Like clockwork, Jamaica, the tiny island nation in the Caribbean, transforms into a global superpower every four years when the attention of the world shifts to the Olympic track events.
The country of Usain Bolt, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, Yohan Blake and countless others is, simply, the most dominant national force in any specific discipline at the Summer Games. It's quadrennial medal tally would be impressive enough without any caveats but given that the country is the size of Connecticut with the population of Utah, it all defies logic, reason and probability. With Rio turning out like London and Beijing before it, Jamaica isn't just the king of sprints, there's no successor to the throne in sight.
Getty ImagesStu Forster
How dominant is Jamaica? There are six sprint races at every Olympics: men's/women's 100m, men's/women's 200m, men's/women's 4x100 relay. (We're not counting hurdles. It's a sprint speciality.) That puts 14 medals up for grabs every four years - 12 in the individual races and then two in the 4x100s.
In Beijing, Jamaica won eight of the 14 medals. London was the high-water mark, with TeamJA winning 10 (!) of the 14 sprint medals. So In Rio, the Jamaicans have five medals in the four races run so far (both relays are Friday night and Jamaica is favored to win gold in both).
AFP/Getty ImagesADRIAN DENNIS
It's easy to say - well, that's all Bolt. And yes, Usain has, or has played a part in, eight of those medals. But that leaves plenty without him, from Fraser-Pryce's back-to-back 100m golds in Beijing/London to Elaine Thompson's 100/200 double in Rio to Yohan Blake, Warren Weir, Veronica Campbell-Brown and Kerron Stewart. There has been an undeniable Bolt effect on Jamaican sprinting but that makes its success no less fascinating.
AFP/Getty ImagesFRANCOIS XAVIER MARIT
Let's try and put this into context: In what historians call the modern Olympics (1936 and beyond), Team USA never had more than eight of the 14 sprint medals in a non-boycotted Games. Even in its heyday - 1988, when both men and women (led by Carl Lewis and Flo-Jo) were on top of the sprint world - the U.S. could only match what Jamaica did in their inferior Beijing performance. In 1996, when the Games were in the U.S. and you'd expect the requisite home-nation bump, Team USA could only muster five of the 14 sprint medals. More recently, the U.S. had exactly half the sprint medals as Jamaica in 2008 and 2012 (four in Beijing, five in London).
AFP/Getty ImagesJEWEL SAMAD
The obvious parallel to Jamaica's sprint success is Kenyan distance runners. There's a huge difference between the two, however. Kenya is a longtime power that started to win medals in its third Olympics (1964), began dominating the longer races in 1968 and then came back stronger than ever after missing two Games because of boycotts (1976 and 1980). Since Seoul in 1988, the Kenyans have won 18 golds, 25 silver and 19 bronze in distance running. For whatever the reason the Kenyans dominate the distance (and there's been much research, theories and debate), they've been doing it for decades (and from a population of 44 million). Jamaica has always been good at the sprints but the domination is relatively new.
AFP/Getty ImagesJOHANNES EISELE
From the 1956 Melbourne Olympics through 1996 in Atlanta, Jamaica won one sprint gold medal, a 1976 win in the men's 200m. They won just 14 other sprint medals over the span of those nine Olympics, eight of them were won by either Don Quarrie or the ageless Merlene Ottey. Jamaica was a good sprinting nation but hardly exceptional. And then - boom. Six medals in Atlanta. Nine in Sydney. Then 30 (so far) over the past three Olympics. It's dynastical stuff.
AFP/Getty ImagesERIC FEFERBERG
The success is fascinating. But what never ceases to amaze is how Jamaica is solely about those sprints, at least for the men. Once the distances get higher than 200, Jamaica becomes an average, at best, track nation.
It's amazing - for as good as Jamaica has been in the 100m and 200m, they can't approach the U.S. in the 400m. Team USA swept the men's 400m in 1988, 2004 and 2008 and won six medals in the other five Games (1992, 1996, 2000, 2012 and 2016). Thus, of the 24 men's medals up for grabs in the 400m from 1998 through today, the U.S. took 15 (62.5%), a better percentage than the Jamaican men in the Bolt era and over a much longer stretch. (Jamaica only had one medal over the same period. Interestingly, the Jamaican women have a one medal lead on the U.S. women since 1988. The two countries lead the medal count in that race by a wide margin.)
Getty ImagesStu Forster
Of course, pitting the U.S. vs. Jamaica is apples and, uh, scratched CDs of Legend. The United States is more than 100 times the size of Jamaica. With 2.7 million people, you could double Jamaica's population and still be about 1 million short of how many people live in the D.C. area. More than 130 countries have bigger populations than Jamaica, many of which have fewer medals in their Olympic history than Bolt has by himself. It's awesomely awe-inspiring.
Getty ImagesMario Tama
With the two relays on Friday expected to take gold, Jamaica will complete another dominant sprint portion of the Summer Games. Usain Bolt has repeatedly said this is his last time running around the Olympic track and that he'll retire after the 2017 world championships. After becoming the first man to win the 100 and 200 at three straight Olympics (separately, let alone in tandem), he'll have little more to accomplish. But Bolt is nothing if not vain - and I say that in the most complimentary way - and the idea of going for four and putting his records so far out of reach that nobody will ever touch them could be enticing. But whether he stays or goes, the sprinting pipeline in Jamaica will remain strong. The superpower will survive.