Sports have been an important part of Jamaica since the time of the island's native people, the Taínos. Athletics have since been replaced by the sporting customs of the island's British colonizers, and games such as cricket and football (soccer) dominate today. Still, there are plenty of other games to watch and play on this beautiful island.
Cricket, long revered in England as a gentleman's sport, was first played in Jamaica by the upper classes. Unlike football, a game for the masses, cricket was reserved for the elite and had a reputation as being a game that exemplified English poise. Over time Jamaicans of all social backgrounds became involved in the game, and today cricket is thriving in the West Indies.
The rules are both social and technical. The game is played with a bat and ball, though both are different than those used in baseball. Only three men in the field have gloves. A test match is played over five days – each with roughly seven hours of play time.
Social rules are equally as strict. Teams are divided between "gentlemen" and "players," and each even has their own locker room. Gentlemen were, until recently, the only men who could captain a team. Players were paid to play on a team.
In the West Indies, teams were divided by color. But in 1948, Jamaican George Headley became the first black man to captain a test side. Headley is regarded as one of the top batsmen in the game.
Although cricket is popular in Jamaica, there is only one team to represent all of the West Indies in international competition. The first team played in 1928 against England. And in 1935, the team, known as The Windies, won its first test series – a group of five five-day-long matches over a period of two to three months.
The biggest change came from a series victory in 1950, when West Indian teams began traveling the world. From the 1960s to the 1980s, the West Indies team began taking the lead in the world game, and in 1960 sent abroad its first team captained by a black man, Frank Worrell of Barbados.
The game of football was introduced by British troops who were sent to keep the peace in the colony in the mid-to-late-1800s. Matches between regiments became important social events, which helped spread the game's popularity to all corners of the island.
As time passed, the game became ingrained in the culture – even high schools competed among each other in the early 1900s. Today, most schools have football teams. By the 1920s, Jamaica was ready to enter the international stage and played against neighboring teams on Haiti, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic.
After World War II, the region began organizing, and Jamaica was eventually recognized by FIFA, the world's federation of soccer organizations. The region eventually widened to include the United States and Canada. This led to Jamaica's first entry into the World Cup finals in 1998.
Jamaica's biggest problem in reaching World Cup competition had been its team. Although Jamaica was filled with stars who could play a great game, they did not work together as a team as well as they worked individually. Therefore, after a great deal of training and help from some of the best in the world, the Reggae Boyz became one of three teams to reach the finals in 1998 – alongside Mexico and the United States. Although they were eliminated after the first round, they did finish the round points ahead of the U.S. team.
Perhaps it can be attributed to a competitive streak in the Jamaican spirit, but it's clear the island is here to stay in the Olympics. Jamaica has claimed a large number of medals in track and field events, and who could forget the Jamaican bobsled team's participation in previous Winter Olympics?
After World War II, Jamaicans began competing in track events. In fact, in the 1996 Olympic games Jamaica was ranked as one of the top-five nations based on number of medals won per capita of the population.
Herb McKenley, Merlene Ottey, Donald Quarrie, and Arthur Wint are among some of Jamaica's famous runners. However, you'll also find Jamaicans who now live in other countries competing for top awards.
During the 2012 Olympics, Usain Bolt won two gold medals for Jamaica in both the 100 meter dash and 200 meter dash and set a new world record. His team mates brought home an additional 16 medals; a total of seven gold, four silver, and seven bronze.
The Jamaican Bobsled (Bobsleigh) Team gained international notice when it set its sights on the 1988 Winter Olympics. The team had trouble in this early competition but was performing well by 1992, when it took 14th place against other teams, including the United States and France, in the four-man team. The two-man team came in 10th place, above the Swedish national champions.
Although the team cannot train in Jamaica, where it never snows, they've worked hard to reach the Olympics every four years. Their struggle inspired the Disney movie Cool Runnings. They have also participated in the 2002 Winter Olympics and other competitions.
There are some surprises when it comes to other sports that are played on Jamaica. Horse racing is popular, with all of the action centered at the Caymanas Park race track near Kingston. Tennis and golf are also played, though they are not as widely popular as cricket or football. These sports also tend to be pastimes of wealthier Jamaicans, however, they are also popular among travelers.
American football has some followers in Jamaica as well. Most of these fans are those who have emigrated from the United States or who have spent time there. Although pickup games may start up among fans, the game is not widely followed on the island, and there are no local teams.
Basketball, on the other hand, is growing in popularity. Interestingly, many of Jamaica's Chinese were the first to pick up the game in the 1940s. It wasn't until the 1960s that the rest of Jamaica's population began considering the game. They have been playing internationally in CARICOM (Caribbean Community and Common Market) tournaments, and womens player Simone Edwards has played in Europe, as well as in the United States' WNBA with the Seattle Storms.
Cricket and football are the top games in Jamaica, but athletics are so popular that you can always find a way to play when visiting this island, no matter what kind of sports you're interested in. If playing isn't your thing, there are many fun opportunities to be a spectator.
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