Jamaica's 43-year-old 800m Record
Desperately needed after 40 years, a new man to succeed “one of the special ones”
There’s a strange anomaly in the list of Jamaican national records. Usain Bolt’s times are, of course, phenomenal, and the 400 metres is understandably a shade less impressive but still of a very fine class, 43.93 by Rusheen McDonald in 2015. So why is the 800 metres so ordinary? And why does it still stand after 43 years?
Seymour Newman ran 1:45.2 in 1977. Making comparisons by means of the Hungarian Scoring Tables points system which equates all events, that’s as if Don Quarrie still holds his country’s 100 metres record from that year at 10.19 – he actually ran 10.12 in 1977. Not only that but 59 national records at 800 metres are currently better than Jamaica’s, including those of Djibouti, Iran, Egypt, Kuwait, Latvia, Puerto Rico, Senegal and even three others which haven’t existed for 30 years or so, East Germany, the USSR and Yugoslavia. Yet Newman was among the best exponents of his generation at both 400 and 800 metres, and the Jamaican AAA website rightly says oi him, “Newman’s prowess on the track marked him as the successor to Arthur Wint and George Kerr, the great Jamaican 400 and 800 runners of the past”.
Newman was most unfortunate to miss the 1976 Olympic 800 metres final by 5/100ths of a second, and for a while he was even among the qualifiers until the reinstatement of the USA’s Rick Wohlhuter after initially being disqualified for pushing his way past Newman and others. Under present-day rules, Newman might well have been advanced to the final. In the 4 x 400 metres relay the Jamaicans were never in the reckoning for medals, but Newman ran an astonishing 43.8 anchor stage for 5th place, and even the double Olympic champion at 400/800 that year, Alberto Juantorena, was eight-tenths slower. Newman’s best 400 off the blocks of 45.66 was also a national record when he ran it, again in 1977. At the 1978 Commonwealth Games he got the silver behind Kenya’s Mike Boit at 800 metres, though beaten by almost a second.
Born 17 May 1953 in the parish of Manchester in west central Jamaica, Newman’s first sporting interest was cricket and he was good enough to be in the Jamaican Under 19 team as a pace bowler. During the 1960s and 1970s there was no lack of half-miling talent in Jamaica to follow Arthur Wint’s Olympic silver medals of 1948 and 1952. George Kerr (best of 1:45.9 in 1964) was Olympic bronze-medallist in 1960 and 4th in 1964 and Byron Dyce (1:45.3 in 1979), who is still holder of the national records for 1000 metres and the mile, had numerous successes indoors and out. In 1964 Neville Myton ran 1:47.2 for 880 yards at only just 18 years of age for 6th ranking in the World that year and was the leading junior by a full two seconds, but he never improved on that precociousness.
There was a cluster of respectable times in 1995-96 by Clive Terrelonge, 1:45.44, and then Mario Vernon-Watson and Alex Morgan, 1:45.68 in the same race, but the fastest Jamaican in the last full season of 2019 was at a modest 1:48.62, and even Albania, Andorra, Gambia, Kosovo, Peru and Sri Lanka did better than that. The Jamaican women’s 800 metres record, by contrast, is far superior to the men’s in World terms, as Natoya Goule’s 1:56.15 from 2018 is 34th of all-time and Newman’s 1:45.2 is 399th at the time of writing. Then, too, Jamaicans have proved themselves at international level in a whole range of events in addition to the sprints and hurdles – high jump, long jump, triple jump, shot, discus, decathlon, heptathlon; So why not the 800?
In his lavishly-illustrated 2009 book about Jamaican athletics history, Patrick Robinson – who is an international judge by profession – acknowledges the problem, as one would expect of such a keen legal mind. Of Jamaica’s pre-eminence in global athletics he says, “This reputation has been earned almost exclusively on the basis of its athletes excelling in a select band of events – the sprints, the relays, long jump and triple jump. We should not be content with that. We must re-double our efforts to improve in the longer track events and the throwing events. It is, in fact, embarrassing that following upon the pioneering efforts of Arthur Wint in 1948 and 1952 in the 800 metres (silver medal in both Olympics) and Seymour Newman’s national record in 1977 we have not produced an athlete who has run below 1 minute 45 seconds”.
Writing in the New York-based but Jamaica-focussed on-line newsletter, “Tracklife International”, in 2015, Neil O. Clayton proclaimed, “Someone needs to reach out to the Kenyans or Nigerians or Australians, or British, or even the Qataris, with the advertisement, ‘Desperately Needed: An 800 Metres Prodigy For Jamaica’’”, but that reads more like a tongue-in cheek journalistic turn of phrase than the serious proposal which is much needed. When did Nigeria last produce an 800 metres runner of note? The Jamaican AAA continues to put their faith forlornly in Seymour Newman from more than 40 years ago, describing him as “One of the Special Ones” and suggesting that he will serve “hopefully as an inspiration for those who will run for the black green and gold in championships to come”.
It is perfectly understandable that the example of so many great sprinters should inspire young Jamaicans to take up those events, but it is a natural progression elsewhere in the World that those who perhaps do not quite make the top grade at 400 metres graduate to 800 metres. That hasn’t happened in a long time in Jamaica. With all due respect to the durable record-holding incumbent at 800 metres as he nears his 70th birthday, and with no pun intended, a new man is needed.