I remember the day years ago, sitting in an auditorium at the University of the West Indies as a gangly teenager was summoned to accept a scholarship, having just become the youngest person ever to win the world junior championship. Although he was then barely out of boyhood, Usain Bolt had to have already known that this was a prize he would never claim, superseded as it clearly was going to be by many others. It was a measure of his grace that he not only showed up to accept it, but held it aloft with that ‘Really, me?’ look he would go on to make world-famous.
That humility amid extraordinary achievement was perhaps what the world loved best about Usain, and it overturned a sport that until then had been defined by testosterone-pumped triumphalism. Other sprinters shouted they would kick your ass and mop the track with you. Usain said he’d see you at the party afterwards.
It is a paradox of the sort that defines his homeland, a country that abounds in them. I lived in Jamaica for much of my life (and have the certificate of naturalisation to prove it!). When I first moved to the island to accept a lecturing position at the university, expecting to do a few years then move on to other things – it turned out the island had other plans for me – I came across an odd trait among my students. In their seminar groups, they’d digress into long diatribes against the evils of their country, its corruption, its abundance of thieves and criminals and layabouts and liars; yet their rants would always conclude with an un-ironic ‘How I love this place.’
I didn’t understand how people could describe a country that seemed so worthy of disdain, yet cling to it like a wayward but beloved child. I didn’t understand it until, after a few years, I found myself using the same phrase. You have to live it to get it: you have, as Jamaicans say, to be a ‘sufferer.’ But at its heart is a belief that everyone, and everything, is capable of redemption.
‘Jamaica no problem’ may have been a clever bit of branding, but the slogan invented to lure tourists to the island has never captured the essence of life for its residents. Life in Jamaica is not a trip to the beach. It is hard, demanding and filled with moments of rage and even despair. Yet throughout it all, you encounter a relentless generosity of spirit, a yearning to live in the moment since you don’t know what will come tomorrow, and a recognition that those who have much, have much to give.
Bolt, and perhaps even moreso the many sprinters that cleared the path for him, embodied that. Asafa Powell, Melaine Walker, the universally-loved Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, to say nothing of the legions of great runners past and present, have all embodied a humility and sense of duty to their families and communities. For all the ‘boassiness’ of Jamaicans, those who triumph tend to recognise that they did not so much create their greatness, as build upon what others did for them.
They could hardly do otherwise. There’s an unspoken rule in Jamaica that no matter what your celebrity or achievement, when you return to the island, you get to revert to your quiet life. I’ve sat on airplanes alongside Sean Paul and Beanie Man and watched as passenger after passenger files past, clearly noting the person in their midst but doing little more than smile. Usain Bolt’s global achievement pushed this rule to its limit. Nevertheless, when visitors to the island would say it was their lifetime dream to see the great man in the flesh, all I had to do was take them for a stroll down to the grassy field in the valley where you could see him in training, all while middle-aged ladies strolled by on their evening constitutionals.
Jamaica is an island that not only allows you to go home, but insists you remember you where you came from. And at heart, since you were once an innocent child, that means you can be so once again. Probably nobody booed more lustily at Justin Gatlin’s shock victory in Saturday’s race than Jamaicans. But most of them will grasp the generous spirit shown by Usain Bolt. If Gatlin will kneel before the great man, who are we to judge his plea for redemption?
We will never resign ourselves to him. But we had our say, and now it’s time to move on. As for Usain, he’s earned the right to return to a hero’s welcome. But when the party’s done, some elderly aunt will no doubt remind him that for all the trouble he gave them as a boy, it’s the least he could have done.