Jamaican athletes are forced to struggle on meagre per diems or none while they deliver ace performances at global athletic meets. In the wake of the 2015 World Championships in Beijing Asafa Powell, one of Jamaica’s most beloved and talented athletes, is speaking out.
“The Jamaican public pretend as if there are only ten persons here at the World Championships, what happens to the other forty who have to go back home after the championship and won’t get the chance to go to any track meet? If these athletes can get help for even five months out of the year, that would help.”
Powell added that they have started to ignore some of the promises from government over the years.
Kayon Raynor ‘s story on our struggling athletes is going to generate a lot of discussion – and has already. The first response – I predict – from “authority” is going to be that they help quietly but that the athletes are either too demanding or they can’t provide the level of help needed. (That has been said already on several occasions in different ways). Here’s what I think. Time to take this long-simmering issue which creates untold resentment into the air and ventilate it with a national discussion, with the aim of finally coming up with solutions. Tired of the secrecy and whispering, and the opaque responses. I fully believe that help has been provided. But I fully believe that athletes are suffering, and the pot-cover banging and photo ops, without much more, I suspect, help feed the resentment. What are the possibilities? Structured assistance? Another lottery specifically for this purpose in association with help from donations/corporate Jamaica? Why should this not be a public conversation, especially regarding any kind of structured assistance? What can we and what can’t we do? Juliet Flynn has been saying for years, for example, that there needs to be more creativity eg a national gym/facility/partly sponsored by corporate Jamaica, where athletes could get physiotherapy, massages, treatments.. It is time to stop the cycle of banging pot covers in HWT then forgetting about them until the next big event. It’s time to have an honest, open conversation about this. I don’t think we have done so yet.
commentary on Jamaica’s stellar performance at the world championships in Beijing 2015 with must-see video footage.
The video above is from Shelly-Ann Fraser Pryce’s Facebook feed. It shows the 200m final in Beijing up close and personal and in slow mo too–
“Bolt not only reached for the moon in Beijing, but also has shown that he wasn’t a flash in the pan or an outlier. Four years later he has picked the moon out of the sky again and has done it with ease and bravado, again something Jamaicans dearly love. You must not only win, you must do it with effortless style—something Bolt has displayed over and over again. His derring-do and bravura performances are symbolic of the Jamaican ambition to appear cool and deadly at all times.”
Three years after I wrote that paragraph for Newsweek Bolt has pulled it off yet again. A thrilling double gold in the 100 and 200 metres at the Beijing 2015 World Championships (see video above for footage of the 200m). As he matures Bolt has grown into a thoroughly engaging, all conquering hero, the legendary status he once coveted now his permanently. He is the athlete of the century, this one and the last.
At Bolt’s side is the equally swift and admirable Shelly-Ann Fraser Pryce now the most decorated female runner on the planet with three 100m gold medals in the World Championships alone. And in their wake are the myriad of other Jamaican athletes plucking medals from the rest of the world, with ease and grace; young Danielle Williams winning the gold in the 100m hurdles and Hansle Parchment silver in the 110m hurdles. The women’s 200m gold went to the flying Dutchwoman, Dafne Schippers, a talent to watch, but Jamaica’s elegant, gazelle-like Elaine Thompson was hot on her heels and the much beloved Veronica Campbell-Brown hot on hers. They took the silver and bronze respectively.
Not many people realize that Jamaica has a proud tradition of sprinting going back more than half a century—to 1948 when 6 foot 4 inches tall Arthur Wint sped past Herb McKenley to win gold in the 400m. Jamaica took gold and silver in that race which can be viewed in the video immediately above. In the 1952 Olympics Jamaican runners swept the 4×400 relays from under the feet of the Americans. The video embedded below has incredible footage of Arthur Wint and Herb McKenley mining some of Jamaica’s earliest Olympic gold.
Finally here is the full text of the essay I wrote for Newsweek during the 2012 London Olympics. It captures I think some of the indomitable spirit of Jamaica and Jamaicans.
Jamaica gained independence from Britain in August 1962. As the nascent nation replaced the Union Jack with the Jamaican flag, its people imagined a future full of glory, honor, and world-thrilling exploits. With the colonizers gone and the days of slavery far behind, what could stop them from conquering the world?
As the decades rolled on, a deep and abiding disappointment began to set in as successive governments fluffed opportunities to create a workable, new framework for the aspirations and ambitions of ordinary Jamaicans. For many, things seemed to be worse than when the British were in charge; you only had to look over at the Cayman Islands for confirmation. Once part of Jamaica, the Caymanians had remained with Britain in 1962 and now seemed to be flourishing while Jamaica languished, violence and corruption paralyzing its body politic.
Most postcolonial countries have found it hard to overcome the handicaps they inherited at independence, and Jamaicans are rightly proud of their superb tradition in athletics and the country’s incomparable music, both of which have catapulted them onto the world stage on more than one occasion. For a nation this tiny, Jamaica has an ego and cultural wallop grander than most superpowers, punching way above its weight, as some here like to say.
It’s a matter of some chagrin to middle-class Jamaica that those who have put this little country on the map have been, almost without exception, members of its underclass. While formal, official Jamaica lumbers along tangled in red tape, bureaucratese, and “proper” English, the people at the bottom have sprinted and sung their way to international attention.
The exploits of Usain Bolt and his fellow Jamaican athletes have to be seen against this background. They all come from deprived communities, and each is a story of personal triumph and determination in the face of incredible odds. Usain Bolt is the personification of what Jamaicans would have liked their country to be: swift, insouciant, and unbeatable at what he does best—run. When he powered to the finish line in record time during the 100-meter, with Yohan Blake in close pursuit, they were elated. But nothing can describe the mood of brimming joy that has pervaded the nation since Bolt repeated his triumph in the 200m, once again with Blake hot on his heels. And then, as an example of what Jamaicans call “brawta”—a little extra thrown in to perfect the whole thing—Warren Weir in bronze position, completing the Jamaican trifecta.
Nothing warms the heart of Jamaicans more than to hear a story about someone triumphing against all odds, through sheer perseverance, guts, and hard work to prove his or her talent and ability. “Never say die” should have been the national motto, for as long as you try your best, even if you lose, Jamaicans will love you. But you’ll have to die trying.
Bolt not only reached for the moon in Beijing, but also has shown that he wasn’t a flash in the pan or an outlier. Four years later he has picked the moon out of the sky again and has done it with ease and bravado, again something Jamaicans dearly love. You must not only win, you must do it with effortless style—something Bolt has displayed over and over again. His derring-do and bravura performances are symbolic of the Jamaican ambition to appear cool and deadly at all times.
Jamaica is a contradictory mix of individualism and community spirit. Bolt was raised by a village, Sherwood Content, in rural Jamaica. What Jamaicans love is the fact that although you could take the boy out of the village, you couldn’t take the village out of Bolt. At heart he remains the healthy-spirited, simple-hearted boy who grew up there, though he now knows how to negotiate the deadly streets of Kingston and the world.
As video footage of Bolt and his teammates in Birmingham and at the Olympic Village shows, the Jamaican men’s team thrives on camaraderie, good will, and fun and games. Do it well and enjoy what you’re doing is another Jamaican homily, illustrated by the young men and women of this extraordinary little country. On the Olympic stage it’s been a winning strategy.
To be the best in the world is what every Jamaican would like, though circumstances often come between them and this simple ambition. Bolt is beloved because he has honed his natural gifts to perfection with enough gas left in the tank to reach higher and farther.
In which i respond to criticism of my Usain Bolt article which appeared in Newsweek, July 16. Part of the problem may have been caused by the inevitable editing process which condenses and removes context in some cases, throwing statements into starker relief than was intended.
On the rare occasion when i’ve had to teach a writing class, usually to students at the Sir Arthur Lewis Institute of Social and Economic Studies at the University of the West Indies, there are three publications i use as exemplars of the best writing available in English today. They are Time, Newsweek and the Economist. These three global newsmagazines, employ some of the best writers in the world today evident in the tightly constructed, yet fluid articles they feature, some no more than half a page in length, or a few hundred words, but words so expertly chosen and so economically strung together that (like the ant which carries loads several times its size on its tiny back) the quantity of information they convey belies their slender word counts.
Or so i thought. When i relayed this opinion at a dinner party once, someone, and I wish i could remember who this was, suggested that I was wrong. It’s not good writers these newsmagazines have, she or he said, it’s excellent editors. Hmmmm i thought to myself at the time, not entirely convinced. Now in the wake of writing an article on Usain Bolt for the current issue of Newsweek I know exactly what they meant; they were right.
When i got back the first edit of my article from Sam Seibert, an editor at Newsweek, i was mortified but also somewhat pleased. It was a drastic edit, with some rewriting and additions to my text in places (was my writing as poor as that?), but on the whole i couldn’t deny that it had improved my submission considerably. In fact there were some lessons about writing that Sam’s expert editing and rewriting reminded me of and i can’t thank him enough for this. The transition from one paragraph to another for instance; how to link thoughts and words so that the narrative flows along at a clip bearing the reader along.
Of course some of the changes inevitably shift the emphasis, sometimes even altering the meaning that was originally intended. I was given the opportunity to correct his rewrite more than once but the turnaround time was short and in retrospect i see a few things now which i should have rephrased. They’ve come to my attention because of the number of negative reactions, even objections to some of the things i say in the article. For example Dionne Jackson-Miller, one of the top journalists here whose shows I regularly tune into on radio and tv, posted on Facebook saying: Several comments gave me pause Annie Paullike this one…” In a land where hardly anything else works, an exemplary tradition of track-and-field instruction and competition has flourished for almost 100 years. ” Gonna have to think about that – are we really as underdeveloped as that suggests?
I could see her point, it was a harsh statement. Had i really said that? i went back to the text I had sent Newsweek and found something slightly different: “In a country where hardly anything works as it should an exemplary tradition of track and field instruction and administration has existed for almost 100 years.”
In fact it’s worth quoting the entire section this line was taken from, in which in an attempt to explain the Bolt phenomenon i try to sketch out the roots of the athletic culture that has developed in Jamaica.
Biological and dietary considerations aside the truth is that to ‘get’ Usain you have to get Jamaica, a country and culture riven by contradictions and inconsistency. To call Jamaica a ‘sprint factory’ is misleading; far from churning out cookie-cutter champions Jamaica is a crucible in which unique, world-class runners are formed, bursting onto the world stage at regular intervals and conquering it against all odds. They’ve been doing this since the 1948 Olympics when Jamaican runners, Arthur Wint and Herbert McKenley, won gold and silver in the 400m. In a country where hardly anything works as it should an exemplary tradition of track and field instruction and administration has existed for almost 100 years.
A nation of fervent Christians and bible thumpers, Jamaica has a deeply entrenched network of churches which may have been very receptive to nineteenth century British ideas about ‘muscular Christianity’. This may explain why running became so popular; anyone, anywhere could do it you didn’t neeed deep pockets or an expensive infrastructure to become a runner. By the middle of the twentieth century the sport was flourishing in Jamaica. According to Patrick Robinson, author of Jamaican Athletics: “There is no entity or area of endeavour in Jamaica, whether in the public or private sector, that is as well organized and, applying international standards, has been as consistently successful as track and field athletics.”
Whereas earlier generations of promising athletes with Olympic ambitions had to go abroad to be trained on track scholarships, Jamaica now has its own world-class coaches, trainers and managers. Stephen Francis of MVP Track Club and Glen Mills of Racers Track Club are two whose homegrown battalion of runners in the last two Olympics stupefied the world. Glen Mills is not only Usain Bolt’s coach, he is also the man behind young Yohan Blake, Bolt’s most dangerous opponent in the upcoming Olympic 100 and 200m races.
Blessed with exceptional natural talent in running Usain Bolt benefited from the systems already in place to identify potential athletes and train them. His passion as a child was cricket and he played on his school team from an early age. Fortunately his father and others noticed the speed with which he ran down the pitch and sent him to the William Knibb Memorial High School, a school with a strong track and field programme that gave sports scholarships and has produced a number of the country’s top athletes including the multiple-gold medal winning Veronica Campbell Brown.
Much of this landed on the cutting floor during Newsweek’s editorial process and what was left was this:
Running is a sport that seems practically ideal for a country like Jamaica. You don’t need deep pockets or fancy equipment to become a great runner. In a land where hardly anything else works, an exemplary tradition of track-and-field instruction and competition has flourished for almost 100 years. The island first seized the world’s attention back in 1948 when Jamaican runners Arthur Wint and Herbert McKenley won the gold and silver in the 400m in London.
Nevertheless, the sport that first captured the boy’s heart was not running, but cricket. He played on his school team from an early age, and it was on the pitch that his extraordinary speed first caught the attention of the town’s grown-ups. He became a prize recruit for William Knibb Memorial High School, which featured both a strong track-and-field program and sports scholarships. Knibb has produced many of Jamaica’s top athletes.
Sam Seibert’s editing of my article was so drastic that i actually asked if he’d be sharing the byline with me, but that’s not the convention in most major print media. It was interesting to come across an article called How the Byline Beast was Born, the very day after i got back the first edit of my article. I realized that there was no need for me to be crestfallen, that the process i had just undergone was pretty standard. In Byline Beast Jack Shafer was writing about the recent fuss about Journatic a content farm that provides local news stories to news media all over the United States. It’s a fascinating article i highly recommend, the following is only a small quote of immediate relevance to the editorial process i describe above:
In even the most professional of newsrooms, editors frequently do sufficient work on a piece – reporting and re-reporting sections, composing long passages without the assistance of the bylined writer, redefining the story’s parameters – that they deserve a byline or at least a co-byline. Yet magazine, newspaper and wire editors rarely receive this credit for their extraordinary interventions.
Although I highlight the radical edit of my article in this post I don’t blame it entirely for people’s reactions to what I’ve said in this article. When I call Jamaica a country where hardly anything functions as it should I’m referring to the major structures of governance that serve the needs of most citizens here so poorly that they’ve created their own informal structures and processes. While middle-class Jamaicans may well find things to be proud of–the system does work on their behalf after all–large numbers of poorer Jamaicans may disagree, for there is a sharp divergence in the way they are treated by the Police, the Justice system, the education system and government processes in general. Even the media in Jamaica treats you differently based on whether you come from uptown or downtown.
Incidentally the text i sent Newsweek was titled Usain Bolt: A Latter-day Hermes? but news media here and elsewhere rarely use headlines provided by writers, they have special people on board just to write headlines.
There were other things i said in my article which upset readers here and in the diaspora. I’ll discuss those in subsequent posts. In the meantime enjoy this Dorian Scott video of Usain Bolt, Yohan Blake and others building a vibe on the racetrack in Birmingham while they prepare for the Olympics. Scott is representing Jamaica in shotput at the upcoming Olympics. You may need a Facebook account to view the video but it’s well worth it.
PS: The photos at the top of this post are from the UK Telegraph.
The Twitter messages seemed calculated to drive Jamaica frantic. “Driving the black speed today,” Usain Bolt informed his followers as he posted an Instagram image of his chosen vehicle for the day, a 2009 Nissan GT-R. “Nothing but speed for the fastest,” he added. Still, the world-record sprinter could scarcely ignore the fact that the last thing they want is for him to risk yet another smashup in the final days before the 2012 London Games. “I will take it easy lol,” he promised.
An account of the Men’s and Women’s 100m finals at Jamaica’s Olympic national trials where world records were broken and the winning times were faster than those in the American trials.
So i was at the stadium yesterday for that thrilling 100m men’s race which saw Asafa Powell, Usain Bolt and Yohan ‘the Beast’ Blake vying with each other for first place. Asafa had won his semifinal and Bolt his. In the final Powell lead the way coming out of the starting blocks fast unlike Bolt who lumbered a bit in the beginning. All eyes were on them when the Beast running in lane 7, seemed to appear out of nowhere, gaining on the others by leaps and bounds and slicing into the finish line a head ahead of Bolt who had by then overtaken Powell. I mean it doesn’t get much better than this.
Earlier we had enjoyed Shelly Ann Fraser’s seemingly easy, thrilling run to victory over a star-studded cast of runners including Veronica Campbell-Brown, Kerron Stuart and others. All in all it was a great evening bedevilled in the early stages by a malfunctioning starter’s gun. How can a gun not work in Jamaica asked a man within earshot, looking puzzled.
There was some gloom earlier in the day when news broke that Asafa Powell had injured himself and might miss the semis and final. Exasperated Jamaicans cussed him left, right and centre citing mental weakness, psychological problems, general all round fecklessness etc trying to understand why this runner so beloved of everyone here seems so prone to injury and misfortune. This time there was also anger at the prospect of being robbed of the chance to see the great Jamaican running triumvirate compete against each other in the same race.
People were thrilled therefore to see Powell on the field when the time came for the semis and he got a huge roar of applause when his name was called. He then proceeded to run better than anyone has seen him run in recent years delighting his fans, though some felt he should have maintained his early lead to the end.
What I didn’t realize till this morning was that Powell had torn his groin during the quarter final heats on Thursday evening and been flown to Miami for medical attention. When he ran yesterday he had only been back from Miami four hours before the semi-finals and knowing how disappointed the public would be if he didn’t run had insisted on taking part. I hope he didn’t aggravate his injury by doing so, but as someone said on Twitter, “The man have heart and guts.”
i couldn’t identify the author of this image so it remains unattributed though the AP suggests it might be an Associated Press photograph.
Now everyone waits breathlessly for the 200m finals tomorrow night when Bolt and Blake meet again. I think Bolt should prevail because the 200m gives him more time to recover from his slow starts and he’ll certainly want to teach young Blake a thing or two after being pipped by him in the 1000m.
Incidentally the winning times in both men’s and women’s 100m races were faster than those in the American trials the week before. So once again Jamaica has a monopoly on the fastest men and women in the world.
I hope to be there but it all depends on ticket availability. It’s quite clear that something highly irregular is going on with ticket sales for the National Senior Championships to give it its proper title. I went to the ticket office on Thursday morning to get grandstand tickets for Friday and was told they only had bleachers available. All around the ticket office were scalpers offering grandstand tickets at three or four times the official price. Even on the way to the stadium the street was full of young men flogging tickets. Yet i heard from a friend this morning that she was able to obtain grandstand tickets from the Stadium ticket office at 12.30 pm on Friday! But there’s a coda. In response to my incredulous “you got grandstand tickets at the stadium office?!” she replied:
“Believe it – what’s more interesting is that I had a white American with me and SHE got the tickest although they told me they had none – scandalous if you ask me”
What are we celebrating this year again? 50 years of WHAT? smh…when will we ever live up to the standards set by our heroic athletes? Will it take another 50 years to get there? Talk about slow starts…
Sign in Jamaican storefront during Beijing Olympics
One of the things I most regretted about being in India this August was that I wasn’t in Jamaica during the World Championships in Berlin. Having experienced the sheer exhileration in Kingston, August gone, during the Beijing Games, I knew only too well what I was missing. Because of the time difference and probably because India itself had minimal participation (for such a great nation we have produced remarkably few great athletes) I wasn’t able to watch any of the races live, though by the end of the month Usain Bolt had become a household name all over again in India as well as the rest of the world.
In the last couple of weeks the airwaves and other media have been buzzing with reactions to the Government’s decision to rename Highway 2000 (the superfast major cross-island artery built with French technology) the Usain Bolt Highway. Yesterday on Facebook a local journalist posted what are allegedly a parliamentary reporter’s notes on a Cabinet discussion about honouring Usain Bolt…read on.
Yesterday at 5:38pm
So I managed to pull off a coup. A major scoop so to speak. I got hold of some very interesting cabinet notes on honouring Usain Bolt.
Apparently, Prime Minister Bruce Golding asked his ministers to come up with ideas on what tangible things the country could do to honour Usain and here’s what they came up with:
1) Change Jamaica’s Coat of Arms to “Bolt Arms”
2) Rename the parish of Trelawny – Usain Bolt
3) Rename Yam – call it Usain
4) Make him our 8th National Hero ( It was decided this will come after the next Olympics, they’ll need that long to research how to accord a person National Hero status)
5) Put him on the 10,000 dollar bill (Audley assured Cabinet that the denomination would be coming by next May)
6) Have 9.58 days of bashment celebrating Usain ( I swear Babsy did suggest this)
7) Rename William Knibb High School Usain Bolt High ( Ruddy Spencer asked who is William Knibb and why does he have things named after him? )
8) Declare August 21 Usain Bolt Day and make it a public Holiday ( Cabinet was very upset with Chris Tufton for this one. Andrew Holness said it sounded too PNP. Di man hold up di “fist” one time and tell Jamaica to put di “X” beside di Head and dem won’t let it go.)
9) Make his home in Sherwood Content a national landmark ( It was pointed out that the community still lacks piped water and Dr. Horace Chang couldn’t guarantee that they’d get it in Usain’s lifetime.)
10) Make Usain’s favourite food the National dish and create a new designation national night club and give that to the “Quad”.
11) Change the national dress, to all Puma and make it mandatory for everyone to wear the Yamm shoes. (However all agreed they certainly wouldn’t be orange like the ones that Usain wore. Chris Tufton was eerily silent).
12) Finally settle this Gully/Gaza mess and make everybody say Gaza since ah dat Usain say (I feel Babsy in this again)
13) Write Oxford to have the word “fast” in the dictionary replaced with “Usain” (Mike Henry). Babsy agreed and thought we should get “sobolious” added as well!
14) Rename Air Jamaica, Usain Air.
15) SUGGESTION FROM BRUCE GOLDING: Rename Jamaica – Usain. The PM said “There’s no honour that’s too great for this young man and right now the national profile has been taken to echelons far beyond our greatest expectations because of Usain’s feet!”
Well, long before the Jamaican government decided to honour Usain Bolt and before he became a household name outside Jamaica a Spanish national named Fernando Guereta (Nando) decided to honour Bolt and Jamaica’s athletes with a film celebrating their exploits. Called “Why do Jamaicans Run So Fast?” this superbly conceived and crafted documentary-style film creatively captures the environment these athletes spring from in Jamaica.
On the verge of signing major distribution and international TV rights deals Guereta has scooped the world on this. With a beautiful soundtrack and interviews with Usain from the age of 15 onwards the culture that has produced such indomitable talent is centrestaged, with a prominent role accorded to dancehall music and the dances that inspired Usain, Melaine Walker, Shelly Ann Fraser and others to dare to grab their share of the pie.
I asked Nando about the role of music in the film and this is what he said. Keep in mind that he’s not a native English-speaker which makes what he’s done that much more remarkable.
“My two main concerns were to cover all music genres, from ska, to roots reggae and moving towards the latests dancehall hits. The second concern was to make the music match the images properly, even if I sound a little bit arrogant I think we achieve to deliver very well in both matters.
Heptones’ Country Boy matched Bolts origins, Bob Marley’s Bad Card reminds the world that dem a go tyaad fe see Bolt face, Movado reminds Melaine Walker not to forget about the Gully, Bugle ask Carl Lewis what have Bolt done to him, and Jah Cure seh as long as I live he will remember those days.”
Watch this spot over the next week for more from Nando on the making of “Why Do Jamaicans Run so Fast?”