“The Sprint Factory”: Exploiting Jamaica’s Global Sports Brand

The following is an excerpt from a presentation I delivered at the international conference, “Sports: Probing the Boundaries”, held in Salzburg, Austria, November 7-9, 2012. I talked about how sports has branded Jamaica on the global stage and the possibilities of using this powerful brand image to foster social transformation at home.



Track and Field Legend, Jamaican Usain St. Leo Bolt

Jamaica’s identity is, for all intents and purposes, a sporting identity. Barring that pulsating reggae music now known on every continent and its most iconic emissary, Bob Marley, it is sport, which has anchored Jamaica’s stature in the world, and has given other nations, far more powerful militaristically, politically and economically fodder for competition and cause for envy. This tiny nation in the Greater Antilles of the Caribbean Sea, with a population of a mere 2.7 million people, has produced internationally acclaimed athletes in multiple sporting fields, including boxing, swimming, cycling, netball, football, volleyball, weightlifting, wrestling and bobsled, and have won multiple medals across these disciplines.


Herb McKenley holds on for the Silver Medal in the 400 m at the 1948 Olympics (Getty Images)

At the London 2012 Olympics, Jamaica recognized 64 years of participation in the Summer Olympic Games. From the London Games of 1948 (and later Helsinki in 1952), when three black men from Jamaica – Herb McKinley, George Rhoden and Arthur Wint – sprinted into athletic history, and set a precedent for the nation’s extraordinary sporting performance at these Games. Today, Jamaican Usain Bolt, alongside compatriots Shelly Ann Fraser-Pryce and Veronica Campbell Brown have set new bars of achievement in world athletics. Indeed stellar performance of the Jamaican team at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and London 2012, not only concretized Jamaica’s sporting prowess but also the nation as a global sports brand Jamaica, affectionately labeled the “sprint factory” came into sharp global focus, and truly has captured the imagination of the world.

It is no wonder then that, sport has become a core pillar of Jamaica’s national identity – how the nation sees and talks about itself, as well as its brand identity – how the nation positions itself in the world; how it expects other people to see and talk about the nation. Indeed, sport has always been a means by which powerful nations not only exhibit their skill and superiority, but also define and project their national image. In 1936, Adolph Hitler used the Berlin Olympic Games to illustrate German skill and the superiority of the Aryan race (Wikipedia, 1936 Summer Olympics). At these same Berlin games, American Jesse Owens accomplished athletics history by capturing four gold medals in the 100m, 200m, 4×100 relay and long jump (Wikipedia; Johnson 2008).

America’s triumphant intervention in the Second World War had rendered the United States the new world super power. With no clear rivals except Communist Russia and the entire Soviet Bloc, the post war years saw America becoming increasingly accustomed to domination and power and being atop of the world – militaristically, politically, economically, technologically, as well as in terms of industrial and scientific development (Hume Johnson, 2008). Sport was, for America, another avenue by which to display its ability and exhibit its supremacy. The world naturally basked in America’s glory and stood in awe of the constancy of her achievements. Jesse Owens became the marker of such success and later, Jackie Joyner–Kersee, Carl Lewis, Marion Jones, Gail Devers and Michael Johnson – who, individually and collectively, helped to further and embed American domination in world athletics, and advance its favorability in world opinion, and its national image.

Sports as a Tool of Social Transformation in Jamaica

Jamaica’s now entrenched global brand as a front runner in sport must therefore be exploited for economic, political, cultural and reputational benefits. As a student of politics, I would like to see sports exploitation for the social transformational benefits it can provide for Jamaica. For Edward Seaga, former Prime Minister of Jamaica, ‘Sport speaks an international language. It is a language that almost everybody speaks. Sports break down all borders of inequity and discrimination. Sport is a stabiliser, not just a lightweight, recreational, exciting pastime. It is as powerful as the language of love’ (The Jamaica Gleaner, 2012) .In this quotation, Seaga reproduces and propagates sport’s socio-political potency – its ability to break down inequality and discrimination, and in this sense, create a more unified and stable social order. Likening, the power of the language of sport to that of the language of love, Seaga appears to demand of sport a more dynamic and involved political obligation.

Yet sport has long been acknowledged to have a lasting impact on the development of society.  The United Nations, in 2005, recognised sport as crucial to promoting human rights, development and peace. It contends that ‘access to and participation in sport and physical education provide an opportunity to experience social and moral inclusion for populations otherwise marginalized by social, cultural or religious barriers due to gender, disability or other discriminations’ (United Nations, 2005). On the national level, the UN has asserts that sport also contributes to economic and social growth, improve public health, and bring different communities together.

Jamaicans celebrate record win against the USA in CONCACAF World Cup Qualifiers, 2012

Jamaicans celebrate record win against the USA in CONCACAF World Cup Qualifiers, 2012

Recent research (Powell and Waller 2007) reveal that Jamaica is desperately low on social capital.  83.5% of Jamaicans said one could never be too careful when dealing with other people (their fellow citizens).  Lack of trust in govt and institutions was the same = 84. 8%. It seems paradoxical that in a society so fully engaged in sports both as spectators and participants, would record such low levels of social capital. In Jamaica, there are many community sports organisations covering a multiplicity of sports, in which citizens are actively involved; Football being the most popular with the National Premier League, Corner League competitions. This politically divided society came together to celebrate Jamaica’s historic qualification for the Football World Cup, 1998. Research shows that Team Sport can build social cohesion and foster unity in divided communities. Football, cricket, Netball – dominant sport in Jamaica = all team activity. It is within the group activity that norms of trust are built and social capital is premised.Indeed, The National Premiere League and other local and community football programmes, as well as the secondary school athletic competitions have been the source of strong social integration in communities across the country. Huge networks of citizens participate as spectators, volunteers, managers and administrators. Other citizens are engaged in a wide range of recreational sporting activities. All this is crucial to building social capital, well-needed norms of trust crucial to the unity and peace Jamaica desperately needs.

Popular researcher on crime and violence in Jamaica, Christopher Charles, in a recent discussion I had with him, argues that for Sport to work as a unifying force among divided communities: “The football teams of warring communities should not compete against each other in a peace match, but they should play together on one team against a team from some other community. All the social psychological research suggests that creating competing groups/teams reinforce the divisions but working towards a common goal (playing on the same team to win) creates unity among former rivals” (Charles, 2012, Personal Communication). Yet, it would appear that for sport to work as peacemaker, it largely depends on its productive deployment in contexts of conflict.


It is important to acknowledge that in many respects, Sport has advanced Jamaica’s image internationally. It has also leveled the socio-economic playing field in Jamaica, breakdown social barriers, and contributed to the empowerment of our young people. Indeed, the majority of Jamaica’s most successful athletes – Usain Bolt, Asafa Powell, Shelly Ann Fraser-Pryce and Veronica Campbell-Brown, have emerged from materially deprived socio-economic circumstances to become international sporting stars, and given them pathways out of poverty.

We are proud of what Sports has done for Jamaica’s brand image. Sport has given the nation a powerful international platform from which chart a positive course for its future.  Yet, its potential to restore its domestic situation, resolve social and cultural problems, is yet to be fully explored. Sport can become the catalyst for building social capital – seen to be crucial to the development agenda in Jamaica. Sport therefore needs to become part of a strategic social policy in Jamaica, so that its benefits can be fully activated globally through nation branding initiatives and at home through local initiatives undertaken by civil society.


Dr Hume Johnson is a Political Analyst and author of the book, Challenges to Civil Society: Popular Protest and Governance in Jamaica.




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