i was overjoyed when I got the invitation to write a profile of Usain Bolt for Newsweek International. It came in mid-June and I had till July 9th to deliver 2000 words. I sighed with relief for it was a deadline i could work with. Then came the hard part–realizing that i couldn’t get access to Usain because as his publicist, Carole Beckford said, he was in training and absolutely no interviews were allowed at this stage. It slowly began to dawn on me that while Newsweek might need Bolt, Bolt definitely didn’t need Newsweek. That they wanted to put him on the cover made not one iota of difference.
Dispirited I almost gave up on the story. It seemed unfair. Here was my big break at last and I couldn’t deliver because of lack of access to the subject. Lord knows Carole Beckford must be absolutely sick of me because i wouldn’t take no for an answer though my persistence wasn’t getting me anywhere. While waiting to get through with live access I had started working on a rough draft; at some point it suddenly occurred to me that I already had a fully developed piece written just by talking to people who knew him and immersing myself in all the audio, video and texual material available about Usain Bolt, including his fascinating autobiography 9.58. Written with help from professional writers, the book is a must-read and I warn Ian Randle Publishers that they should be ready to do a huge new print run by mid-August for if UB comes good, millions of people are going to want a copy.
As background, I wanted to foreground Jamaican culture and the place of sports, athletics in particular, in all of this. As I see it Jamaica’s aspirations as a former plantation society to erase the scars of slavery by exemplary, world-beating performance are embodied by Bolt and enacted in its extraordinary track and field history. Remember this is Newsweek, not Sociology Today, warned Editor Tunku Varadarajan, half jokingly, adding that lots of personal colour was what was needed.
There is a certain array of ‘facts’ about Usain that are in wide circulation already and I didn’t intend to reproduce them. To my mind what would make my article different was providing salient features of the context he comes from. The language wars in Jamaica are something I’ve focused on quite a bit, even featuring Usain Bolt himself in an August 23, 2008 post-Beijing post called To the World from Jamaica! Patwa Power Bolts the Stables…from which i quote below:
The Ministry of Transport hastened to announce that it was going to upgrade the roadways in all the communities whose athletes had produced Olympic gold. Why? Not so much to elevate these depressed communities as to give them an instant facelift so that when the international media arrived their impoverishment would be less apparent and less of a blight on the brand name of Jamaica! The politics of sports in Jamaica! Or just the politics of politics…
On a more amusing note page two of the Observer, the social page, suddenly underwent a population transfusion, the beige and white socialites who normally monopolize it abruptly displaced by the almost uniformly dark-skinned athletes. Sigh! If only Jamaica’s business and social elite were one hundredth as nimble and competitive as the country’s athletes! If only they too were worldbeaters!
Personally I think that the phenomenal performance of Jamaican athletes is also due to the cultural self-confidence they feel; a confidence expressed by Usain Bolt in Beijing’s Bird’s Nest stadium when he spontaneously broke into the Nuh Linga and the Gully Creeper, the latest dance moves innovative Jamaican dancehall music has produced (actually Usain’s trademark gesture of pulling back an imaginary bow and arrow like Orion is now the latest dancehall move here).
This is not a confidence manufactured by the abjectly self-conscious, respectability-seeking, hymn-singing English-speaking middle classes but one bred out of the flamboyant, boisterous, in-your-face Patwa-speaking population. In the forty years since Jamaica’s independence it is the latter who have proved both through their athletic and musical prowess that they are ready to take on the world. The Beijing Olympics have shown that the world is more than ready for them (minus the prissy IOC head Jacques Rogge who sounds for all the world as if he had been formed in the bowels of Upper St. Andrew). To the World Ja!
In providing a lightning sketch of Usain Bolt I had to carefully select the facts I thought would bring him to life and animate him for an international audience. Language would be one of them for Bolt had spoken eloquently about it himself.
In 9.58 Bolt writes:
When I moved to Kingston and started running professionally I had to take special English lessons so that in interviews people would know what I was saying…I can adapt now, according to who I’m speaking to, but with friends and family we always use patois. Some native Jamaicans cannot speak proper English at all, they talk patois all the time–and its raw patois. When I’m talking to my mom a normal English-speaking person could probably pick up some words, but raw patois is impossible–you would have no chance (pp 183-4).
Here was something that none of the previous interviews with Bolt I read or heard had focused on, something my own interest in Jamaica’s language politics had primed me for. Accordingly this is what i wrote in the text I sent to Newsweek:
Another interesting thing about Usain Bolt is that he only learnt ‘proper English’ after he began winning gold medals and was groomed to interface with international audiences. Till then like many Jamaicans his first language was Jamaican patois, a fast-paced amalgam of several different tongues including African languages, English and Spanish, virtually incomprehensible to English-speakers. While the world thinks of Jamaica as an Anglophone country not many realize that a sizeable proportion of the population is fluent only in its versatile oral vernacular. Today, Bolt’s rival and partner, Yohan Blake, finds himself in the same predicament, his English halting and hard to understand. No doubt the nation’s elocution teachers are rushing to rectify the situation weeks before the London Olympics where Blake stands a good chance of becoming the new sprint sensation.
Translated into Newsweek speak that became:
Bolt is still growing into his role as an international star. He didn’t even know standard English until he began winning gold medals. Until then he spoke only the Jamaican patois, a dizzying amalgam of English, Spanish, and African languages. Blake currently finds himself in the same predicament, his English halting and hard for outsiders to understand. Jamaica’s elocution teachers will need to work as fast as they can to prepare him for the spotlights in London.
Clearly some of what I said was lost in translation. I could have exercised more control over the editorial process but time didn’t permit. In particular I wish I’d changed back the last line in the paragraph above to my original. But c’est la vie, you live and you learn. There was so much else i thought important and would have loved to include–such as the role of dancehall music in motivating Usain Bolt, Yohan Blake and so many of the Jamaican athletes to higher heights–but there was no space for such detail. I remain grateful to Newsweek, to my readers and my critics for all the lessons learnt in the process of producing this profile. Glad I had the opportunity to write about such a legendary athlete for a forum like Newsweek/The Daily Beast. Oh and in Japan mine was the cover story, see above for a shot of it…glad to get a copy courtesy Fuji TV…thanks Kumiko!
PS: September 25, 2013. I just came across an article by Matthew Teller about his experience of writing for CNN and the gross editorial changes made to his text which eventually caused him to ask them to remove his byline from the piece. It’s very relevant to many of the issues I’ve raised in this post and well worth a read: