Jamaica is the 138th most populous nation in the world. At 2.65 million people, the Caribbean island nestles between Kuwait and Mongolia in the population ladder.
It is in similar territory when it comes to national wealth.
The United States, on the other hand, is the world’s richest and third most populous country.
As neighbors go, these two live at very different ends of a very long street.
But there is one place where these two meet as equals – the running track.
Last weekend witnessed the most recent chapter in their rivalry as both countries staged Olympic trials for the 100m in Beijing this summer. The results, as they have been all season, were remarkable.
First, Tyson Gay, the latest sprint star off the US assembly line, almost made the most embarrassing mistake of his hitherto impeccable career by misjudging the finish of his opening heat. (Go to 2.29 for the race).
Thousands of miles to the south, world record-holder Usain “Lightening” Bolt and Asafa “King” Powell, the man Bolt ‘unseated’, were advancing smoothly to their much-anticipated clash in the Jamaican capital, Kingston.
Bolt was relatively pedestrian in Saturday’s 100m final at the trials as he floated to a 9.85, but it was still fast enough to provide another reminder to Powell that he – for now, at least – plays second fiddle at home and abroad.
While Bolt was busy winning Jamaica’s 200m title, Gay shot back with a scintillating performance in the American 100m final.
The quiet man from Arkansas, who had already clocked a national record of 9.77 in the quarter-finals, posted the fastest time ever.
His mark of 9.68 was pushed along by a 4.1 meters per second tailwind – more than twice as strong as is permissible – so it did not count officially but regardless, it would have been noted in Jamaica.
As Gay’s coach Jon Drummond put it: “We need to get some kind of flame-retardant uniform in case he catches on fire, he’s running so doggone fast.”
Wind-assisted or not, Gay’s riposte could not have come at a better time for him, his team or his sport.
Competition between the US and Jamaica across all the sprint disciplines, men’s and women’s, has been raging for the last four years. And at times, that tussle has provided the only relief to an unremitting diet of gloom for the sport.
Doping has been the only story guaranteed to attract the US media’s attention and the drip, drip of credibility draining away became a full-blown hemorrhage when first Justin Gatlin and then Marion Jones were revealed to be drugs cheats.
Gay, who has gone to great lengths to prove his times are legitimate by volunteering for a battery of extra blood and urine tests, stands as proof there is still life in the patient but it needs the oxygen of publicity a great Olympics can provide.
Victory for a certifiably clean Gay in the 100m would go a long way to repairing the damage others have done.
Jamaica is the IAAF’s fifth most tested nation. Neither Bolt nor Powell has ever failed a drug test and Bolt alone has passed at least six tests this year.
Dr. Herb Elliott, a member of the IAAF’s medical and anti-doping commission, said: “We couldn’t have the Asafa Powells and not test them. The good name of this country cannot be sullied by this. Because of the money in athletics now, there is always temptation. So we are aware and vigilant. Some of the athletes are complaining they’re being over-tested but we prefer that to no testing at all.”
Jamaica’s biggest challenge over the years has not been doping scandals, it has been holding on to its most talented sons and daughters – Donovan Bailey, Linford Christie and Sanya Richards are just three Jamaican-born sprinters who have won Olympic golds for their adopted countries; Canada, England and the U.S. respectively.
The likes of Bolt and Powell are now nurtured by coaches as good as any abroad. While the facilities are still basic, the raw material is now staying at home and flowering more frequently. But what is without question is how central the 100m remains to the sport’s future health.
As long as men like Bolt, Gay and Powell retain the ability to thrill, and thrill clean, sprinting has a future at the heart of the Olympics.