“Wi girl dem run like Merlene Ottey, wi boys dem run like Donald Quarrie- wi drink fish tea and wi feel irie”. This line taken from a popular cheer sung by children at Sports Day events across Jamaica embodies the pride of Jamaicans and our passion for athletics which is inculcated from an early age. The ongoing Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and the anticipation of the performance of Jamaica’s athletes, has again electrified the entire nation and raised expectations that they will continue their domination of the sprint events. Across Jamaica, Olympic fever has again risen and galvanized an entire nation in support of our athletes in a way rarely seen in other parts of the region and possibly the world.
In 2012, the scenes in the busy town centre of Half-Way Tree in Kingston Jamaica were reminiscent of a massive street party. Huge electronic screens drew hundreds of vuvuzela tooting, dutch-pot (hard metal pot covers manufactured locally that have ear-shattering impact when slammed together) knocking celebrants who had made the trip specifically to join the crowds in Half-Way Tree. They blocked the busy thoroughfare bringing traffic to a halt with little complaint from drivers; many of who turned off their engines and exited their cars in order to get a better view of the screen. Athletes losing an event was met with loud synchronized sighs of disappointment while a medal placement elicited deafening cheers, almost in unison across Jamaica.
The month of August usually heralds celebrations across Jamaica to commemorate two important national holidays — Emancipation (August 1) and Independence Day (August 6). Across the Caribbean, Independence celebrations are usually marked with carnival-like festivities that showcase the culture and history of the country. Celebrations comprise of large reggae dance parties and public concerts, which galvanize and bring together Jamaicans on an unprecedented scale. Every four years, however, when the Olympic games take place, the enthusiasm for our victorious athletes threatens to overshadow these national celebrations. Such is the euphoria that the Olympics incite among Jamaicans.
Jamaicans’ fanaticism over the Olympics dates back to 1948 with Herb Mckenley and Arthur Wint when they participated in the games in London, England. The accomplishments of McKenley and Wint, and the sense of national pride these generated, led to wide-scale appreciation of track and field among nationals. The efforts of more recent Olympians such as Merlene Ottey, Deon Hemmings, and Donald Quarrie cemented Jamaica’s place in Olympic annals as a prime contender. The last two Olympics, 2008 and 2012, saw the emergence of a new crop of Jamaican athletes (including Usain Bolt), who have cemented Jamaica’s title as the ‘Sprint Factory of the World’ through their accomplishments. To date, Jamaica has gained a total of 67 medals; this is considered a major feat for an island nation of just over 2.8 million people. The excitement over this year’s Olympics is at an all-time high, with even church groups offering up special prayers for our athletes. Many Jamaicans are taking bets on how many medals we will win with some predicting a medal haul of as many as 40, while Track and Field News has made more measured and informed predictions of an 11 medal haul.
Jamaica’s Prime Minister, Honorable Andrew Holness, referred to Jamaican athletes as the country’s best ambassadors. Jamaica’s reputation as an athletic powerhouse has been enhanced by poster boy Usain Bolt’s wit and charm, which have captivated track fans globally. Bolt’s international popularity is said to be comparable with Jamaica’s reggae icon Bob Marley. Recently, Luiz Serrano, the senior officer at the Centro de Educação Fisica Almirante Adalberto Nunes, was reported to have said that Usain Bolt is more popular than national football great Pele. Others have ranked him above young Brazilian footballer Neymar. Like Bolt, the spirit of many other Jamaican athletes is said to have endeared them to many fans. At home, these athletes are respected for their contribution to Jamaica’s track and field.
Why are Jamaicans so fast?
Jamaica’s domination of the sprints has been attributed to a range of factors including our complex carbohydrates-rich diet in which a key staple is yam. Bolt’s emergence as a sprint phenomenon has prompted scientific research to look into what accounts for his speed. Yellow yam, a major root crop produced in his home town of Sherwood Content, Trelawny, has been linked to his speed. Bolt’s aunt declared that researchers have come to her home from as far away as Japan to enquire about and sample the starchy tuber that is widely consumed across Jamaica. There is scientific evidence to support this notion: According to noted Jamaican scientist, Prof. Errol Miller, yam produces a substance called Hypo Steroids which acts as a stimulus — an anabolic steroid.
Among the non-scientific explanations, there is the Jamaicans’ appreciation for speed which develops from a tender age as ‘running’ is a favorite pastime of many Jamaican children. Kids can often be observed racing in the streets or sprinting to complete the daily task of going to get grocery at the shop. These skills are further honed through the many athletic meets at every school level, which culminate in the National Boys & Girls Championships for secondary schools that has gained worldwide acclaim; many of Jamaica’s current track stars first gained popularity here.
For many Jamaicans, the Olympics are not thought to have officially begun until track events have commenced. It is no wonder then that Saturday, August 13 brought things to a near standstill as Jamaicans prepared to watch sprinters Christania Williams, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Price and Elaine Thompson compete in the 100m finals. There was even more anticipation as Shelly-Ann Fraser had been plagued by a toe injury which many worried would affect her chances to medal. There were calls for prayers and social media blew up with requests for healing for Fraser-Pryce’s toe. One tweet by noted Attorney-at-Law and journalist, Emily Shields went viral as she asked Jesus to take Shelly’s toe and leave Jamaica with the gold medal.
Another tweet by Opposition leader calling on Prime Minister Holness to honor a commitment to increase minimum wages was described as many as being in poor taste and many called on her to put politics on pause and allow Jamaicans to bask in the Thompson’s victory.
Large celebrations usually take place on our athletes’ return to the island. They are usually met upon their return to Jamaica by a contingent of Government officials and crowds of proud Jamaicans. National celebrations usually follow with some athletes going on street parades through their communities. Usain Bolt had such a parade through his parish following his 2008 Olympics victories, complete with music, dancing and much fanfare. Many small grocery shops across Jamaica now bear posters of athletes and small TV screens will draw large viewing parties when our athletes perform. Make shift screens have been erected in the small rural communities from which some athletes are to enable viewing by residents, some of whom do not own a TV set. Television ads feature regular Jamaicans in colourful Jamaican dialect making their predictions and sending good vibes to our athletes now competing in Rio.
Regardless of the reason, there is no doubt that the success of Jamaicans in the Olympics has far-reaching benefits beyond national pride. Following the International Association of Athletics Federations IAAF World Championships in 2008, current Sports Minister Olivia ‘Babsy’ Grange stated that our athletes’ success provides a platform on which we can build a better economy and create a better social environment for our people by properly utilising our rich and unbridled talent. While wide-scale economic gains are yet to be achieved, there is no question as to the socio-cultural benefits of Jamaica’s success in athletics. This is best observed in the coming together of Jamaicans from ‘all walks of life’ to celebrate our athletes. Politics, a divisive feature in Jamaican society has little effect during these times. So profound is the impact that acts of crime and violence are said to be reduced during these events.
Jamaica’s illustrious history in track and field continues to be preserved through our athletes. The seriousness with which Jamaicans treat Olympics is often said to exceed most other countries. The current Olympics have again electrified Jamaicans at home and abroad. The next few weeks will bring increased excitement, more traffic congestion and more celebratory parties as Jamaicans cheer on our athletes in Rio.