The Demise of the Jamaican Half-Milers

Article by: 
Bernie Panton
February 27, 2016
The performances of our top half-milers in 2015 did not inspire much hope of a revival of our fortunes in this event. In fact, this relative underperformance in the middle distances has long been a concern to Jamaican track o cials and fans alike. Explanations have been tendered from ‘ selection bias against half-milers’; to ‘coaching bias towards shorter events’ and even to ‘athletes’ aversion to the required training regime’. Whatever the cause, our two-lappers have not dominated the headlines as have our stars in other disciplines – sprints, hurdles, jumps and throws.
Last year, top half-miler Ricardo Cunningham’s 1:47.14 was 135th on the yearly list for the event. Our women fared better with Simoya Campbell ranking 26th with her 1:59.26, while Natoya Goule was 32nd with1:59.63. Both are under 25, with excellent prospects for advancing to the elite level. A comparison of these times with our long standing national records is instructive.
Seymour Newman’s 1:45.21 national record has been around for 38 years. Our national junior record of 1:46.6 was done by Neville Myton in 1964 (them a WJR). Thee Boys’ champs’ record exists since 1987 – 1:48.84 by Vere’s Sherwin Burgess. Again, the women’s record is of more recent vintage, with Kenia Sinclair’s 1:57.88 record being set ten years ago. This should not be too surprising since our women began to take the 800 seriously much later than our men. Jamaica’s rst Olympic medal was a silver by Arthur Wint in the 800 in 1948 in London, and he repeated the placement four years later in Helsinki. We waited eight years for George Kerr to grab the bronze in the Rome Games of 1960, and Jamaica Finally won a global gold medal in the event at the World Indoor Championships of 1995 by Clive Terrelonge in 1:47.30. Since then, Marvin Watts won semi- final places in both the 2000 Olympic Games and the 2001 World Championships.
Kenia Sinclair has been the standard bearer among our womenwinning silver medals at the 2006 World Indoors in 2006 and the Continental Cup in 2010. She placed sixth in the finals of both the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games and the Daegu World Champs. the gold medal did not elude Inez Turner, however, who captured the Commonwealth Games 800 title in 1994 in Victoria, BC and placed 6th in the 1995 World Indoor Champs. Despite the plethora of 4x800s and medley relays at our numerous track meets, including the in uential Gibson/McCook Relays, the 800 lags behind the sprints as mentioned in our opening paragraph. Is there an instant remedy? I was privy to a recent discussion between one of our elite coaches and a former 800 record holder. The coach postulated that our half-milers needed to run more 1500s but the former athlete insisted that the old 400/800 paradigm was still viable.
At was the pattern established with much success by Arthur Wint and followed faithfully by the Spence twins, George Kerr and Seymour Newman. The most outstanding exponent of the model was perhaps the great Cuban, Alberto Juantorena who won both titles at the Olympic level. Since then, the best 800 runners have combined the 800 with the1500/mile; whereas the 400 has been formally twinned with its natural sprint ally, the 200m. The British pair of Steve Ovett and Seb Coe won Olympic medals at both distances, with the latter also setting dual world records, and they were joined by Steve Cram with a similar appetite for the 800/1500 distances. There have been other great 800/1500 “doublers” like Peter Snell, Joaquim Cruz, Wilson Kipketer (former 800 world record holder) and the current pair of event leaders Amos and Kiprop. ere is one notable exception, however, 800 world record holder David Rudisha who rarely runs the 1500 competitively and has a 45.5 quarter done in 2010 when he was 21 years of age. He has not raced at the 400 since.
On the women’s side, the Czech, Kratochvilova, and the Cuban, Ana Quirot are the most notable exceptions, who have won international gold medals in both the 400 and 800, with the former being the current world record holder in the half at 1:53.28. However, the vast majority of the recent leading 800 runners also do the 1500. The Kenyan champion, Eunice Sum and the British double Olympic champion, Kelly Holmes come quickly to mind.
The weight of statistics would seem to support the coach’s position. But in any case, it is the optimum combination of coach, athlete and facilities which will make the di erence. Resources for medical and nutritional support are scarce, but talent abounds in our young athletes. It is not beyond the skills of our coaching fraternity to prepare enlightened training programmes for the middle distances. With hard work and dedication, the breakthrough will not be too far away.
Last year, my concerns about our sprint hurdling woes were answered in no uncertain manner by our hurdlers in Beijing – with two nalists in each of the sprint hurdle races and respective  gold and silver medals to boot. Let us hope that we get a similar response from our half-milers in Rio and that talk of a ‘demise’ was woefully premature.