Gibson McCook – A Cornerstone of Jamaica’s Baton Culture

It’s funny how history works. One isolated act can create ripples of cause and effect. Viewed from this perspective, the Gibson McCook Relays is a cornerstone of Jamaica’s success in the 4×100 and the 4×400 metres.

The Relays were first staged in 1973 as a sporting tribute to legendary educator Bishop Percival Gibson, the founding headmaster of Kingston College. At that time, Jamaica was already known for its prowess in sprinting but had but one Olympic relay medal – a glorious 4×400 gold from the 1952 Games when Arthur Wint, Les Laing, Herb McKenley and George Rhoden defeated the USA in world record time.

The picture changed at the end of the first decade of the Gibson Relays. Leleith Hodges, Jackie Pusey, Juliet Cuthbert and Merlene Ottey sped to Jamaica’s first major medal in 1983 at the inaugural World Championships. One year later, at the 1984 Olympics, Albert Lawrence, Greg Meghoo, 1976 200 metre winner Donald Quarrie and Raymond Stewart zoomed to the silver medals in the men’s 4×100.

Jamaica has won 17 Olympic relay medals, with a near equal split between the 4×100 and the 4×400, 8 to 9. However, even though the 4×400 got a head start in 1952, our relay gold medal count is 4 in the sprint relay with that same 1952 gold signifying our only Olympic win in the longer event.

In addition, the relays account for 19.5% of the national’s Olympic medals.

The numbers look similar when it comes to the World Championships, with the relays contributing almost a third of Jamaica’s all-time 137 medal haul. The same 4×100/4×400 imbalance is evident here too, with 11 of the 12 relay gold medals coming in the shorter event.  Relays rely on the quality of the sprinters selected. We have seen what happens when the likes of Usain Bolt, Shelly-Ann Fraser Pryce, Yohan Blake, Elaine Thompson-Herah, Asafa Powell, Shericka Jackson, Michael Frater, Kerron Stewart, Nesta Carter and Sherone Simpson are on duty. There is another factor, however. That is the quality of the baton passing. Practice, coaching and relay competition at meets like the Gibson McCook Relays have honed this skill of passing the baton at high speed.

It is my observation that the Gibson-McCook Relays is at the centre of a sprint relay culture. Similar meets were developed in the East with the Morant Bay Relays, in the West with the Western Relays. In addition, the National Stadium hosted events like the First Life Relays and the JN Intercollegiate Relays. More recently, the Central Hurdles and Relays has become a fixture on the track and field calendar.
The outcome is that every coach, every team and sprinters from every age group had ample opportunity to practice the requisite relay skills and to run the races that either built confidence or sent all concerned to the drawing board. Significantly, the 1983 4×100 bronze medal by Ottey and company and the 1984 silver with Stewart on anchor occurred 10 years into the life of the Gibson Relays, by which time the new relay culture had become ingrained.

Today, the event is being staged for the 46th time, 50 years after its first staging and often, when the finals begin at 4pm, the National Stadium is a tinderbox. Anxious to see what might happen at Boys and Girls Championships, fans raise their voices to a crescendo for each big race. It is in these charged conditions that young sprinters attempt to pass the baton in such a way that it keeps flowing around the track at high speed.

Mistakes mean disaster.

Those who pass this test of skill and character carry the lessons learned at Gibson-McCook into the international arena. From this perspective, it is no surprise that Jamaica owns the world records for the men’s 4×100 and 4×200 and the under 20 girls 4×100. Moreover, the women’s 4×100 has become a more consistent Olympic and World Championship medal winner for Jamaica than the 4×400
metres, with the score being 19 medals to 11.

This last milestone is even more remarkable since each country is allowed to have just one team in each relay. By comparison, the allotment for individual events is typically three athletes per country. Therefore, it is fair to conclude that this sporting tribute to Bishop Gibson has served two purposes. Firstly, as intended, it has kept his illustrious name alive. At the same time, the Gibson-McCook Relays helped to launch Jamaican success in the sprint relays.

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