Jamaicans give athletics the fun factor
BEIJING (Reuters) - Jamaica's success in athletics will be one of the most remembered aspects of the Beijing Olympics and it could also mark the start of a new era for the sport, one where running is fun again.
The dominance of Jamaica in Beijing has been assisted by a below-par performance from U.S sprinters and it could prove to be just the boost the sport needed.
After doping scandals tarnished the reputation of too many in the sport, the success of the heavily drug-tested Usain Bolt and the impressive team of female sprinters, has given the sport a necessary image makeover.
The sight of Jamaicans clearly enjoying every minute of their success, celebrating with freedom and joy has been in stark contrast to the often intense and closed manner in which U.S athletes have marked their victories in the past.
In Jamaica, the results have been celebrated by convoys of cars, wild partying and outbursts of genuine national pride, all captured by cameras and broadcast around the world.
Success in athletics in the U.S. appears to have become staid to an indifferent public that has expected sprinting golds.
Leading American coach Bob Kersee noted the difference in attitudes after watching another night of Jamaican success at the Bird's Nest on Thursday.
"One of the things I hope the United States takes out of this is respect for track and field," he said. I don't think we have it as much as we had in the past and I think Jamaica loves track and field."
After the success of the Jamaica team, athletics has taken over from cricket and soccer as the number one sport, because it has managed to combine the carefree brilliance exhibited by Brazilian soccer players with the physical power that West Indian fast bowlers once brought to cricket.
The impact of the Jamaicans, however, has been global. Athletics suddenly has personality and entertainment value.
Bolt has rapidly learnt the media skills a world-famous athlete needs, but is a refreshing change from the dry personae exhibited by the mass-produced athletes from the U.S collegiate system.
The lanky 22-year-old celebrates during the race, banging his chest, does silly dances and he yells into the television camera with a wide grin.
The Jamaican women, including gold medalists Shelley-Ann Fraser, Melaine Walker and Veronica-Campbell Brown, hug each other with affection and joy after their wins, victories that never look just like the completion of a task.
World athletics will see the impact of Bolt and company in the coming months in terms of sponsor interest, television viewing figures and crowds at meets but in Jamaica the 'Beijing effect' could be the start of a sustained period of success.
There is certainly no shortage of talent in the Jamaican system. At the world junior championships earlier this year 17-year-old Dexter Lee won the 100 meters title while Nickel Ashmeade took silver in 200m and the men and women's relay teams both took silver behind the U.S.
"We've shown again that Jamaica is the sprinting country," said Kerron Stewart silver medalist in 100 meters and bronze medalist in 200 meters.
"We had and we have so many sprinters in Jamaica, it's crazy. We're taking over every event bit by bit."
(Editing by Greg Stutchbury)
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