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Usain Bolt and Jamaica: Have they left US Olympic sprinters behind?

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"It's not that the Americans are getting worse," he adds. "The world is catching up."

American Carmelita Jeter certainly feels as though there is nothing she could have done better in the 100 meters Saturday night. After failing to make the 2008 Olympic team, she rededicated herself to the sport with the sole purpose of becoming the fastest woman in the world. By many measures, it has worked: She is the 2011 world champion and the current world-record holder in the 100.

On Saturday, after all that preparation, "I executed the race the best I could have," said Ms. Jeter.

Still, Jamaica's Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce ran it faster, winning gold for the second Olympics in a row. "She ran an amazing race," Jeter added.

The recognition that America is no longer the alpha male (or female) of the sprinting world is pervasive, though perhaps not always explicitly acknowledged. At a media summit in May, American 200-meter sprinter Wallace Spearmon said of his teammates: "None of us runs for second place, and I think that's the best thing going for us. None of us is going to hand this to" the Jamaicans.

But the very suggestion that the US could be content with second place is, if not unprecedented, then at least unfamiliar, and it speaks to the Jamaicans' relentless pursuit of the podium in recent years.

Top Jamaicans used to emigrate

In truth, Jamaicans have long been among the medals in the Summer Olympic sprints, the world just didn't know they were Jamaicans. Poverty and a lack of training opportunities have meant that Jamaica has been little more than a sprinting nursery, sending many of its most promising prodigies abroad to be honed – and to compete for their adopted countries.              

The world was perfectly happy with this arrangement. Even some inside Jamaica were. "They thought the system worked well, sending [our athletes] to finishing school in the US," says Bruce James, a top track coach in Jamaica. 

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