Profiling Usain Bolt…

A further look at my Newsweek profile of Usain Bolt and some of the discussion around what I said in it.

A friend based in Indonesia sent a photo of this double-spread from the AsiaPacific edition of Newsweek where my profile of Bolt occupied 6 pages incl photos….

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.

The Japanese edition of Newsweek with my article in it did have UB on the cover…

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.

Cartoon titled ‘Edited for Clarity’ by Mike Luckovich of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. I’m grateful to Melody Winnig for bringing this to my attention.

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:

CNN, Anthony Bourdain and me

Usain Bolt: A Latter-day Hermes? Part 2

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.

Street artist James Cochran, also known as Jimmy C, works on his spray painted picture of Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt in Sclater Street car park in east LondonPicture: REUTERS/Paul Hackett
Olympic security. Soldiers doing a Usain Bolt impression waiting to enter the Olympic Park on Sunday 15/07/2012 Pic by Frances Leader

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 Paul like 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.