In Jamaica, we have been rejoicing. Our Olympic games successes coincided deliciously with the Jamaica 50 celebrations of our fiftieth anniversary of Independence. We had a week or two of sheer enjoyment – not resting on our laurels, but waving them around. But the rest of the Caribbean had much to shout about too. Some extraordinary “firsts” were achieved.
Jamaica actually came second in the Caribbean table of medals overall. Our closest neighbors, Cuba came first. Here is the table of Caribbean medals:
Congratulating Jamaican athletes after the games, Grenada‘s Prime Minister Tillman Thomas said, “Our athletes have proven that hard work and dedication yields remarkable results.” I saw a tweet today comparing a recent beauty contest and the achievement of our (certainly lovely) representative to the achievement of Usain Bolt. I am myself not a fan of this parading of women in bikinis and snazzy ball gowns, and so I may be biased. But truly, how can one compare the incredible sacrifice and determination of any one of the Olympians from whichever country – over months and years – with a woman who goes to the gym every day and then gets dressed up and made up for a competition? They are at two completely different levels.
OK, enough of that. Since we started with Grenada, let us continue with the stunning gold medal won by that country. OK. Grenada is very small. Very small. I do not say it in a derogatory way, but it might take ten minutes to fly across. And in terms of number of medals per citizen, Grenada, with its one gold medal, came way out on top with one medal per 106,500. Yes, that is the total population of the Spice Island, as it is often called (it has lots of nutmeg trees). Jamaica came second in the per-capita ranking and Trinidad & Tobago third. So the density of Caribbean medals is really high. To get the same kind of density, for example, for the United States, which was top of the overall medal table, it would have had to win 2,880 medals. Impossible, of course…
Anyway, enough of statistics. Of the 45 medals won by Caribbean countries (I just did a count and the majority were won by the men), Grenada’s gold is particularly lustrous. Why? Not only because Grenada is very small. But the island’s Kirani James was the first Caribbean athlete ever to win gold in the 400 meters – a distance the Caribbean has not been very focused on. And it was Grenada’s first Olympic medal ever. A gold is a good place to start.
And not only that – the 400 meters was won by three Caribbean men. After Kirani, there was young Luguelin Santos (only eighteen years old, just a year younger than Kirani) of the Dominican Republic with the silver; and Lalonde Gordon of Trinidad winning the bronze. A Caribbean “sweep” of medals. Also a first! Astonishing. (By the way, Trinidad’s 400 meters relay team, including Gordon, also won a bronze medal).
Let’s move on to another remarkable achievement – not in track this time, but out there in the field, where everything hangs on one throw or one jump, flying through the air, up and over and through. And this was 19-year-old Keshorn Walcott of Trinidad & Tobago – yes, another of several Caribbean teenagers who competed and won medals.
Keshorn was the first man in the Western Hemisphere to win a gold medal in the men’s javelin. The event has been dominated by Europeans for decades. Not even the United States has ever won it. In fact, the two Europeans who won silver and bronze – from the Ukraine and Finland – looked slightly bemused on the medal podium, as if to say: how on earth did that happen? Keshorn himself, the World Junior Champion in javelin, seemed remarkably phlegmatic – almost inscrutable – during the contest. Then, after the striking red and black Trinidadian flag had been handed to him, he walked and stood, eyes half-closed, head thrown back, savoring the moment. It had started to sink in.
To me, who can barely throw a stick for the dog across our front lawn, to throw a javelin – which weighs on average over three pounds and is well over eight feet long… To throw something like this, so far – well, it is completely astounding.
And of course, there has been much publicity in Jamaica about the rich rewards showered on both Mr. James and Mr. Walcott in their respective countries. The Trinidadian government has even named a lighthouse after Keshorn. That’s quite something, for a nineteen-year-old. I guess he can go and visit it every now and then and maybe turn the light round or whatever they do. I think it’s rather lovely actually. I adore lighthouses.
Although Cuba still won more Caribbean medals than anyone else, its Olympic performance has been declining in recent competitions. In fact, this year’s medal haul was its lowest since 1976. Why this is, I am not sure. Four of the Cuban medals were in boxing, a field that it has always excelled in. Leonel Suarez, he of the charming smile, was also made of very stern stuff. The men’s decathlon is an incredibly demanding event; I just don’t know how the decathletes manage to compete in ten vastly differing fields and just keep their focus. Leonel did, and won a bronze for Cuba. Two Americans won gold and silver. What I loved was the genuine camaraderie among the three medal winners – fierce competitors, but friends. Having been through all those tests together, over a number of days, of course friendships are formed and respect grows.
At 112 pounds, Yanet Bermoy Acosta may not seem to be much of a handful. But she threw her weight about in Judo. The 25-year-old from Cienfuegos, Cuba was quite something. I have a special fondness for judo, having practiced it myself in my youth – and so I was pleased to see Caribbean medals in this event. Cuba actually won three. Yanet was eventually beaten by a North Korean opponent, Kum Ae An – a special win for that country as it was its first medal.
And then there was perhaps my favorite Caribbean athlete of all, Felix Sanchez of the Dominican Republic. After winning gold in the men’s 400 meters hurdles, Felix was pure emotion. He had been running with a photograph of himself and his beloved grandmother Lillian, tucked into his bib. During a television interview, he showed the photo to the camera – somewhat crumpled, but intact. Of course, in the Caribbean – and especially perhaps in the Hispanic parts of it – grandmothers are especially revered. Felix looked as if he could have talked all day about his relationship with the “abuela” who raised him, but the BBC reporter abruptly ran out of time. By the way, his spikes had the word “abuela” written on them, too. He was running with, and for her. He had heard that she had died on the day of his preliminary heat in London, so he really was running in her memory.
Felix Sanchez was a model of the kind of determination where you grit your teeth and bite your lip and clench your fists hard. At 34, he was the oldest man to win the 400 meters hurdles. He had won the same race eight years previously in Athens, with exactly the same time. He had failed to even make it to the final of the event in Beijing, but fought his way back in London to beat an American and a Puerto Rican. Yes, this was another Western Hemisphere final.
But the emotion. The BBC ironically called the London Olympics the “Crying Games,” and Sanchez probably came close to winning the gold medal for pure emotion. Sobbing, in fact. He had a complete meltdown on the podium – the other two medalists did not know whether they should just look the other way. In the end, after his face completely crumpled, he covered it with his hands.
I really wanted to cry with him. If I had been Dominican, I am sure I would have.
There was so much more to celebrate with the Caribbean athletes: the Bahamas won a stunning gold in the 400 meters relay, for example (I love that light blue kit). I congratulate them all and love their spirit.
P.S. As noted above, most of the Caribbean medals were won by men. Ladies, 2016 in Rio will be your turn to shine!
There are nine Caribbean nations that have never won an Olympic medal. I wish all the best for them for 2016, where I hope their dreams will come true. I am sure the performances of all the Caribbean Olympians must have been an inspiration to them. Who are those nine? Well, OK (and bear in mind there are a few more that don’t have official National Olympic Committees: Dominica, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Aruba, British Virgin Islands, Antigua and Barbuda, Cayman Islands and Belize.
I can see more medals on the horizon, where the blue sky meets the glittering Caribbean Sea.
http://repeatingislands.files.wordpress.com/2012/08/caribbean-medal-performance-london-2012-by-peter-jordens.pdf (Overview of the Caribbean’s medal performances in London)
http://www.spicegrenada.com/index.php/government-news/aug-2012/1482-prime- minister-congratulates-jamaica (Grenada prime minister congratulates Jamaica)
http://www.miamiherald.com/2012/08/13/2950476/the-top-olympic-winner-we-vote.html (The top Olympic winner? We vote for Grenada – Miami Herald)
http://repeatingislands.com/2012/08/06/caribbean-players-doing-great-in-the-olympics/ (Caribbean players doing great in the Olympics – Repeating Islands)
http://repeatingislands.com/2012/08/06/dominican-republics-felix-sanchez-wins-gold-puerto-ricos-javier-culson-bronze/ (Dominican Republic’s Feliz Sanchez wins gold, Puerto Rico’s Javier Culson bronze)
http://timclayton.photoshelter.com/gallery-image/Athletics/G0000gGCpmN.XoBA/I0000Cf6G1yX7M6w (Stunning athletics photos by Tim Clayton including many of Kirani James – copyright)
http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/olympics/19253050 (Lighthouse named after champion Keshorn Walcott – BBC Sport)
http://latino.foxnews.com/latino/sports/2012/08/07/sanchez-wins-2nd-olympic-400-meter-hurdle-gold/ (Sanchez wins second Olympic 400 meter gold – Fox Latino Sports)
http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2184634/London-2012-Olympics-Emotional-hurdler-Felix-Sanchez-sobs-winning-title-second-time.html (And the gold medal for sobbing on the podium goes to…)
Former medalists see great future for Caribbean Olympic athletes (antiguaobserver.com)
A Single Caribbean Sports Academy to ensure future World Champions (caribbean360.com)
Caribbean has one of its best Olympic showings (caribbean360.com)
http://petchary.wordpress.com/2012/07/22/3477/ (Gold, Silver and Bronze – petchary.wordpress.com)
http://petchary.wordpress.com/2012/08/02/the-gods-are-smiling/ (The Gods Are Smiling – petchary.wordpress.com)
The London Games: Jamaica (petchary.wordpress.com)
Book Review: Black Meteors – the Caribbean in International Track and Field (newsandviewsbydjmillerja.wordpress.com)