On the occasion of Jamaican sprinter Merlene Ottey‘s 52nd birthday, it seems appropriate to look at the Jamaican obsession with “track and field” (it’s really the track part we are interested in). How does this play out in the context of celebrity, youth, and money?
I was prompted to write this partly because there was a grave omission in my last Sunday review of the Jamaican news. I had planned to congratulate our current Golden Boy, Usain Bolt, on the work of his Usain Bolt Foundation (vision statement: Creation of opportunities through education and cultural development for a positive change). The focus of the Foundation’s work is on “happy children.” I cannot think of a better purpose. With educated, healthy and empowered children, Jamaica can really start to move forward. The Usain Bolt Foundation will team up with Chain of Hope Jamaica, which is developing a pediatric cardiac service for the hundreds of Jamaican children in desperate need of surgery at the Bustamante Hospital for Children in Kingston. Bolt will co-host a fund-raising walkathon later this year, and has asked his sponsors to contribute funds for two surgeries annually. Last week, the Foundation handed over twenty licenses for important Mathematics software that will help students prepare for Caribbean examinations. It is also supporting the younger children; it has donated playground and recreational equipment and uniforms to schools for children under twelve. It will also support this year’s Paralympics. And more.
Meanwhile, Mr. Bolt has signaled in no uncertain terms that he is ready for the London Olympic Games this summer, by winning the 100 meter dash at the recent Jamaica International Invitational Meet in Kingston in a mind-blowing 9.82 seconds. There are others (including one or two of his fellow-countrymen) who think they have some chance of beating him in the Olympics. We shall see.
Meanwhile, Mr. Bolt is up there on his pedestal, a sports superstar at the age of twenty-five, a young man from deep rural Trelawny who played a lot of cricket and football in his teens before he took up running. He is now the Honorable Usain St. Leo Bolt, O.J., C.D., who once remarked, “I’m a cool and exciting guy.” He has received numerous awards and honors. His image is of a fun-loving, laid-back person. Like many successful athletes it seems, he has opened a restaurant in Kingston called “Tracks and Records” (an uninspiring name). He was conferred with an honorary Doctor of Laws degree last November by the University of the West Indies. The enormous publicity machine surrounding the London Olympics is beginning to envelop him in its embrace. He is doing endorsements and ads and photo-ops (even with visiting Prince Harry) and autographs and interviews, and everybody wants him. And most Jamaicans are very proud of him and his success, and are looking forward to another stupendous performance by him – and other outstanding Jamaican athletes such as Yohan Blake and Veronica Campbell Brown – in the upcoming Olympics.
Yes, our chests swell with pride. He is our Golden Boy, our country boy made good. And yet. Our superhero is sometimes boisterous; he makes faces while the National Anthem is played, and he has a touch of arrogance. He loves to party.
And he has a white girlfriend. The discussions on the pulsating, non-stop Facebook network of Jamaicans have by turns irritated, amused and depressed me. Why do successful black men always run off with white women? What’s wrong with black women? She must be a gold-digger. And other comments that are too unpleasant – and downright racist – to be repeated here. In social media parlance, all I can say is… SMH.
Can I just say something? Mr. Bolt is doing the best he can. He is young, and from a humble background. He is trying. His heart is in the right place. I cannot conceive of the unbelievable pressure he must be under – the training alone demands tremendous, and continuous focus. His body has to be constantly fine-tuned and prepared, like an engine for a Formula One racing car. There is the fear of injury. He has agents and publicists and sports reporters of all nationalities and photographers and fans and would-be girlfriends and hangers-on to deal with, every minute of his day.
And can I point something else out? All the amazing Jamaican athletes, of whom so much is expected, are all trying to live up to those expectations as best they can. They don’t want to disappoint their fans – and especially, they don’t want to disappoint themselves. Just before Mr. Bolt, another record-breaking sprinter, Asafa Powell, was all the rage in Jamaica. Like Mr. Bolt, he is a powerful runner and has a big race (the Diamond League) tomorrow. Mr. Powell has, perhaps, not handled the golden pedestal thing so well. He is, after all, a different person, the sometimes shy son of two Spanish Town ministers. He has had injury problems. Some Jamaicans think they have found chinks in his golden armor, and have opened the chinks a little wider. There has also been a lot of discussion about his personal life, and his high-profile girlfriend. He has been found wanting by many Jamaicans. My blogging colleague and marvelous journalist Dionne Jackson-Miller has addressed the issue in her blog.
Perhaps it will be Mr. Bolt’s turn next – to “disappoint”.
But can I once again simply point out: These are human beings, existing in the rarefied air of the famous (and rich); they are recognized everywhere by everyone (can you imagine that?) Their life in active athletics will probably just last a few more years; and then they will have to think about the rest of their lives. It is temporary, it is fickle. We, the public, can gossip about their girlfriends and make snide comments when they win a Silver, and not a Gold (Ms. Ottey, by the way, was rather unkindly nicknamed the Bronze Queen, but her performance and longevity were quite remarkable).
Yes, they are young human beings, and they are doing their best to please everyone. But most of all, they are doing it for themselves.
Let us just support them in that.
And happy birthday, Ms. Ottey! (By the way, she is considering running in her eighth Olympic Games this year – she now runs for Slovenia, her adopted home).
Related articles and links:
http://www.european-athletics.org/index.php?option=com_content&catid=1&id=10118&view=article: Super-vet Ottey not finished yet
http://www.usainbolt.com/page/home: Usain Bolt home page
Usain Bolt Thrills at Jamaican Meet in Good Sign for London Olympics (bleacherreport.com)
Fellow Jamaicans calling Usain Bolt the next Tiger Woods because of his Caucasian girlfriend (offthebench.nbcsports.com)
Love strikes like lightning for Usain Bolt (telegraph.co.uk)
Prince Harry ‘bolts’ from Usain Bolt and wins ‘race’ (elspethlodge.com)
http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/athletics/18020004: Asafa Powell meets Justin Gatlin in Diamond League in Doha