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Bolt from the blue

By Raffique Shah

 Among the celebrities who have been invited to this year’s Carnival, one man stands head and shoulders above the lot, quite literally, I need add. I refer to Jamaica’s star sprinter, Usain Bolt, who flew into the country almost unannounced, courtesy one of his corporate sponsors.

From the moment he was spotted at Piarco last Wednesday night, Bolt generated excitement across the board—young and old, among every creed and race, to borrow a phrase from our anthem, as well as across colour and class lines. 

Matters not which American or Indian television or movie star is here, what royalty from England or billionaire from the Russia has sneaked in to engage in revelry, Bolt is the man. He is a one-man phenomenon of two that have been gifted to Jamaica in the last 100 years, the other being the legendary Bob Marley.

While Jamaica’s rich history in athletics, its many programmes that nurture talent from cradle to college, has produced a phalanx of great athletes, no country or system manufactures someone like Bolt. Like other prodigies in disciplines ranging from science and philosophy to sports and music, Bolt just happened, striking from the blue, in a manner of speaking.

I am not carrying on about Bolt because I am partial to athletics. My bias, and I do not hide it, is towards the Caribbean. I am among the dying breed of integrationists who, throughout our lives, have seen the Caribbean as one people with one destiny, a goal that has eluded us because of the myopia, the insularity, the selfishness of generations of politicians. So when I single out Bolt or Marley, Brian Lara or Frank Worrell, CLR James or Vidia Naipaul, I am rooting for the region as a whole, that mass of ‘black specks’ as Dr Eric Williams described us, only that I see the mass, not the specks.

And in the context of today’s Caribbean, with many island economies tethering on the brink of the IMF chasm, even Jamaica’s, I see in someone as young as Bolt the kindred spirit that, if harnessed, could rescue us all from economic and social implosion.

Bolt is exploring our Carnival for the first time, and within 24 four hours he was feteing on a boat, mixing with the masses, playing tassa, and, I’m sure, engaging in much more than the cameras captured.

His immense prowess as an athlete—he is the greatest sprinter ever—has not gone to his head a la Carl Lewis. To the contrary, he remains rooted among the masses, taps energy off adoring crowds anywhere in the world, and is the embodiment of the Olympic spirit, ancient and modern. And some clowning in and out of competition, being affable at all times, produces a personality that is exemplary, that we can ask young people of the Caribbean to emulate. 

I am not addressing only sports, but academics, skills, the work ethic among our people. He has a basic education that he has benefited from—witness the way he speaks. His rigid training routine that has kept him at the top of his game speaks of discipline and productivity, qualities that are hard to come by in this country.

Don’t we wish that our cricketers would work as hard, be as disciplined and productive, and deliver us from the purgatory of mediocrity that seems to be out lot today?

Other than being an exemplar for the young, what can Bolt do for us during his fleeting visit?

 He will be shepherded around by his sponsor, which means the Soca Monarch show will be high on the agenda (I am writing on Friday). I hope they take him to the greatest musical extravaganza of the Carnival, the Panorama finals, so he can truly appreciate and enjoy the unique sounds of steel. And he must see the children’s parade on Saturday, which is far superior to the main event on Tuesday.

Bolt is a fun guy, so I expect he will enjoy himself whatever he does while he is here. He also comes across as a brutally honest person: if he likes what he hears and sees, he will say so. If he doesn’t, he will say as much. For our sake, I hope he is impressed.

As the most recognisable face on the planet bar none, Bolt can influence huge numbers of people across the world. When, a few years ago, he attributed his prowess, and Jamaica’s, to daily consumption of ‘blue food’, hordes of people wanted to know what that was, this elixir of speed and strength.

His success, and that of his compatriots who all trained in Jamaica, has redefined that country as a hub for athletics training. Jamaica’s tourism sector, which remains robust even as other sectors of the economy falter, rides heavily on Bolt’s supremacy and Marley’s legacy.

So if Bolt tells the world Trinidad Carnival is it, that it’s the one street party no animal would want to miss out on, he would do for us what millions of advertising dollars have failed to do.

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