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Much, much more than sport

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Global economic problems notwithstanding, the focus of much of the world this week, last Sunday in particular, was on a very special sporting contest. Ironically, these two great global happenings had their base in China, the hot seat of international concerns about the global economy and also the venue of a battle in the field of sport, the like of which has not been seen since the return of Mohammed Ali to heavyweight champion after his politically-inspired ban.{{more}}

In the iconic ‘Bird’s Nest’ stadium in Beijing, the Caribbean’s favourite son, Usain Bolt, not only reaffirmed Caribbean dominance in track sprinting, but also assuaged the consciences of many in sports administration by defeating twice-convicted athletics drug-violator Justin Gatlin, permitting athletics chiefs and the media to claim that he had “saved” sports.

The implications of Bolt’s 100 metres victory are much wider than a sporting triumph. There are so many aspects to his spectacular, if though narrow, win over Gatlin. For the people of Jamaica and the Caribbean, it was another powerful statement of what we can achieve in spite of enormous odds. This was more than the Bolt vs Gatlin billing. It was also the US vs Jamaica/Caribbean, a sporting rivalry in Olym­pic and world sprinting that first began since the Olympics resumed after the second World War.

It was in London in 1948 that the Caribbean first served notice of its challenge to then American hegemony in the sprints, when not only did Jamaican Arthur Wint win the men’s 400 metres, but his compatriot Herb McKenley took the silver as well, and only injury prevented a 4×400 metres relay victory. Since then it is the tiny Caribbean which has stood up against US dominance, not only in men’s sprinting, but in female performances as well.

The Usain Bolts and Shelley Ann Fraser-Pryces of today come in a long pedigreed Caribbean line, which includes the likes of the aforesaid Wint and McKenley, as well as George Rhoden, who repeated the 400 metres triumph for Jamaica in 1952, right down to Grenada’s Kirani James of today. And who can forget the likes of Haseley Craw­ford and Don Quarrie, Veronica Campbell Brown and Merlene Ottey, or indeed the evergreen Kittian, Kim Collins?

That ‘Big Brother’ vs small neighbour contest on the track echoes the challenges that our countries face in bigger fields, such as the economy and trade. That is why Bolt’s victory, and that, no less so, of Fraser-Pryce, have such significance. Indeed University of the West Indies Chancellor Sir Hilary Beckles has succinctly put it in context.

Commenting on Bolt’s triumph, Beckles said that the “victory is more than a common contest of physical capacity”, for it demonstrates that “self-confidence and native belief again rise from within.” It drove home the message, he went on, that “if we (Caribbean people) are going to build sustainable resilient societies and economies…we must begin with self-confidence and end with self-belief.”

The UWI Chancellor, who heads the region’s Reparations Committee, also touched on another, not so well-emphasized truth, that Bolt’s victory is home-grown, proving that “within our Caribbean cultural space are solutions to our challenges, no matter how testing.” Bolt trains in Jamaica with a Jamaican coach.

But with all the glory to Bolt, should we not equally heap praises on our sister, Shelley Ann Fraser Pryce? Her 100 metre victory on Monday made her the only woman to have won the world title three times and achieved victory in successive Olympic and World 100 metre races. Multiple Olympic champion Michael Johnson has called her the “greatest female sprinter of all times,” correctly opining that it is a pity that Bolt is getting all the attention, since her accomplishments are just as meritorious.

It is another point on which we should ponder. Do we not continue to unconsciously underplay the achievements of our women? Given the hurdles they have to overcome, the in-built discrimination in our societies, it may well be that achievements such as those of Fraser-Pryce are even more worthy of praise. It is not easy for a woman to make the sacrifices of becoming a top-class athlete, having academic achievements, being a wife and role model and a business woman at that. All praise to our sisters!

So, the Caribbean triumphs in Beijing are more than just sporting victories. We shall look at them from another angle in the second part of this article next week.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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