THINK JAMAICA and you think sprints. Prior to Doha, every single one of the Caribbean island’s 14 men’s victories at the World Championships had come from its speed merchants. Into the bargain, all 11 of their Olympic men’s gold medals have come at distances up to the 400, including relays. However, with one jump Tajay Gayle changed the paradigm and become his nation’s first man to post a field event victory on a global outdoor stage.
Charging down the runway on his fourth attempt—already leading from his first round effort which had cut the sand at 27-9¼ (8.46), a 6¼-inch (14cm) improvement on his previous best—the 23-year-old Gayle hit the board squarely with less than a half-inch to spare and landed at 28-6¼ (8.69). Game over, even with a host of classy jumpers such as Jeff Henderson, Juan Miguel Echevarría and Luvo Manyonga each having two jumps left.
“The distance itself took me by surprise although I expected to jump far over 8m,” was Gayle’s immediate slightly dumb-struck reaction after his mini-Beamonesque moment. It took everyone else by surprise as well. He finished the contest in Doha with a PR more than a foot farther than he started with, added 7cm to the Jamaican NR set by James Beckford back in ’97 and moved up to No. 11 on the all-time world list.
The sense of astonishment was compounded not least by the fact that Gayle had just scraped into the final in the 12th and last place after reaching only 25-10¾ (7.89) in the qualifying round. However, Gayle had confidence he could come good despite struggling in what was the very first event on the entire Doha program.
“It didn’t go as planned but I have been working with my coach [Stephen Francis] in making some adjustments to my technique, so I hope to get that right in the final,” he reflected after he almost didn’t make the cut. “We have been working on some flight and landing technique and apparently I didn’t think about the run-up enough, and I really overthought some other stuff, but by tomorrow everything will be OK.”
With the gold medal around his neck the following day, Gayle confirmed that he had paid more attention to his run-up second time around. “[In the prelims] I made some mistakes, I worried about the jump. I went back to the drawing board. On the runway, I just ran faster. [In the final] I was focused on only one thing, that was the run-up and it was working perfectly. I’m not sure what happened, but in any case, I’m very grateful. I just was faster doing my run-up.”
However, despite the prodigious distance, Gayle and his illustrious coach–who has been responsible for many of Jamaica’s top sprinters including Asafa Powell and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce—are convinced there is still plenty more to come. The pair had only been working on a series of technical refinements for three weeks prior to Doha.
Gayle’s post-competition comments also suggest that as an accomplished long jumper he is still a work in progress. At Papine High School in the Jamaican capital Kingston, Gayle had showed some talent as a multi-eventer and finished 7th in the decathlon in the famed Boys & Girls Championships in his final year at school in ’15—a year after finishing a lowly 26th in the LJ prelims with a jump barely over 20-feet—but there was nothing particular in his results that provoked any headlines or marked him out as a potential world champion.
However, his high school coach Shanikie Osbourne saw something lurking in Gayle that suggested he could achieve greatness and Gayle paid fulsome tribute to her after his Doha triumph. Osbourne recounted to the Jamaica Gleaner the day after Gayle’s win, “I was at the event and I saw this person high in the air, and when I went over there it was Tajay. Because Papine was not one of the top high schools, I believe that was one of the reasons he didn’t build on his talent there. He didn’t believe he could do it, but I always told him that he can be great. Then Stephen Francis came to me and said, ‘Shanikie, I need Tajay. I believe he can be good at something,’ and he worked with him and this is the result now.”
After Papine, Gayle enrolled at Jamaica’s University of Technology, where Francis’ MVP Track Club is based, and started to make steady progress, jumping 24-9 (7.54) in ’16 and 26-3 (8.00) in ’17 before making a breakthrough last year with 27-½ (8.24) for silver at the NACAC Championships. He equaled that PR twice in early ’19, first when winning at the Shanghai DL in Shanghai and then his national champs, before improving to 27-3¼ (8.32) when finishing 2nd behind Manyonga at the London DL in July.
All that was a prelude to his stunning performance in Doha, which left Gayle almost lost for words. “This means everything to me. It’s not only the gold but the National Record. Today is the best day of my life because I dreamed about this and it has come true. As for next year, I’ll see what happens.” ◻︎