We recruit Conrad Francis, Grenada’s Co-ordinator of Sports, to find help us out how the volcanic island nation has become an unlikely hot bed of 400m talent.
Spice Girls. And boys
Grenada’s nutrient-rich volcanic soil is perfect for growing spices like nutmeg, turmeric, cinnamon and cloves, earning the nation the moniker “The Island of Spice”. This spice-heavy diet makes the Grenadian people naturally “rhythmic”, according to national 800m record holder Conrad Francis, who is also the national Co-ordinator of Sports.
“We are spicy in the way we walk and dance,” he explains. “I think this relates to sports. We are able to learn sprints drills quickly and [the rhythm] helps our flexibility and strength.”
Move any mountain
As a very mountainous island awash with stunning beaches, Grenada has also developed its people’s endurance – a crucial quality for the 400m.
“We walk a lot up and down mountains and on beaches, which helps strengthen the muscles from a young age,” Francis argues. “Kirani [James, London 2012 Olympic champion] grew up on the beach front at Gouyave. Ever since he was small he would be running on the beach.”
Alleyne Francique finished his career with a brace of world indoor 400m titles, won in Budapest 04 and Moscow 06
Lap it up
Francis says Grenadians have accepted that they don’t have the “super-fast twitch muscles” better associated with Jamaicans.
The stats make it plain. While Sean Lambert's 100m national record of 10.17 ranks him outside of the all-time top 400. By contrast, Grenada boasts four athletes inside the world’s all-time top 116 for the 400m – Kirani James, 8th with 43.74; Bralon Taplin, equal 56th with 44.41; Alleyne Francique, equal 69th with 44.47; and Rondell Bartholomew, equal 116th with 44.65. Only the US, Jamaica, Great Britain and Trinidad and Tobago boast more athletes in the top 116 of the all-time lists.
“We have identified that our athletes’ niche is the 400m because they appear to have a certain level of endurance and speed,” Francis explains.
The country’s Olympic Committee first became affiliated with the IOC in 1984. Before that, generations of Grenada’s best athletes were denied “an international platform to display their skills on the biggest stage”.
Yet Grenada has a proud athletics tradition that goes back to the 1940s. One of its favourite sons, Donald Pierre, was an athletic colossus on the island in the sideburn-heavy 1970s.
“He was outstanding in our local meets and he would run and win every distance from the 100m to the marathon,” says Francis of the man who still holds the 1500m national record of 3:50.3 (which has stood for 44 years).
Yet Pierre’s strongest event was arguably the 400m. According to Francis – a keen historian of Grenadian athletics – Pierre could summon up a swift 45 seconds for the distance. At the 1976 Southern Games in Trinidad and Tobago he famously defeated American Fred Newhouse, who later that year claimed Olympic silver 400m behind galloping Cuban Alberto Juantorena at the Montreal Games.
Pierre may have not have earned the recognition of subsequent Grenada quarter mile legends, but his place in history should not be forgotten.
“We are talking about someone who could have been our first Olympic champion,” insists Francis.
Kirani James dominated the 400m at London 2012, winning in 43.94, more half a second ahead of second place Luguelín Santos
Like many Caribbean islands, athletics is a big deal in Grenada, “right up there” with cricket and football as the nation’s most popular sports.
The country’s biggest annual athletic competition is the Intercol Championships, which sees the island’s 21 secondary schools battle for athletics supremacy. The event regularly fills out the 8,000 capacity national stadium in St George’s – that uqates to around one in every 12 people of the country’s total population. Francis believes this provides the opportunity for every budding athlete to progress in the sport.
“The structure of track and field is very good, with very definite pathways from primary school right up the secondary level, from zonal and parish meets through to nationals,” he adds.
The modern era of Grenadian athletics has, without question, been dominated by the 2004 and 2006 world indoor 400m champion Alleyne Francique. He is a national hero who has paved the way for the next generation of quarter milers.
“He was the man who put our name out there,” Francis recalls. “At the 2004 Olympics every Grenadian was glued to their TV set in anticipation of watching one of their favourites win.”
Unfortunately, Francique placed fourth behind an American clean sweep of the podium that day in Athens. Nonetheless, his inspirational qualities should not be underestimated.
“Young athletes aspire to be the next Alleyne Francique. Kirani and Bralon are of product of that. Alleyne has an input today as he coaches Bralon.”
More to come
Francis believes his compatriots also have a natural aptitude for… the javelin. He has an robust theory as to why.
“It suits the Grenadian physique and way of life,” explains Francis. “In Grenada mango trees grow on the side of the road and kids use pebbles to pick off the mangos, a similar action to the javelin.”
Grenada’s Anderson Peters and Candesha Scott noth won javelin gold in the men’s and women’s events at this year’s Carifta (U20) championships, and Francis is hoping for more in the senior ranks.
“We have dominated the javelin throw at the Carifta Games,” he adds. “At some point in the future we will produce a world champion in this event.”