30 years since 'Quarrie beat them all, up at Montreal'
by GORDON WILLIAMS, Contributor
GETTING UP OUT OF THE BLOCKS: Jamaica's Donald Quarrie is caught in the act as he gets out of the blocks at the National Stadium during his heyday.
There's a lot on Donald Quarrie's mind these days. The 55-year-old former Jamaica sprint great is still in good shape and quick too, hopping from country to country, dealing with athletes and helping to stage track meets like the Jamaica International Invitational (JII).
So it took him a while to reach back for details of that day - exactly 30 years ago today - when "Quarrie", as the Jamaican song would rhyme, "beat them all, up at Montreal" to ring up another glorious chapter in the country's track and field history.
"To be honest, it's not something that I think about," Quarrie admitted last week when reminded of the date. "I just look at it as something I accomplished."
His victory came in the 200 metres and it broke a 24-year drought - spanning five Games - that prevented one of Jamaica's own from standing atop the podium to receive an Olympic gold medal.
Before that, the National Anthem was last played at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, Finland, for George Rhoden, who won the 400 metres, plus the outstanding men's 4x400 metres relay team of Rhoden, Les Laing, Herb McKenley and Arthur Wint.
Quarrie's achievement was monumental, but present business often shelves memories three decades old, even for those who create them. But to almost every Jamaican around on July 26, 1976, Quarrie's win at the Olympics was special, stirred great pride in the nation and was the focal point of discussions for quite some time. Quarrie even became a kind of folk figure in Jamaica. In another tune, Duppy Or A Gunman, Pluto Shervington paid tribute to his legendary speed when describing his own quick getaway from a sticky situation by singing: "Quarrie was a bwoy to I man last night, him couldn't follow me".
In years leading up to Montreal, not many could follow Quarrie either. He was among the world's elite sprinters. In 1975, he beat American Steve Williams to win a 220 yards race, with both men timed in 19.9 seconds, a new world record. He had also equalled the world record in the 100 (9.9) and 200 metres (19.8). Quarrie entered the Montreal Olympics confident the sprint double was his for the taking.
Had a good chance
"I thought I had a good chance in both gold medals," he said.
But the Games didn't begin exactly as planned. Quarrie was beaten into second place by Trinidad and Tobago's Hasely Crawford in the 100 metres final. The 200 was viewed as his pet event, but following a disappointing 1972 Olympics in Munich, Germany, when Quarrie pulled up injured in the semi-finals, Montreal was now being viewed as a time for redemption. Even if the athlete himself did not see it that way, the Jamaican people, anxious for some inspiration as the country tumbled about in political turmoil, certainly did. Quarrie's relief after the event, showed that he was well aware of the mounting pressure.
Jamaica will be happy
"When I crossed the finish line I remember thinking Jamaica will be happy," he said, "especially after the disappointment of '72 and the build up of me as favourite (in '76). I was happy I could win for the country."
However, the country, meaning those following the race with faces eagerly pressed close to radios and television sets, had to survive some anxious moments. While it takes top flight sprinters roughly 20 seconds to complete the half lap event, when the stakes are high, with an Olympic gold medal on the line, and the desperation reaches fever pitch, the wait can seem like eternity.
Strangely, although the anxiety surrounding the final unnerved fans, it hardly appeared to affect Quarrie. It did end in a close enough finish to send hearts racing, with Quarrie winning in 20.22 seconds ahead of Americans Millard Hampton, 20.29, and Dwayne Evans, 20.43, but the Jamaican said he was never worried, despite the earlier setbacks.
"(Munich) was history so far as I was concerned," Quarrie recalled. "I ran well in '74 and '75. I never gave (the injury) any thought."
Neither did he spare much concern for the competition in the 200 final.
"I was not nervous," he said. "I was just anxious for it to be over. I was confident enough that I would win."
The start of the race did nothing to change his mind. Quarrie blasted out of the blocks in lane two and in a few strides had covered most of the field, which included Jamaica's Colin Bradford in lane three. Before the race, Quarrie already knew he was the fastest going around the curve and was confident he would be in charge by the straightaway.
But then something strange happened. Quarrie recalled seeing Crawford in lane five suddenly pulled up with an injury. That startled him. In that split second, unknown to the world, Quarrie lost focus. That lapse could have cost him the gold.
"I had an excellent start, I got out well," he explained. "But I backed off a bit as I saw Hasely jumped up. It was a reflex action, that pause. Then I realised that the people I had gained on were beginning to leave me again."
The big advantage Quarrie had hoped to gain on the curve had dwindled.
"I think that is why I did not come off the curve better," he said.
But he was still in front. From there the plan was simple.
"Just hold on," Quarrie remembered thinking. "Once I hit the straight I knew I had control (of the race)."
His competitors had other ideas. Some 80 metres from the tape Hampton loomed to Quarrie's right in lane four. The former Camperdown High sprinter saw him and repelled the challenge.
"He wasn't closing fast, but he made a move," Quarrie said. "...I moved away."
But Hampton was not done.
"Then he made another move," Quarrie added, "but I had enough to accelerate."
Today Quarrie still believes Hampton's lack of big race exposure prevented the American from finishing better. A more experienced sprinter, perhaps his old rival Williams, he conceded, would have made a single, decisive and more effective move.
"I think Hampton's inexperience was against him," Quarrie explained. "With experience you know exactly what they (rivals) can do."
Either way, Quarrie said, he was not going to be denied the gold at Montreal.
"The moves (Hampton) made were not strong enough," he explained. "I had enough left. There wasn't a question he would run by me."
That left no doubt who was the champion. Quarrie maintains the result in no way surprised him.
"I never thought I would lose," he said.
The response from Jamaicans was overwhelming. Prime Minister Michael Manley called Quarrie in Montreal after the race. He later sent a telegram to the sprinter. Quarrie, even in the non-cellular, non-email era, said he was bombarded with congratulatory messages from other wellwishers, including longtime Jamaica teammate and mentor Lennox Miller.
"(Miller) inspired me a lot," Quarrie said of the late former Olympic 100 metre silver and bronze medalist. "I achieved a lot on and off the track with his help."
Quarrie would earn a bronze in the 200 at the 1980 Games in Moscow, after recovering from a serious motor vehicle accident a year earlier. But today he is less enamoured by the gold medal than he is with the value of the accomplishment of being Olympic champion, the ultimate yardstick by which great track athletes are measured. The greater success, according to Quarrie, is the victory provides hope for other Jamaicans.
"It was a good motivator for younger athletes," Quarrie said of earning Jamaica's first Olympic gold since 1952. "In a positive manner."
Jamaica's continuing legacy on the track - led by Merlene Ottey, Juliet Cuthbert, Grace Jackson, Deon Hemmings, Veronica Campbell, Bertland Cameron, Asafa Powell and others - offers ample evidence of that. Editor's note: Donald Quarrie was born on February 25, 1951 and thus celebrated his 55th birthday earlier this year.