Jamaica has a smaller land mass than Connecticut and fewer people than the San Diego greater metropolitan area. Prior to 2004, it had won a total of five gold medals in the Olympics, only once at a distance shorter than 400 meters. Until then, if you mentioned Jamaica and the Olympics to most Americans, they would think of the Jamaican bobsled team and the John Candy movie based on it.
Not anymore. Jamaica won six gold medals and set world records at the 2008 Olympics, and added more of both at the 2009 world championships and the just completed 2011 world championships in Daegu, South Korea. The country boasts the world's fastest man and track's biggest name, Usain Bolt. And, it does not require a Hollywood comedy about the track team starring Jonah Hill as the funny, fat coach for people to recognize its athletic prominence.
U.S. versus Jamaica may not have the political heat of the old U.S.-Soviet Bloc Olympic rivalry -- I don't recall Soviet athletes celebrating quite like Bolt -- but it certainly adds compelling drama for London next summer, with or without a cold war.
Recovering from their disappointing finish in the 2008 Olympics, America's women sprinters showed they were on the right track in Daegu by winning gold in the 100 and both relays, along with silver in the 200 and 400. The men, however, still have some ways to go. Walter Dix took silver in the 200 and 100, Lashawn Merritt took silver in the 400 and the 4x400 relay team won gold, as usual. But the American men also spent some time looking at the back of Jamaica sprinters.
How can the American men close the gap on the Jamaicans in the sprints they once dominated?
1. Stay healthy: Tyson Gay holds the American record in the 100 meters, which is also the second fastest time on record. He also beat Bolt last year (when the Jamaican wasn't quite up to form). But he injured his hamstring at the 2008 Olympic trials (keeping him out of the 200) and might not have been sufficiently healed in Beijing when he failed to medal in the 100. He injured his hip this June and did not compete at all in Daegu. It's difficult enough to beat Bolt when healthy, impossible when you're hurt.
We also need athletes to avoid wearing wet socks into cryogenic chambers, as 2004 Olympic champ Justin Gatlin did before the Daegu championships and wound up with frostbitten feet. It's never a good sign when your sprinters show up with frostbite.
2. Improve the exchange rate: The U.S. wasn't going to beat Jamaica in Sunday's 4x100 relay, but it didn't even finish the race after Darvis Patton either bumped against or was impeded by Britain's Harry Aikines-Aryeetey and fell before he could hand the baton to Dix for the anchor leg. Whoever was at fault, it was America's third consecutive botched exchange in that event at a world championship level, following similar disasters in Beijing and the 2009 worlds. You can't beat the Jamaicans if you don't even finish the race.
3. Hope Bolt false starts again. And again. And again. And maybe hope Yohan Blake does, as well.