A report by Ben Bloom for London’s Telegraph.
As dusk falls at the National Stadium in Kingston, peace is broken only by the whoops and hollers of teenage athletes encouraging and goading each other in equal measure.
The atmosphere is so relaxed that the dreadlocked Rasta watching idly from the stands might assume this is little more than a bit of fun as the young men lollop in groups of three down the home straight, turning to laugh at each other as they do so. He would be wrong.
The leading trio contains Christopher Taylor – still only 17, but accustomed to carrying the burden of Jamaica’s next great sprint hope after his extraordinary exploits as a young boy.
He and his Calabar High School team-mates hit the track at the culmination of the school day five times a week without fail. In April, Calabar won a sixth successive title at ‘Champs’ – or the Inter-Secondary Schools Boys and Girls Championship, to give its full name – and head coach Michael Clarke has no intention of relinquishing their grip on the most prestigious trophy in Jamaican junior athletics.
Clarke has built an empire over his 16 years at Calabar, compiling and creating the most fearsome group of young athletes on the island. To him, victory is nothing new. But now, more than ever, the eyes and expectations of a nation are on his students, who are tasked with the impossible: filling a Usain Bolt-sized hole.
After competing on Jamaican soil for the final time on Saturday night, the end is nigh for the nation’s hero. As he partied into the morning hours alongside the 30,000 spectators who had come to bid him farewell in Kingston, Bolt knew just three competitions remain before he retires and the Caribbean island that he has put on the map is bereft.
What on earth is the country going to do without him?
“Jamaican athletics is in a good position,” Yanik Morrison, Calabar assistant coach, tells The Sunday Telegraph. “Usain Bolt is someone who has done so much for the country, so much for the sport, and so much for Jamaican athletes, that they now believe they can achieve what they want. He has set the trend and most athletes want to be like him – most of those here want to take it professional.
“We have a lot of youngsters coming through and they just need to believe they can do it and use what Bolt has done as initiative to achieve their dreams. As a country we can stay on the map. It will be a lot of work, but there are definitely more kids coming through.”
Calabar, an all-boys’ secondary school just north of central Kingston, is one of Jamaican athletics’ traditional powerhouses. Its 27 Champs titles put the school behind only Kingston College in the overall standings, with Jamaica College forming the final cog in the habitual three-way battle for glory.
But Bolt did not come from one of the capital’s big sporting establishments, instead opting to remain in the remote north of the country and emerge from William Knibb High School.
It is a route that Clarke says is becoming increasingly common.
“Bolt came from a school that is not usually competitive at track and we are seeing more athletes coming out of the woodwork at non-traditional schools,” he said, casting an eye over the evening’s training session.
“Principals and alumni are realising the benefits to be gained from track and field in terms of sponsorship, getting support for various non-sport programmes and helping students transition into different aspects of the school.
“The focus is no longer on straight academics – it’s more of a holistic approach. So it’s going in the right direction. Far more athletes are coming out of these non-traditional schools and challenging traditional schools, and you can see that at Champs where the standard is improving and more non-traditional schools are in the top 10.”
While numbers are increasing from unlikely destinations, ask any Jamaican athletics follower who they have the highest hopes for and the chances are they will say Taylor – a young man whom Morrison describes as “extraordinary, a special talent”.
Taylor burst on to the international stage in frightening fashion when he ran an astonishing 45.27 seconds to claim the world youth 400m title (for under-18 athletes) at the age of just 15 – almost a year younger than anyone else in the race.
That performance also meant he broke Bolt’s Jamaican youth record set a decade earlier and Taylor has continued his progress to link up with Calabar team-mates Michael Stephens, Tyreke Wilson and De’Jour Russell to run 39.00sec and smash the Jamaican high school 4x100m record in April.
With Morrison admitting “these four guys are who Jamaican sprinting is looking to in the next few years”, the pressure is certainly on the Calabar quartet. But, slight in build compared to his contemporaries, what Taylor lacks in bulk he makes up for in confidence.
“We have a lot of expectation on our shoulders,” said Taylor, who revealed he could follow Bolt’s lead in switching from a predominantly 400m runner in his youth to a short sprinter as a senior.
“We first started with Calabar in 2012 and since then all four of us has been living up to expectations. We never let down anyone.
“I’m sure we have people to defend Bolt’s titles in the future and I do feel myself at the centre of it because I’m following in his footsteps. I’ve done what he did when he was young so we’ll see what happens.”
Such is Jamaica’s recent dominance in global sprints that whole books have been written in an attempt to unearth the secrets behind their success.
Different theories abound – some less palatable than others – but there is a belief on the island that whatever it is will continue.
“There might not be another Usain Bolt, but there will be another athlete in his own right to create history in Jamaica and the world,” said Jamaican sports minister Olivia Grange.
“There is a saying in Jamaica: ‘We are little, but we are tallawah’. We may be small, but we are awesome.”