Sun | Sep 24, 2017

Annie Paul | Rio in Half-Way Tree

Published:Wednesday | August 24, 2016 | 8:00 AM
Annie Paul
Scores of joyous Jamaicans celebrate Usain Bolt's victory in the 100m finals in Half-Way Tree.
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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 often catapulted them on to the world stage. 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.

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.

 

EFFORTLESS STYLE

 

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. Eight years later, he has picked the moon out of the sky again and again, delivering it with ease and bravado, something Jamaicans dearly love. You must not only win, you must do it with effortless style - something Bolt has displayed over and over. His derring-do and bravura performances are symbolic of the Jamaican ambition to appear cool and deadly at all times.

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 honed his natural gifts to perfection with enough gas left in the tank to reach higher and farther.

The above is adapted from my Newsweek essay of four years ago when I was asked to describe how Jamaicans viewed Bolt in the wake of his second triple-gold performance, in London. In Rio, Usain has repeated his feats yet again, earning a triple treble in Olympic gold medals. The legend can now retire, his legacy secure, having raised the bar so high, so fast, that ordinary folk like you and me feel grateful merely to bear witness to such greatness.

 

GROUND ZERO

 

This time I was determined to view at least one of his events at Ground Zero, that is, Half-Way Tree in Kingston, and blow a vuvuzela while doing so. Accordingly, a friend and I made our way down to Kingston's busiest intersection on Friday evening to watch the Jamaican 4x100m relay teams earn their medals with the hoi polloi. My taxi man said he knew Usain well, having driven him around from the days he first came to town from country. I was treated to a recitation of all the places Bolt had ever inhabited in Kingston and a description of all the cars he owns.

Half-Way Tree was abuzz as we walked down to the transport centre and tried to find a good spot to watch the big screen. The energy from the large, good-natured crowd was infectious. Finally, it was time for the women's 100m. I bought a vuvuzela from a passing vendor and readied myself, but the excitement quickly faded as the American team outran Jamaica's golden girls. For a few seconds, silence reigned in HWT. In any other country, a silver medal would have brought elation, but not in Jamaica.

Soon it was time for the men's 100m, and the crowd started buzzing again. Shouts of "The big man!" and "World boss" went up as Bolt emerged from the tunnel into the Maracana Stadium. The camera panned on another Jamaican athlete from behind, and another roar went up as Asafa raised his arms and flexed looking back at us. Amazing how beloved the reigning world champion is in Jamaica despite never having struck an individual Olympic gold.

Before you knew it, the race was done and the crowd erupted with joy; their boys had won Olympic gold yet again and at least for one night all was well with the world. The Rio 2016 Olympics has flashed by as quickly as Jamaica's athletes and with a new crop of burgeoning legends in the mix - Elaine Thompson and Omar McLeod - Tokyo can't come soon enough. Arigato!

• Annie Paul is a writer and critic based at the University of the West Indies and author of the blog, Active Voice (anniepaul.net). Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com or tweet @anniepaul.