Why are Jamaicans the fastest runners in the world?

By Tyler Cowen

That is one chapter in Orlando Patterson’s new and excellent The Confounding Island: Jamaica and the Postcolonial Predicament.  One thing I like so much about this book is that it tries to answer actual questions you might have about Jamaica (astonishingly, hardly any other books have that aim, whether for Jamaica or for other countries).  So what about this question and this puzzle?

Well, in terms of per capita Olympic medals, Jamaica is #1 in the world, doing 3.75 times better by that metric than Russia at #2.  This is mostly because of running, not bobsled teams.  Yet why is Jamaica as a nation so strong in running?

Patterson suggests it is not genetic predisposition, as neither Nigeria nor Brazil, both homes of large numbers of ethnically comparable individuals, have no real success in running competitions.  Nor do Jamaicans, for that matter, do so well in most team sports, including those demanding extreme athleticism.  Patterson also cites the work of researcher Yannis Pitsiladism, who collected DNA samples from top runners and did not find the expected correlations.

Patterson instead cites the interaction of a number of social factors behind the excellence of Jamaican running, including:

1. Preexisting role models.

2. The annual Inter-Scholastic Athletic Championship, also known as Champs, which provides a major boost to running excellence.

3. Proximity and cultural ties with the United States, which give athletically talented Jamaicans the chance to access better training and resources.

4. The Jamaican diet and a number of good public health programs, contributing to the strength of potential Jamaican runners (James C. Riley: “Between 1920 and 1950, Jamaicans added life expectancy at one of the most rapid paces attained in any country.”)

5. The low costs of running, and running practice, combined with the “combative individualism” of Jamaican culture, which pulls the most talented Jamaican athletes into individual rather than team sports.  (That same culture is supposed to be responsible for dancehall battles and the like as well.)

Whether or not you agree, those are indeed answers.  The book also considers “Why Has Jamaica Trailed Barbados on the Path to Sustained Growth?”, “Why is Democratic Jamaica so Violent?”, and a number of questions about poverty.  Amazing!  Those are indeed the questions I have about Jamaica, among others.

Recommended, you can pre-order here.