Can Jamaica's Sprinters Fight Crime?

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Petr David Josek / AP

Jamaica's Usain Bolt celebrates winning the gold and setting a new world record in the men's 200m final on Aug. 20

The secret of Usain Bolt's sprinting prowess, at least according to his Aunt Lilly, lies in a substance the precocious Olympic champion has consumed for years: the mouth-watering yellow yams she still cooks for him at Miss Lilly's Bar and Shop in Trelawny parish, deep in the hilly heartland of Jamaica known as Cockpit Country. "You can count on that," Lilly Bolt, 56, told TIME by telephone from the patio of her restaurant, where Usain also likes to dance to roots reggae music. And Bolt's performance-enhancing yams should not be confused with any kind of drug: "I don't even use fertilizer growing those yams," she says.

That clean-cut image is a calling card for Bolt and an entire new generation of Jamaican sprinters who have taken the Beijing Olympics by storm. With Bolt shattering world records to claim gold in the men's 100 and 200 meters, and Jamaica making a clean sweep of the medals in the women's 100 meters, the Caribbean island is fast earning the title of the world's fastest country. That reputation is music to the ears of Jamaicans who, for years, have become more accustomed to hearing their country discussed for its sky-high murder rate and for a dancehall reggae pop-culture that has, in recent years, glorified bullets and brutality.

A growing number of Jamaican citizens and officials, in fact, are counting on their world-conquering young sprinters — none of whom has failed a drug test, and who often speak out against the gunplay at home — to supplant self-styled "roughneck" singers as role models, and help reduce the country's horrific levels of violent crime. "These athletes can speak to the young people in our more troubled communities, especially since many of them come from those communities," says Jamaican sports writer Carole Beckford, author of Keeping Jamaica's Sport on Track. "We can't wait for them to come home as a result."

Few Jamaican athletes are in a better position to have that kind of effect than Shelly-Ann Fraser, who won the women's 100 meters last weekend, the first gold for her country in that event. (She was followed in second and third place by fellow Jamaicans Sherone Simpson and Kerron Stewart.) To international track-and-field enthusiasts, Fraser, 21, seemed to emerge from nowhere; but to Jamaicans, she's the girl who used to train barefooted in her home neighborhood of Waterhouse, a particularly tough ghetto on the outskirts of Kingston. One of the first things she did after her Beijing victory was grab her cellphone and call her mother Maxine back in Waterhouse. Maxine, a street vendor and former sprinter herself, is outspoken about the violence and police abuse plaguing their community, and she often uses media interviews about her daughter to implore Jamaicans to "put down the guns." After Shelly-Ann's win, she urged them to recognize that "good things can come out of the ghetto. Good things can come out of Waterhouse." Shelly-Ann told a Jamaican daily, "My mother is probably one of the biggest reasons why I'm running."

Relying on athletes to galvanize social and economic improvement is always a risky proposition, especially in developing countries. But the Fraser family offers the kind of grassroots anti-crime publicity the Jamaican government needs more of, says Mark Shields, deputy federal police commissioner. "It has a positive effect on bringing the crime rate down. This is a great opportunity to sell Jamaica in the positive light it deserves."

Bolt's Aunt Lilly agrees: "This gives Jamaicans a new picture to hold in their hands and look at for a moment and say to themselves, you know, we can do better." Says Ivor Conolley, who owns The Last Resort, a bed-and-breakfast inn near Lilly's restaurant in Trelawny, "The whole country feels right now as if good things are happening to us for a change." In cities like Kingston, in fact, seemingly everyone is wearing yellow, the color of Jamaica's athletic uniform, to work and draping the national flag on their cars, says Beckford. She hopes the wave of enthusiasm will prompt Jamaican businesses to invest more in sports sponsorship, especially the construction of more modern athletic facilities.

Jamaicans have invested so much of their national identity in recent decades in sprinting, in much the way Brazilians have become defined by soccer. Talented runners are identified at a young age, and the national youth track-and-field championships, held each year around Easter, draw more than 35,000 people for four days to Kingston's National Stadium, the largest crowd for any youth athletics event anywhere in the world. "The high school competition is fierce," says Beckford, who adds that while Jamaica's training facilities might not be First World — Fraser is part of an elite group that practices on a run-down track of grass and tar — its coaches are top flight and its athletes often share a working-class bond. Though Bolt is known for his fun-loving personal style — showcased in his controversial showboating celebration in the final strides of 100 meters victory — he grew up amidst the hardscrabble rural life of Jamaica's bauxite mines. "It's about resilience," says Beckford.

What's more, while star Jamaican runners used to go abroad to train and study, most now opt to stay home, further endearing them to their countrymen. Bolt and Fraser, for example, eschewed lucrative U.S. college scholarship opportunities to attend the University of Technology in Kingston. Jamaican sports officials insist having the athletes on native soil has also led to a far lower incidence of the kind of doping scandals that have bedeviled Jamaican-born sprinters in the past. Bolt even made a point earlier this summer of letting it be known he'd sworn off partying to better prepare for Beijing.

Still, despite the clean record of the latest generation of sprinters, Jamaica has had to contend with a cloud of suspicion because its testing regimen is considered less than stringent. Jamaican health officials insist they're on a vigilant watch for performance enhancing drugs, and in recent years they have nabbed a few cheaters, including two who'd been training at U.S. universities. But while groups like the World Anti-Doping Agency have conceded there is little proof of drug-use among Jamaican sprinters, the country has refused to join the Caribbean Regional Anti-Doping Organization, which would put the country under the kind of broader testing microscope that experts say is required by today's scandal-ridden environment.

Beckford believes that the very exalted status Jamaica's sprinters have earned the country also acts as a hedge against doping: No Jamaican sprinter today would risk being caught cheating, she believes, because "the national condemnation would be too great."