Elena Dyachkova is one of our most traveled correspondents. Her real job is working with the major international events in athletics, from translating to helping in crisis situations at major events. We look forward to seeing Elena in the World Juniors in twenty-four hours!
“Champs” Discover Future Champions
The best way to get an insight to why Jamaica is so strong in track and field is to visit Kingston during the week of the Champs.
The Boys and Girls Championships, or simply the Champs, is a national high school athletics competition for athletes aged 10 to 19. This event is held since 1910, but it gained its current scope in 1999, when boys‘ and girls‘ competitions were merged into one major event.
The Champs are held at the National Stadium over five days and include the majority of track and field events: sprint, hurdles, middle distance and distance races, jumps, throws, relays. It is always the highlight of an athletics season in Jamaica – no other competition draws such big and passionate crowds and such a vast media coverage as the Champs. The event occupies front pages of the biggest newspapers and is broadcast live on the national TV for the whole week.
Hughes winning the 100 meters, photo courtesy of Jean-Pierre DURAND for IAAF
As a part of the IAAF project “Day in the Life” in Jamaica, I was able to attend three last days of the latest edition of the Champs, Thursday to Saturday, March 27-29. Thursday‘s program consisted mostly of preliminary rounds, but it still drew several thousand spectators, enough to fill the grandstand and to create a significant amount of noise. On Friday attendance noticeably increased, and on Saturday it reached its peak. The 35,000-seat facility was packed over its capacity. And tickets are not free, mind you. Grandstand admission costs around 60 USD, general admission – around 10 USD.
Even though there is a number of teams taking part, most of spectators pick a side of one of the main title contenders. On boys‘ side it would be either Kingston College in white and purple kits, or Calabar in green and black. On girls‘ side – Edwin Allen in blue. Wolmer‘s (maroon and gold) and St. Jago (green and gold) are medal contenders with both girls‘ and boys‘ teams. During the whole week in restaurants, shops, just on the streets of Kingston you can hear passionate debates about who is going to win this year. We‘ve event witnessed this sort of discussion at the Racers Track Club training session.
When you step into the stadium and look at the stands, you can easily spot each school‘s sections, because all the fans are wearing their school‘s colors. Kingston College fans have the best location – right after the finish line and around the bend. So whenever a Calabar athlete was coming in first in a race, the first victorious gesture was a typical “hush” one – finger to the lips – pointed to KC supporters.
And it was loud all the way. Horns, vuvuzelas, applauses, amplified by the arena‘s good acoustics, were incessant. The fans were dancing, making waves. Festive sounds hardly fell silent for a second to let the athletes hear the starting gun.
Current Jamaican stars all went through the “school” of the Champs and are still passionately supporting their schools. Wolmer‘s alumni Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce says: “Champs is just awesome. I‘m not going there to just sit in the seat. I will be breaking the rules. I‘ll stand on the chair, I‘ll make noise. I‘m one of those persons who gets nails done in my school‘s colors. And if you have a purple shirt on, you can‘t hug me“, the newly crowned World Indoor champion in the 60m smiled. This year she also had a chance to to try herself in a role of a TV-analyst.
World and Olympic medallist in the 200m Warren Weir every year goes to the camp of his alma mater to give Calabar boys a motivational speech. His speech was, in fact, our first introduction to the meaning of the Champs for young athletes. It was nothing different than it would have been for a national team before Olympics, probably even more intense.
Other stars of Jamaican athletics‘ past and present, such as Don Quarrie, Grace Jackson, Michael Frater, Nesta Carter, Kimberly Williams, Kimmari Roach and many others, could be spotted at the stadium on Saturday, watching, giving commentary for media, handing in medals and just cheering for the future stars of the world athletics.
There were plenty of stories to follow on the track. Breakthroughs, false starts, broken records, failures and rebounds. Kids were giving the competition their all. Take, for example, 17-year-old Michael O‘Hara, 2013 World Youth champion in the 200m and the medley relay. Last year he won the Champs in both the 100m and the 200m, two years ago – set the meeting record in the 110m hurdles (for Class 2, 14-15 years old). This year he caught up on several hurdles in the semi-final and didn‘t qualify for the final race, then, to make matters even worse, he false started in the 100m semi-final and was disqualified. His last chance for success came in the 200m final, and he used this chance, gaining the bronze. Another impressive comeback happened in the girls‘ 100m hurdles race. On Friday Peta-Gay Williams was definitively leading in the 400m hurdles final, but tripped over a hurdle on the home straight and fell. On the next day she was on the start line of the 100m hurdles final to storm through the straight and cross the line in first place, in front of the reigning World Youth champion Yanique Thompson.
Another big story of the Champs this year is an emergence of a “new Bolt” – Zharnel Hughes from Anguilla. He has been training in the IAAF High Performance Training Center in Kingston since late 2012. This year, his first appearance at the Champs took place. Representing Kingston College, Hughes destroyed Yohan Blake‘s meeting record of 10.21 in the 100m. 18-year-old sprinter ran 10.12 (+1.2). Hughes, who resembles Bolt not only by his speed, but also his height and bubbly personality, has actually been training alongside the Racers Track Club sprinters, and cites Bolt, Blake and Weir as role models in terms of dedication and work ethic.
It was sad, however, to see so many young athletes grabbing their hamstrings, leaving the track on stretchers after their races. Are the kids and their coaches taking the Champs too seriously? One of the country‘s best coaches Stephen Francis admits, that they might be, but he doesn‘t see any major issue in this: “Each coach is paid by the school, he or she works at, and his or her job is to do as much for the school, as possible. It is not their job to hold back and keep athletes for the national program. But I don‘t see anything wrong with it, because we have enough people around, so we can afford to lose a couple“.
Well, one thing is clear, if Jamaican athletes learn to deal with this huge pressure of competing in front of a huge and loud crowd with the whole country watching them on the TV, of being responsible for their teams‘ success from their early teens, competing at the major international events further in their careers won‘t bring them that many of surprises.
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