KINGSTON (Reuters) - It hasn’t been done for 100 years, but three Jamaican men hope to make history at the London Olympics next Sunday, equaling a feat by the island’s women sprinters in Beijing four years ago.
The Caribbean nation of less than 3 million people will come to a virtual standstill at 4:50 p.m. local time (2150 GMT) as Jamaicans turn their attention to the final of the 100-meter dash, featuring some of the fastest men in the world.
For most Jamaicans, it’s not a question of whether one of their countrymen might win a medal, but which one of them claims the gold - and whether a Jamaican trio can sweep the medals.
Jamaican women sprinters swept the 100-meter competition at the 2008 Beijing games. The last time that was done by male sprinters was in 1912, when an American threesome took the podium in Stockholm.
If the Jamaican men pull off the gold, silver and bronze in London it would also give this nation of speedsters an extra reason to celebrate on the eve of its 50th anniversary of independence from Britain.
The favorite in the race is Jamaican Usain “The Lightning” Bolt, the reigning Olympic champion and world record holder. But he will be challenged in London by fellow Jamaicans Yohan “The Beast” Blake and Asafa Powell.
The 100-meter competition also features two speedy Americans: Justin Gatlin and Tyson Gay.
“Bolt is the boss man,” said Alex McNeil, while watching the Olympic Games opening ceremony at Bolt’s downtown Kingston restaurant, Tracks & Records, where the walls are decorated with reggae album covers and pictures of sporting feats.
The signature cocktail is dubbed “The Finish Line.”
“He will be crowned king of the 100 meters,” McNeil predicted, adding that he expected Bolt to repeat the feat in the 200 meters on Thursday as he did four years ago in Beijing. No man has ever won back-to-back Olympic 100-meter gold medals.
The two floors of Tracks & Records will be packed on Sunday with an array of TVs tuned into the Olympics and servers wearing the black, gold and green colors of the Jamaican flag.
Clients will be offered a lunch special, “Out da Blocks,” jerk chicken served with yams, and money back if the plate doesn’t arrive within 9.58 minutes.
Bolt’s world record for the 100 meters is 9.58 seconds; also the inspiration for the house rum punch, Nine.58.
Bolt’s father, Wellesley Bolt, told Reuters after his son won gold in 2008 the secret to his speed lay in the yams grown in the northwestern area of Jamaica where the sprinter was born.
Local excitement is on the rise as businesses seek to cash in on the Olympic frenzy, offering discounted TV sets to potential buyers. Some businesses have installed TVs in lunch rooms to allow staff to watch the action from London, while large-screen TVs have been set up in shopping malls and other public places around the capital.
Crowds were expected to gather beginning with the 100-meter heats on Thursday. The men’s racing competition will culminate August 11 with the men’s 4 x 100-meter relay.
“I’ve never seen anything like what is happening, and the kind of recognition our athletes are getting. Bolt is such a phenomenon and the timing is perfect for our 50th,” said Taynia Nethersole, a Kingston attorney.
Bolt, who turns 26 later this month, is a living legend in his home country. He has more than 714,000 followers on Twitter and is the island’s top celebrity after reggae’s Bob Marley.
The London Olympics are a golden opportunity to promote the island’s best features, blocking out other more negative traits, including one of the highest murder rates in the world, largely due to gang-related violence fueled by drug money.
Jamaica received almost 2 million tourists last year and the tourist industry generated $2.3 billion. The island’s tourism board has featured Bolt in ads promoting its sunny beaches and laid-back Caribbean culture, and Air Jamaica promotes its flights to the homeland of “the world’s fastest man.”
Athletes are held in special regard in Jamaica, which has a long record of Olympic success. Since the island’s first participation in the 1948 London Olympics, when Arthur Wint landed gold in the men’s 400 meters, Jamaica has made its mark at every event held since.
At the 2008 Games, Jamaica had its biggest medal haul, taking home six golds, three silvers and two bronzes, ahead of Canada (population 34 million) and Brazil (population 196 million). In 2008, Bolt won three golds - in the 100- and 200-meter competitions, as well as the four-man 100-meter relay - all in world record times.
Some critics say Bolt, famous for his signature archer-like victory pose, may have grown too cocky. Blake beat his training partner twice in three days over the 100-meter and 200-meter races at Jamaica’s National Championship in June.
Callers to local radio talk shows shine a spotlight on his late-night partying. One Catholic priest, Father Richard Holung, chastised Bolt for his lifestyle, urging the sprinter to seek an “audience” with God to guide him.
Concerned by his late hours, some have even asked the governing body for athletics in Jamaica to provide Bolt with a driver. He has crashed two BMWs in the last year, one on his way home in June from a Kingston nightclub.
Bolt is still the odds-on favorite according to local bookmakers in Jamaica at 1-2, with Blake at 8-5 and Powell a more attractive 40-1.
Jamaicans are also eyeing gold in the women’s sprints, where Jamaica’s Shelly-Ann Fraser Pryce and Veronica Campbell Brown are the defending champions in the 100-and 200-meter events.
Medical doctor Romayne Edwards, speaking at Tracks & Records, said he feared one of the American sprinters would spoil a Jamaican sweep of the men’s 100.
“Even so it will still be a historic moment in Jamaica’s history,” Edwards said.
Writing and additional reporting by David Adams; Editing by Tom Brown and Todd Eastham