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JIS News

As the first and only man to set world records in the 100 metres, 200 metres, and 4X100 metres relays, on the way to winning gold medals at a single Olympic Games, Usain Bolt has cemented his place in history as one of the greatest sprinters of all time.
While others such as Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, Germany, and more recently, Carl Lewis, at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, in the United States, achieved gold medal success in the 100m, 200m, and the 4x100m relays, none of them did so in World Record times as Usain Bolt.
This is one of the main reasons why former Olympian, Byron LaBeach, an alternate member of Jamaica’s 4x400m relay team that won gold at the 1952 Helsinki Olympic Games in Finland, says that Usain Bolt tops the list of great athletes that he has ever seen.
“Of all the athletes that I have seen in my time, Usain Bolt ranks number 1. I would put him as a new breed of athlete. I think he can do anything,” he enthusiastically asserts in an interview with JIS News.
Such is Bolt’s talent, that Mr. LaBeach believes that in addition to his successes in the 100 and 200 metres, he could do quite well in the 400m, and as such attempt the unique triple in the future.
“In 2012 in London, barring injury, I would like to see him attempt the three, the 100, 200, and 400 (metres). He ran the 400m in his junior days very well, and he looks like the person fit to run the 400m. While it is difficult to say, I think he could break the World Record,” the former Olympian confidently points out.
“He has everything working for him, he runs a good 200m and is a great sprinter, and so he’s almost like Herb McKenley. Only thing, I think he has a more controlled way of running. He knows when to accelerate, he doesn’t try to kill the race in one big sprint,” he adds.
Herb McKenley, to whom LaBeach compares Usain Bolt, is the legendary Jamaican who, in addition to being at one point the World Record holder of the 400m, enjoyed a successful Olympic career.
In 1947 he became the first and is, to this day, the only man to achieve in the same year, the world’s best times in the 100m, 200m, and 400m. At the 1948 London Olympics, he won silver in the 400m and followed this up in the 1952 Helsinki Games with silver in both the 100m and 400m, and ran a remarkable third leg in a gold medal World Record effort in the 4x400m relay.
Thus, before the Usain Bolts, Asafa Powells, Veronica Campbell-Browns, Merlene Otteys, and Donald Quarries of recent time, Herb McKenley, Dr. Arthur Wint, and George Rhoden were the trailblazers who put Jamaica on the map internationally, and thrilled the world with electrifying performances.
According to Mr. LaBeach, what is seen today, both in terms of performances and the euphoria that they cause, is very similar to the days of 1948 and 1952.
He tells JIS News, about the journey of disappointment and triumph that was the World Record, gold medal winning 4x400m relay team of 1952.
“In 1948, the team that participated is the team that should have won, because they had two World Record holders (McKenley and Wint) and a prominent upcoming George Rhoden. In the relay, the first two legs went off beautifully, the third leg when Wint was on his way, we were in second position just one foot or so away from the USA,” he recounts.
“Now at the third bend, that is where everything went to disaster, Wint fell in a hole, a hole on the track, twisted his ankle, and went down,” Mr. LaBeach bemoans, adding, “that was unfortunate because we would have won the gold medal then because anchoring, was Herb McKenley the World Record holder.”
However, rather than wallow in self pity, the team made a pact that they would make a comeback in 1952 and win the gold medal. For that occasion the team manager decided to bring an alternate member, and the 21-year old Byron LaBeach was chosen.
“In the last 2 rounds we did the fastest time, and so it was definite that we were bound to win the gold medal,” Mr. LaBeach states.
In the final, however, things didn’t seem as definite, as after the first two legs Jamaica was trailing, and the third leg runner Herb McKenley had a considerable lead to make up. This provided the backdrop for what Mr. LaBeach describes as one of the greatest relay legs ever run.
“Herb McKenley got the baton about 12 yards behind his opponent, which was the USA. When he got the baton we actually thought this was it, there was no way that we were going to catch Charlie Moore (400m hurdles gold medallist),” he says.
“But Herb McKenley did the most fantastic race in the history of the world then, he ran to overtake a 12 yard lead. He ran 44.3, which they are still running today, and handed the baton to Rhoden, one foot ahead and the race went around with the same pace and distance between us and the Americans, and ended that way and Jamaica won the gold medal,” he joyously recalls, while adding that the atmosphere was just as impressive and exciting.
“The crowd responded, not so much at the beginning, but when McKenley got the baton and actually started to accelerate around the turn and started to catch the American (Charles Moore) runner on the bend, cutting him down yard by yard.
The crowd was chanting, chanting, and when he caught him, the crowd reacted almost just like when Bolt broke the 200m record. The crowd, again, was with Jamaica the same way as in China. It was so exciting. That was a classic of a classic,” he says triumphantly.
“After that victory, when we returned to the village, the Duke of Edinburgh, came to our room and he had a toast with us,” Mr. LaBeach recalls.
This Golden era, 1948 – 1952, the beginning of Jamaica’s track and field prominence, saw the country finish first and second (Wint and McKenley) in the 400m in the 1948 Olympics and repeat the feat (Rhoden and McKenley) in 1952. Also, through Dr. Arthur Wint, Jamaica produced silver medal performances in the 800m in 1948 and 1952.
This, according to LaBeach, was a great sense of pride for Jamaicans, especially in a colonial world.
As it relates to the 1-2 finish in 1952, he says, “to me it was like I had won. I was on cloud nine. At that particular time, America to us was like David and Goliath, and to win the 400m again 1st and 2nd was joy throughout, as far as the Jamaican camp was concerned and a lot of joy too for the Finnish people.”
“It was very, very joyful and it made me feel proud of Jamaica. We just wanted to know if Jamaica had gotten the news and from what I heard, there was a lot of celebrating and Bustamante declared a holiday,” he adds.
Fast-forward 56 yeas to Beijing 2008, and not much has changed as it relates to the fanfare and fascination that Jamaica’s athletes have generated locally and internationally.
“China really adopted Jamaica as their team. so if you noticed, they cheered for Jamaica. If you are walking with a yellow shirt, you have nothing to worry about in China. I don’t have anymore (shirts) because we had to give them away. A pin… whatever, as long as it says Jamaica, that’s it. In the subway they want to hug you… Jamaica in the stores, you name it,” Mr. LaBeach says of his recent trip to the Beijing Olympics.
Byron LaBeach, who is now in his 70s, is a member of the Jamaica Amateur Athletics Association’s Hall of Fame and a recipient of the Prime Minister’s Medal of Appreciation for Service to Jamaica. At the 1952 Olympics, he ran in the 100m, and in 1954 he was a member of Jamaica’s winning 4x100m relay team at the Central American and Caribbean (CAC) Games in Mexico City.
He comes from a family with a proud tradition of track and field excellence, and has five brothers, all Panamanians, who were successful at track. One of his brothers, Lloyd LaBeach, who, at one point represented Jamaica, won bronze for Panama in the 100 and 200 metre sprints at the 1948 London Olympics. Another of his brothers, Sam, also ran for Panama, while Harold and George represented Kingston College at Boys Champs.
Born in Jamaica, Mr. LaBeach’s Jamaica-Panama connection stems from the fact that his parents, who were both born in Jamaica, lived in Panama for a while, so his father, who was in construction, could work on the Panama Canal.
He is currently in Jamaica for a book signing, and recently donated a number of sports photographs to the National Library of Jamaica.