efforts on a single pursuit.

Be the best at one thing rather than mediocre at many.

  • Embrace the learning curve

Nobody arrives at the place of competence without deliberate and consistent effort over a concentrated period of time. Effort + Time = Competence. Jamaica has athletics as part of the tuition in public schools. Learners from early primary school are imbued in the culture of athletic excellence as a part of their Jamaican heritage. The history of how this came to be is scanty but the results are clear for all to see. Introducing children to the sport whilst in their formative years means that they are technically sound from a very early age but also that they understand the level of commitment required to reach proficiency in athletics.

Usain Bolt didn’t even make the semi-finals of the Athens Olympics, his first Olympian pursuit. Many back home thought that he didn’t have the temperament to hold his nerve in the world’s most prestigious outing. However, many races; a car accident and a string of injuries later, Usain Bolt arrived at the Beijing Olympics to record the fastest time in over three thousand years of Olympics history.

The arch of success is exactly that, an arch. It is not a linear function of victories and podium finishes. It is a full of injuries, frustrations, mishaps, doubt, fear but never resignation to mediocrity.

  • Use the power of homogeneity

Have you noticed the build of the people (specifically men) of Jamaica is very similar? They height mean is incredibly low. Far lower that than of the USA. Being an island nation they also have similar diet across the narrow expanse of the country. Couple this with the fact that Jamaica was a slave island through which the strongest slaves of West Africa were traded. These brutal slave traders of an era gone by didn’t understand the impact they would have on the world of modern sports. A small country. A deep national culture of sports. A strong gene pool, and similar diet across the country has birthed arguably the fastest men and women on earth alive today.

When there is homogeneity and singularity in how you do business (culture), in why you are in business (higher purpose) then size seizes to matter. As start-ups managers and leaders, you are no doubt fighting with players who are much bigger than you and are far better resourced. Seek homogeneity in organisational culture and purpose and you could neutralise their advantage.

As you build your business and face market forces that are often fatal, competitors that are far better resourced, customers that are as disloyal as they are unforgiving and the omnipresent mental demon of self-doubt remember that small can and often does trump big. Focus on a single thing. Embrace the lessons along the way. Build a homogeneous team.