Please check out my first post on Jamaica and the Caribbean Court of Justice in which I say that twenty years after the seminal report from the West Indian Commission, Time for Action, we are still spinning our wheels. You can read it here. CARICOM leaders have a track record of delay, however, and I recently commented here on the most recent Heads of Government meeting and the progress, or lack thereof.
Blake, with the somewhat petulant tone we’ve been hearing from athletes finding themselves burnt by the social media space they thought they owned, states that he is addressing the explanation to his “true fans.”
“ …my nails grow VERY fast for some reason. Almost as fast as I can run! Many years ago, long before this beast nickname came about, so long ago that I can’t even remember when or why, I got it into my head that if I cut them during competition I won’t run well. It is my superstition. There are many things we athletes do to alleviate the huge pressures
that come with competing. Some of them just don’t make any sense. But we do them anyway! This is what I do. Soon after competition I cut them and look pretty “normal” again.
I know who I am. I know what my values are. And I know how proud I feel to have represented my country at the highest level and to the best of my ability. I am who I think I am. I am not who other people think I am supposed to be.
So I would like to thank my true fans and sponsors for accepting me for who I am and I will continue to do my best for you.”
Although he didn’t address it there, Blake is also being criticized by some for his cartoonish “beast” poses, when he claws at the air and grimaces, that he clearly thinks enhance the Beast nickname he was given because of the ferocity with which he approaches training. There are many Jamaicans who think the poses look silly and that Blake would be better off dropping them, along with cutting his nails.
There are some similarities with the criticisms of the gold medal winning African American gymnast Gabby Douglas, by fellow black African Americans who thought her hair didn’t look good, and say she needs to realize that she is “reppng” for all black women on the international stage.
So why do we care? And does commenting on Blake’s nails or Douglas’s hair make people any less “true fans’?
Douglas’s issue is wrapped up in the complicated relationship black women have with their hair, if we are honest. We haven’t gotten over the hair thing. But she is a little removed from us. It’s easier to look at the Douglas story and shake our heads at the critics’ pettiness.
Blake, now, he’s close to home. He belongs to us. Are we who criticize him also being petty?
Let’s be honest. Many Jamaicans have long felt that there hasn’t been enough attention to grooming our athletes for the international spotlight, to ensure that they shine off track, as well as on. Some of what you’re seeing is a reflection of that. Is Blake making a fool of himself? Will he become an object of international ridicule? Is he representing himself, and yes, Jamaica in the best possible light? There are genuine concerns about that, and expressing them, Mr. Blake, doesn’t necessarily mean that the Jamaicans who do so do not fully appreciate your tremendous talent and achievements on the track.
Of course, there is another element. There have always been, and will always be, petty, spiteful people who make mean-spirited comments about anyone in the public spotlight. Social media has now given these people a direct line to the athletes or anyone else they want to “dis.”
Yohan Blake et al. need to learn to differentiate between well-intentioned criticism, whether you agree with it or not, and spiteful, snide comments, which our mothers used to tell us, quite rightly, to ignore.
The criticisms, for instance, of Yohan Blake’s and Usain Bolt’s behavior during the national anthem while on the medal podium at the World Championships last year was the kind of criticism that they should have, and clearly did, take on board. Bear in mind that even then, there was a set of people telling critics to “leave de yute dem alone” and suggesting that people who had achieved at that level should not be criticized for such behavior. That’s rubbish, and “true fans” like that are the ones Blake should be ignoring.
He might also want to think carefully about his antics in front of the international press. Sure, Usain’s
antics are celebrated by all the world, and people everywhere are doing the Bolt pose. Will they follow suit with Blake? They might. But they might not. He needs to remember how fickle the international press can be, and carefully consider the persona he wants the public, and potential sponsors, to see. There may be a thin line between playful, which is how Bolt is generally seen, and ridiculous.
My opinion? I can see Blake putting out a line of Beast tee-shirts etc with all the Beast grimaces, and I can see them taking off. I wouldn’t buy them, but they wouldn’t be aimed at me. I don’t like the fingernails, and to those who say they never noticed them, that’s a little ridiculous when he brandishes them in front of his face during photo shoots. You can’t escape them. But I don’t argue with people’s superstitions. If he says that’s what he needs to do when he is in competition, I have nothing more to say. After all, I have superstitions of my own. And although I don’t like them, I can shrug and move on.
His poses etc.also look a little silly to me, but I don’t really care, and again, I’m not the demographic he’s aiming for. His comments to reporters about coming from Mars also sound juvenile. Having said all that, he is a grown man and has a management team. As a Jamaican, I mainly ask that he shows respect for the national symbols and understands time and place, and what behavior is appropriate when.
From a business point of view, I would hope that Blake and his management team are seriously assessing the public reaction to his image and comments, and making sure they are working for him. After all, that’s how you build a brand.
Between the Olympics and the Independence celebrations. Jamaicans were feeling good. But can we keep that feeling going? Sadly, past experience says no.
Thanks to the coincidence of the London 2012 Olympics, and the celebration of Jamaica’s 50th anniversary of political independence, patriotism was on full display in July and August. Public spaces, as well as buildings, both public and private, were bedecked using the national colours in creative and colourful decorations. Jamaicans were wearing, day after day, black, green and gold clothes, the hashtag #teamjamaica was trending, and most people were declaring themselves “proud to be Jamaican.”
This wasn’t new. During the previous two IAAF World Championships in particular, and when the Reggae Boyz made the 1998 World Cup, there were similar expressions of patriotism. None of them lasted, and I doubt this one will.
It’s not hard to figure out why. Life in Jamaica is hard. Not as hard, sure, as in some developing countries, but for many people, hard nonetheless. The grind of poverty, and the fear of crime and concern about issues like heath, education and corruption are never-ending. Advances are few and glacially slow. Events like the Olympics are actually a pit stop, a welcome break from reality.
So when the closing ceremony is over, and the accolades for the athletes have ended, when the remains of the Grand Gala have been cleaned up, it’s back to that reality of everyday life, which for many, isn’t fun.
I’ve been trying to figure out how to keep that fantastic energy going on a national scale, to harness that patriotism for national and economic development, and I must say I don’t have the answer.
It seems to me that while one problem lies in leadership, and that a 2008 Obama-style visionary could help, that could create problems of its own. The problem with hitching your hope to a political star, is that when the star starts to fall, as Obama’s undeniably has, and as Michael Manley’s did in the 1970s, you end up with a disillusioned and bitter populace.
So if we can’t draw inspiration from our leaders then where should we look?
The only answer I can find is that we have to find it within ourselves and from whichever sources we draw on for personal inspiration. The incredible achievements of people like Usain Bolt and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce have to be harnessed by each of us individually to propel us to greater heights in our individual lives. We can all then lift Jamaica together. It might sound inadequate, but as they say, the only person you can change is you.
If you have any other ideas, I’d love to hear them.
If the performances of gold medalists Usain Bolt and Shelly-Ann Fraser of Jamaica, Kirani James of
Grenada and Keshorn Walcott of Trinidad and Tobago in the London Olympics excited your interest in Caribbean athletics, or if you have been a long-time fan, you really should check out Black Meteors – The Caribbean in International Track and Field.
Black Meteors is published by Ian Randle Publishers, and written by Basil Ince, a former athlete and administrator, diplomat and academic, who marries his interests in this thoroughly attractive and engaging book about Caribbean sportsmen and women.
The layout and format of the book are excellent, with easy-to-read text, and a large number of photographs of athletes ranging from the pioneers like Lennox Miller and Arthur Wint of Jamaica, to more recent athletes such as Ato Boldon of Trinidad and Tobago and Javier Sotomayor of Cuba, and current stars like Yohan Blake and superstar sprinter Usain Bolt of Jamaica, among many, many more.
And therein lies one of the biggest and most welcome differences between this book and many others. The author states that:
“throughout the book the word Caribbean refers to all Caribbean peoples, English speaking and non-English speaking.”
Ince approaches that issue of what is a “Caribbean” athlete in an entirely natural way, that makes not just geographical sense, given the breadth of talent displayed throughout the region, but also allows the author to introduce readers to some athletes who may not as well known to them as others.
The other important aspect of Ince’s approach to the book was the effortless story-telling which brings to life, not just the athletes and their successes, but the socio-political backdrop to their sporting careers.
One example is his discussion of the evolution of women’s participation in the Olympics, from the days when women were not allowed to participate at all, to the performances of the great Merlene Ottey of Jamaica (who is still competing at over 50 years old) and Deon Hemmings, the first Caribbean woman to win Olympic gold in 1996.
Another example is the exploration of the impact of the Cuban revolution on the performance of Cuban athletes, which laid the groundwork for athletes like Alberto Juantorena, winner of the 800 m and 400m gold medals in Montreal, and the struggles of the track and field programme given the US economic embargo of the
But Ince also spends time discussing current issues and athletes, including Jamaica’s success in Beijing.
If you have any interest at all in track and field, this will be an excellent addition to your library.
The Jamaican government has, disappointingly, again succumbed to the lure of populism and bandwaggonism (to coin a particularly apt word). Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller declared proudly in Parliament that “help is on the way” for Jamaican Olympic swimmer Alia Atkinson who has been making the country proud, but who has said she needs help to continue.
We have to chart our own way, however. If we talk about sports development and sports as a business
(and if we’re not we should be) we have to take the development of our athletes seriously. Cheering when they do us proud and then walking away again can no longer be a sufficient or acceptable response. (Shout-out here to sports management expert Carole Beckford who speaks and blogs about these very issues)
My producer asked the (effective) Minister of Sports for a comment and we were told that the government “was looking at the issue.” Really. And now, months on, the “looking” hasn’t manage to produce either a statement of intent, or anything to suggest that a structured, considered proposal is being developed.
Let’s be clear, athletes do get some assistance, but it appears ad hoc. The Jamaica Athletic Administrative Association (JAAA) says it does assist athletes, but cannot provide as much assistance as they want. Olympians Juliet Cuthbert and Grace Jackson have both said they think more can be done. Cuthbert suggests monthly stipends, for example to help defray expenses, and Jackson told me that she had submitted a detailed proposal to the JAAA which had not been acted on. She said it was being examined again, and perhaps if she runs for and wins the Presidency of the organisation, she could help effect change.
The point is that a structured programme of assistance is necessary. Bring together the various avenues of financial assistance, determine the basis on which an athlete at different levels will get assistance, and publish the criteria. You do not want any accusations of favouritism and cronyism.
These athletes deliver real value to the country. The waves of inspiration, joy and patriotism evoked every time the Olympics and World Championships roll around cannot be replicated.
Let’s do what we can to ride those waves of patriotism. Let’s look beyond one excellent athlete who happens to be in the public spotlight at the moment and for once, show some real vision.