Caribbean athletes deliver royal show in London
A stunning javelin upset and another flurry of great Usain Bolt performances in London were just some of the stories that propelled the CARICOM region to its best-ever showing at the Olympics.
Midway the track and field programme, the English-speaking Caribbean appeared to have drifted off course in its bid to at least equal its record of 15 medals but with a rousing finish and a couple of unforeseen results, that medal tally surged to a record 18 in a fitting return to London, where it all started.
The region's first taste of Olympic triumph came in 1948 at London's Wembley Stadium and the famous city was again a happy hunting ground for the group of England's former colonies.
For the first time in Olympic history, four different CARICOM countries won gold medals.
Although the irresistible Jamaicans predictably led the region's charge with their own record haul of 12 medals, Keshorn Walcott's javelin triumph for Trinidad and Tobago was most striking, definitely the most astonishing.
The 19-year-old Walcott, after winning the IAAF World Juniors last month in Barcelona, would have — by his own admission — been satisfied with just getting to the final alongside global big name seniors. After all, no CARICOM thrower in history had even reached an Olympic men's javelin final and no thrower from the Western hemisphere had even won an Olympic medal in the event for 40 years — since American Bill Schmidt took bronze in 1972.
Norway's defending Olympic champion Andreas Thorkildsen, and European champion Vesel Vítezslav and other massive javelin names, were among those visibly stunned in moments of disbelief as the little-known teenager from Toco in north-east Trinidad, surged to one of the greatest upset stories in Olympic history. Coached by Cuban Ismael Lopez, Walcott is the youngest Olympic champion ever in the event.
As journalists, we have for decades been bombarded by questions worldwide on our travels about the secret to Jamaica's success in track and field. There is no single answer, but I have always proffered high quality coaching as a primary reason.
Walcott's Olympic success with a national record 84.58 metres and Jamaica's super performances continue to exemplify the value of coaching.
Jamaica's gold medals in London came from completely local-based and trained athletes. Of all Jamaica's medal winners, only Veronica Campbell-Brown, 100-metre bronze and 4X100m relay silver, and Novlene Williams-Mills, 4X400-metre relay bronze, are based overseas.
The phenomenal Bolt effortlessly transplanted the 2008 Beijing euphoria to London. It was mind-boggling the way Bolt was everyone's hero.
The British, as the Chinese did four years ago, craved the Jamaican black, green and gold colours and Bolt paraphernalia and cheered each success for the sprint legend as they did their own.
Doubted by many experts to repeat his Beijing conquests because of his relatively unsound build-up, the 25-year-old sprint marvel responded like great champions do.
His 9.63 Olympic record run in the 100 metres was only 0.05 seconds off his own world mark in very chilly conditions that did not support such a fast run by any normal athlete.
Bolt's historic 200-metre triumph that completed an unprecedented double-double, amazingly led a tremendous Jamaican sweep of the medals. It registered another audacious statement for Jamaican track and field, like their girls did in Beijing with the 100-metre sweep.
I had fancied Warren Weir for bronze behind Bolt and Yohan Blake in that 200-metre final because he had been improving so rapidly in the months leading up to the Olympics, but to see it unfold was majestic, a moment of immense credit to Racers Track Club ace coach Glen Mills.
London 2012 was advertised as the sprint war between the USA and Jamaica, and Reggae country won again, not as emphatically as their 5-0 margin in Beijing but still a solid 4-2, with victories by Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, the men's 100, and 200 and the world record 4X100-metre men's relay run in 36.84 seconds.
Fraser-Pryce enhanced her growing reputation as one of the greatest female sprinters of all time with her courageous repeat win in the women's 100m and the regal men's sprint relay first ever sub-37 clocking in history, climaxed the track and field programme as Walcott was still celebrating his extraordinary javelin triumph.
Inspired by decades of Caribbean prominence at the global level, Grenada also joined CARICOM's growing list of track and field success stories through Kirani James.
The 19-year-old standout became the first man from Central America and the Caribbean (CAC) to go sub 44 in the 400 when he landed the one-lap event in 43.94 seconds.
His win led a CAC sweep of the 400m medals with Dominican Republic's Luquelin Santos and T&T's Lalonde Gordon taking silver and bronze, a stinging blow this to the Americans, who have traditionally dominated the event but did not even have a finalist in London.
The USA had not lost a men's 400m final at the Olympics since 1976, and they swept (1-2-3) all the men's 400 medals in the two games prior to London — Athens and Beijing.
The Bahamas men's 1600-metre relay team delivered more agony to the USA in a tremendous result and national record 2:56.72, accentuated by young Ramon Miller's thumping of US veteran Angelo Taylor on the final lap. It was the first Olympic defeat for the US in the event since 1972.
Medal goals for the region had seemed disrupted with early elimination for top Jamaican medal prospects Melaine Walker and Brigitte Foster-Hylton.
Defending champion Walker was tame in the 400m hurdles semis, and 2009 World Champion Foster-Hylton tumbled out in the first round of the sprint hurdles.
Unexpected medals helped re-energise the CARICOM convoy, triggered by bronze from T&T's Gordon (400m) and Jamaican Hansle Parchment (110m hurdles).
Outside of track and field, Jamaican swimmer Alia Atkinson and T&T cyclist Njisane Phillip, also hinted that with more investment and focus in these sports, the region can also rise to high levels.
Atkinson was bravely fourth in the women's 100-metre breaststroke final and Phillip lost the bronze medal ride-off in the match sprint.
Some of these successes as a Caribbean region are not unparalleled. We must constantly remind ourselves that our world-beating qualities did not start with Beijing, Athens, Sydney, or Atlanta, where the region delivered Olympic gold medallists.
What James achieved in the men's 400m, Arthur Wint did 64 years earlier for Jamaica in London, and 1976 was also significant when the Caribbean swept the two men's sprints plus the 400m gold in Montreal through Hasely Crawford (T&T), Donald Quarrie (Jamaica) and Alberto Juantorena (Cuba).
Meets like Jamaica's compelling High School Championships and the regional CARIFTA Games keep serving up gifted athletes to the world.
London 2012 again showcased the value of our world-class junior meets as critical development tools that we should not take for granted.