Like a Bolt from the blue…Jamaica Jamaica Jamaica…

What makes Usain Bolt tick? How does Jamaican culture produce such an abundance of athletic superheroes? A selection of images, videos and texts about the unbeatable Bolt and his compatriots…including the up and coming Warren Weir.

Photo by Jamaican photographer Ricardo Makyn, after Bolt aces the 100m
Yohan Blake and Usain Bolt, after taking gold and silver in the 100m. Photo source unknown
Not sure when or where this was but Blake and Bolt are bussing a Jamaican dance move. Photo source unknown
Brilliant photoshopped cartoon by Keon Scarlett…
Usain Bolt with the undeclared winner of the 100m, Coach Glen Mills, who is also Yohan Blake’s coach. Photo source: Usain Bolt’s Instagram.

Just thought I’d post some of the interesting photos, articles and videos that I’ve collected off Twitter and Facebook about Usain Bolt and a few other Jamaican athletes. They give a better insight into Jamaica’s extraordinary athletes than you get from mass media. I think my favourite photo is the one of him with his coach, Glen Mills. You can clearly see the affection between them from the way Usain and Mills are talking to one another. Mills truly is a star in his own right; after all he’s responsible for training the two fastest men in the world today, Bolt and Yohan Blake, who won gold and silver in the Olympic 100m a couple of days ago. Would love to interview him but he dislikes media I understand.

Before that fateful race there were enough skeptics including Tim Layden who went on to write one of the best post-100m articles on Usain in Sports Illustrated. The quote below from a Slate article chronicles the widespread uncertainty about Bolt’s ability to prevail:

A couple of hours before today’s men’s 100-meter final, Sports Illustrated’s Tim Layden made a bold prediction on Twitter: “OK. Go big or go home. My 100m pick: 1) Gatlin 2) Bolt 3) Blake.” Layden wasn’t the only one who was betting against Usain Bolt. The Jamaican sprinter hadn’t run against a 100-meter field this stacked since 2009, when he set the world record of 9.58 seconds in Berlin. In 2011, a false start knocked him out of the world championships. At the Jamaican Olympic Trials earlier this year, he lost to Yohan Blake in both the 100 and 200 meters.

Bolt and Blake clowning around during training. Photo source unknown.

After the race Layden sang a different tune:

LONDON — In many ways, this one was better. Four years ago in China, Usain Bolt transformed the 100 meters into performance art, and the Olympics into a soliloquy, winning with such playful arrogance that it seemed less like a competition than a palette on which an emerging and transcendent talent could splash his greatness in great, broad strokes. The other sprinters were like extras in the Bolt Show, useful in the same way that painted planks of background scenery are deployed in a Broadway production. Bolt was bigger than all of them and so much faster. It wasn’t a race, it was an exhibition (and one that Bolt would repeat four days later in the 200 meters and again in the 4×100-meter relay; three gold medals and an unprecedented three world records. He did likewise a year later at the 2009 world championships in Berlin).

The world gathered again to witness Bolt on Sunday night in London’s Olympic Stadium. Many had surely not seen him since Beijing, as track and field lives on the distant margins of mainstream sport and Bolt is its only true star. In a superficial sense, he did not leave them wanting, winning the 100-meter gold medal in 9.63 seconds, an Olympic record and the second-fastest time in history (behind only his world record of 9.58 from Berlin) and .06 faster than he ran in Beijing. But this was not a virtuoso encore, this was a race, and it had begun more than two years earlier.

To read more go here:

Bolt celebrating with Swedish handball players. He’s got them making the Gaza sign–in tribute to his favourite DJ Vybz Kartel. The sign is also used by US West Coast hip hop musicians.
Warren Weir and Usain doing the Gaza sign, while Yohan Blake looks on. Photo source: Warren Weir’s Instagram

Meanwhile on Foxsport.com Greg Couch lamented USA Track and Field’s lack of get up and go while ruefully noting Bolt’s casual, cool but deadly sporting style:

Usain Bolt posed again with Bolt Arms pointing to the sky, then put his hands behind his ears to get the crowd to yell for him more, as if they could. And then he sprinted his 200-meter heat Tuesday to an easy victory.

Well, actually, he sprinted about 125 of it, then jogged the other 75 to advance to Wednesday’s semifinals.

“I was taking it as easy as possible,’’ he said. “It’s my first (200) run. I’m looking forward to tomorrow.’’

This was basically a day off for Bolt, with a quick Olympic run mixed in. But there’s no day off in the Bolt buzz.

Let’s see: He tweeted back and forth with a Manchester United player, saying he wants to try out for the team. He snuck past one of the picky Olympic rules he complained about the other night, hiding a jump rope in the bottom of his bag. After saying he wasn’t going to celebrate winning the 100 because he needed sleep, he emerged in a picture with three female Swedish handball players, supposedly partying with him in his room at 3 a.m.

This isn’t to be critical of Bolt for any of that, by the way. As an American, I’m asking this:

Why can’t we have one of those? By “those’’ I mean Bolt. I wonder if the US is ever going to get Bolt, understand him, build from him. Meanwhile, it was just a few months ago that U.S. hurdler Lashinda Demus referred to track as “a dying sport.’’ It was just Sunday night that two million people wanting tickets to Bolt’s 100-meter race were turned away.

A debonair Bolt models a suit. Photo source unknown.

Well Greg, as i said in an earlier post, to ‘get’ Bolt, you have to get Jamaica. Getting Bolt to tour the USA is one way to approach it but understanding something about the ‘never say die’ nature of Jamaican culture would help too. The videos below might help illuminate this a bit. First a beautifully produced Gleaner video of Jamaicans watching, then celebrating Jamaican victory in the men’s 100m in one of Kingston’s busiest streets:

Then a longer video movie of Usain Bolt, his life and style:


And finally there’s the third Jamaican…

Come tomorrow the world might want to know a little more about Warren Weir, the third Jamaican in the 200m at Olympics 2012. Incredibly Weir too is coached by Glenn Mills. As I write all three have cruised into the 200 m finals. The following video is a good introduction not only to Weir but also virtually the entire Jamaican team, Usain and all, getting ready for the Opening Ceremony…didn’t spot Yohan Blake…but a great peek behind the scenes at the Jamaican camp at Olympic Village. Check it out and #TeamUSA, take notes…

PS: If the copyright holders of any of the photos above identify themselves I will immediately credit them where necessary.

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