Orville Higgins | Were we fair with Bolt?
In 1997 when the Reggae Boyz qualified for the 1998 World Cup in France, the then Prime Minister of Jamaica P.J. Patterson, in a surprising move, declared the next day a public holiday. I was among the tens of thousands caught up in the euphoria of the moment, and, like most Jamaicans, I was grateful for the opportunity not to turn up for work. In my circles, we all welcomed the day. We thought the prime minister was the coolest dude ever! It was days after that it dawned on many of us that not everybody was happy. Many members of the business class, justifiably so, I might add, were unhappy with the spontaneous declaration of a public holiday, with workers being absent without adequate notice. I won't get into the controversy that followed after, but I'm prepared to say that we will not see any other Jamaican prime minister, anytime soon, declaring a public holiday for anything that happens in sports, not at least without adequate notice.
A little over a decade after that occasion there came a fleet-footed youngster called Usain Bolt who started to do unprecedented things on the track. By 2009, he was the fastest sprinter ever, and we were all wondering what manner of man this was. The accolades were coming in fast, and the then Prime Minister Bruce Golding bestowed the Order of Jamaica (OJ) on him. No other Jamaican would have had this prestigious title placed on them so young.
When news broke of Bolt's off-the-track exploits with women in Rio, Mr Golding was not amused. "The reports are disturbing, and if true, are far below what is expected of our most celebrated contemporary icon." That was his quote in The Star on August 26. This got me thinking. What exactly is expected of Usain Bolt, a 30-year-old in the prime of life? Is partying and cuddling with attractive women against the grain for our cultural icon? When we present an OJ to anyone, but especially a 23-year- old, does it come with a code of conduct? The former prime minister was not by any means alone in his views. Thousands of Jamaicans and many people abroad have also come out saying disparaging things about the track star.
Is all this fair? Certainly not. Cuddling and partying with women ought not generate the kind of vitriol that it has. This is normal for most 30-year-old men. But then again, Bolt is no ordinary 30-year- old. Not too many 30-year-old Jamaicans have his talent, social profile and money. Also, not too many at that age are called 'the Honourable' anything as a result of their talent. This is certainly part of the problem. Many people with whom I have spoken feel like the former prime minister does. They feel let down that the Honourable Usain Bolt could be seen as behaving in what appears to them as dishonourable ways. They, too, feel Bolt's actions are "below what is expected" especially when he was on TV a few weeks before declaring that he was involved in a serious relationship.
So now Bolt is being judged, not as a mere man, but as the 'honourable' Usain. It's an albatross around his neck that he could well do without. In the same way in which former Prime Minister Patterson was caught up in the mood of the time and awarded us a national holiday on the spur of the moment, which in hindsight may not have been the right thing to do, I think the same thing happened to former Prime Minister Golding. Like the rest of us, he was swept away in the emotion that Bolt's brilliance evoked and made a decision that in retrospect may not have been the wisest. Politicians are indeed human after all!
I don't think any prime minister should ever again bestow the Order of Jamaica, and by extension the title of honourable, on any other 23- year-old. It is too great a burden to carry. The actions of a 23-year-old are likely to fall "below what is expected" and, therefore, we have to think twice before doing this again.
- Orville Higgins is a sportscaster and talk-show host at KLAS ESPN Sports FM. Email feedback to email@example.com.