Bolt and Beyond

“If at first you don’t succeed, you suck salt through wooden spoon” – Amina Blackwood Meeks

Yohan Blake, Usain Bolt, and Warren Weir swept the men’s 200m

The total sweep by Usain Bolt, Yohan Blake and Warren Weir in the 200m for men of the 30th Olympiad in London isn’t merely the icing on the cake for Jamaica, it is the cake. But it’s not just their victory that makes up this cake, every other Jamaican athlete who has taken the field has been a part of it. This awesomely rich cake, that right now appears so sweet you could get diabetes looking at it also includes Shelly Ann Fraser Pryce, Veronica Campbell Brown, Asafa Powell, Alia Atkinson, Hansle Parchment, … and …. and …. and…

The nation’s triumph at the 2012 Olympics, sure proof that neither the Beijing Olympics nor the World Championships of Berlin or Daegu were flukes, is the perfect gift for its 50th year of independence. The celebrations of Olympic victories and independence have therefore been swept together in a massively rising ball of euphoria. Numerous buildings in Kingston, the nation’s capital, are decked in swaths of black, green and gold, as the buildings themselves scream it is independence to claat and we are victorious. Those who deigned to question whether celebrating Jamaica 50 was worthwhile can no longer be heard above the din of Sweep! Sweep! Sweep!

Jamaica now firmly grips the title, the world’s fastest nation. And of course the superstar of it all is Bolt, who by becoming the first man to successfully defend the 100m and 200m titles has become a living legend. How much greater that legend gets depends on his further feats. At 25 years Bolt’s shine is far from over, and his fellow country men, who race behind him sweeping along their own share of glory dictate that if he wants to keep his status he will have to rise.

This incomplete monument at the Habour View round-about is decorated for Jamaica 50

Truthfully, Bolt was striding toward legendary status even before the 200m win. He has committed that rare feat that no other sprinter has done before him, become a bonafide superstar. Bolt electrifies not merely with his feats, but also with his showmanship. As Bolt himself said in an interview, the Jamaican audience is hard to please, and in their fickle demand for constant greatness, if he slips they will cuss him faster than he can say 19.32 seconds.

But right now, he is our darling, a symbol of what we believe we can achieve. So, we look at his antics, whether post victory or prior to a race and we think you know that bwoi not right and we smile affectionately, indulgently, like a mother looking at her washbelly because he has made us proud.

Even before the Bolt/Blake/Weir sweep, the international press has been much taken up with exploring the issue of Jamaica’s massive cultural impact despite it’s size. There have been some interesting articles but none of them come close to explaining this.  The theories are many. For some, it is simply a manifestation of hard won tenacity born from a brutal history. This theory rests on the idea that the most problematic slaves were shipped to Jamaica, and our history of rebellions and that revolutionary ethos that has passed from Tacky and Sam Sharpe, through to Bogle and Bedward and on through Garvey and ultimately rising up in the beat of Reggae, seem to prove this true.

It might be this same history that has instilled a braggadocio and our inability to comprehend that we are a small nation. We’re not surprised to be world class, we expect to be, even when we’re not.

But bubbling beneath this euphoria of Jamaica 50 and the London Olympics is the daily reality that we will have to face once again… eventually. Many of these companies, including some of the island’s biggest brands, are no longer locally owned, which means despite the show of patriotism, most of their earnings go elsewhere.

Through the feats of our Olympians, particularly Bolt, we have garnered more positive press than our tourism marketing budget could ever afford. But more importantly, their achievements remind us that the nation’s greatest resource remains its people. One of the striking things about this year’s achievements (and I don’t only include those who medalled) is that there were quiet a few in areas Jamaica had never competed in before or reached that far.

Reality will not wait for the euphoria to pass

In light of the Jamaica 50 celebrations, there was some minor controversy over the fact that some souvenirs (the most notable of which was the “pin of pride”) was manufactured in China. Some saw this as a betrayal and shortsightedness and further evidence of why the country continues to wade in a morass of economic woes. But if we are honest with ourselves, we would really admit that manufacturing is not ideally suited for the island. Manufacturing brings employment, but most of it is low level with long hours and minimum wage. We tried the Free Zone dream and last I checked it left us with nightmarish tales.

I fully believe that the craft market is important but craft should be separated from the souvenir market. While some craft are souvenirs, all souvenirs aren’t craft. I have no problem with the fact that flags we wave to show our joy were made in China, (I’m just asking that we should insist that our flags have gold not yellow, or worse yet lime green.) The country has far more to earn from its creative output than from manufacturing.

The fact that the track and field podium has been so heavily decorated in black, gold and green, highlights that as unique and phenomenal as Usain is, he isn’t merely a bolt from the blue. His talent has been built on a strong foundation which is currently pushing out several other sterling athletes.

A part of the beauty (in the way that tragedies are usually painfully beautiful) about Jamaica, is that we usually succeed despite ourselves. Athletics have become one those areas that have received the requisite support, and now it is bearing fruit. So we need to take these athletic achievement not merely as occasions for momentous joy, but as lessons for the way forward. Getting here is not accidental and has taken far more than talent. The same is true for so many other areas of Jamaican life where we continue to succeed in spite. It is hard to succeed here, so it doesn’t quite surprise when we succeed where playing fields are more level or fewer hurdles are in the way. It is high time that people be given more than wooden spoons to treat with the salt rubbed in their historical wounds.