July 15, 2008 / 12:54 AM / 9 years ago

Curacao sprinter seeks gold to match tooth

<p>Churandy Martina of the Netherlands Antilles competes in the men's 100m semifinals at the Pan American Games in Rio de Janeiro July 23, 2007. REUTERS/Carlos Barria</p>

WILLEMSTAD (Reuters) - Anyone closely watching the starting line of the Beijing Olympics 100-metre sprint may notice the flash of a gold tooth emblazoned with the letter

“C.”

Churandy Martina’s smile surrounds the “C” that stands for his name, his island home of Curacao and his ambition -- champion.

The 23-year-old believes he is a medal contender even against the might of titans such as the United States’ Tyson Gay and Jamaica’s Usain Bolt, who in May broke the 100-metre world record with a time of 9.72 seconds.

“This is a good thing for the event itself, another person breaking the world record,” said Martina, his tooth glinting, in an interview after training on the Caribbean tourist island of Curacao.

“But it doesn’t change anything for me, I‘m staying on the same course, trying to one day break the world record myself.”

Martina placed fifth in the 100 and 200 meters at the 2007 world championships and has set personal bests this year of 10.00 and 20.17 seconds in the two events.

GOOD FINISH

A medal would bring fame to his native Curacao, an island with some 130,000 residents, whose famous scuba diving and quaint Dutch architecture draw thousands of tourists each year.

“Churandy has a very good finish in the 100 meters and he has a lot of endurance for the 200 meters,” said his trainer, Wendell Prince, who is working to improve Martina’s starts. “We have great expectations for Churandy to win a medal.”

Martina will represent the Netherlands Antilles, a Dutch territory of Caribbean islands that includes Curacao, Bonaire and St. Maarten.

<p>Sprinter Churandy Martina attends a practice session in Willemstad, on the island of Curacao, June 16, 2008. REUTERS/Jorge Silva</p>

On Curacao, known for its multi-cultural population with Dutch, Papiamentu and English as official languages, the jovial and friendly Martina played a range of sports as a child, including basketball and soccer. He focused on athletics after breaking his wrist while playing volleyball.

As a child he would run near his father’s house just outside Willemstad in Santa Rosa, where the touristy downtown gives way to the island’s typical cactus and scrub-brush vegetation and where the occasional wild goat still wanders.

Martina would later feast on “cabrito,” a traditional goat dish, and “yambo,” an okra stew with fish and pork. Then he had to get out his school books -- his family always made sure his studies came before anything else.

TRAINING OPPORTUNITIES

“It was one of our conditions, that he continue studying if he wanted to continue running,” said his father Eric Martina, a youthful 52-year-old fireman with an infectious grin.

Martina often visits schools in Curacao and on other Caribbean islands to encourage youngsters to stick with their work, and now studies at the University of Texas in El Paso.

There he can take advantage of more opportunities to train and compete than he would have at home. The island’s small population, only one track and no major competitions can make Olympic development tough, Prince says.

He commends Martina’s discipline and aversion to parties and drinking.

Eric Martina says he knew from watching his son’s grade school races that he would one day be a runner.

“He is an ambassador to Curacao,” the proud father said.

(Additional reporting by Sebastian Rocandio, Jorge Silva, Efrain Otero and Irasi Jimenez in Willemstad)

Editing by Clare Fallon

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