Is Sports Intended to Unite Us?

August 25th, 2015

Watching the World Athletics Championships in Beijing over the weekend, I started philosophizing to myself about sports in general – and athletics, in particular, as it relates to Jamaica.

What is the point of sports, actually, in today’s world of doping and company endorsements and social media, with every sports personality tweeting about him/herself? What does sports do for us, the not-so-easy-to-please public? Here we are, lolling on our sofas and waiting to be entertained by other human beings who are straining every sinew to win a race on the other side of the world. They have trained and sweated and got up before dawn continuously for weeks and months beforehand to put on this performance; but for us all that matters is those ten seconds of thrilling action.

Don’t get me wrong. I love to watch certain sports (the tedious rituals of cricket and American football excepted). Jamaicans adore track and field (well, primarily track) because, well, we’re good at it. A well-known local broadcaster acknowledged recently that the Beijing competition was the only thing Jamaicans have to look forward to this summer. It was a sad admission, but probably true; this summer has been dire. Yes, athletics cheers us up, because we are expecting success – the medals that provide the “feel good” factor. We know this is something we do well. Well, actually, not us; rather, the few individuals that we expect to entertain us. When the sprint finals come along, anticipation grows and voices on social media rise in chorus.

The thing about athletics is that it focuses on the individual with a remarkable intensity. It’s a “one man/woman against the world” story that is very appealing. It is actually not about Jamaica, or the United States, or Kenya; it is about a lone struggle. This I love; I find it inspiring (less so if that person is later found to have been ingesting some banned substance).

Many Jamaicans, though, take it several steps further. Athletics is no longer about individual achievement; it is about glitz, and glamor, showbiz, pseudo-nationalistic fervor. The athletes themselves often play into it, especially if they become well-known. It’s fun to be a celebrity, and they have worked really hard for it. They can take this as far as they want to.

Happy Jamaican fans in Beijing photographed with the victorious Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce. (Twitter)

Happy Jamaican fans in Beijing photographed with Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce after her 100 meters win. (Twitter)

So, we bask in these individuals’ reflected glory, and wrap it all up in the flag. Other countries do the same thing; one Kenyan long-distance runner happily tied his country’s flag round his waist today, like a wrap-around skirt. It’s part of the show. 

Frequently a “them against us” mentality emerges. American sprinters are despised; they consider it their right to win the sprints, is the chorus – but we Jamaicans will show them who’s boss. Hey, it’s our right! Besides, “they are drug cheats” is the refrain (careful with that one, people). If any other country excelled at what we are so good at (say Hungary), we would all loathe the Hungarians. The “good vs. evil” narrative is quite strong. I find it unpleasant, unnecessary and unfair on the athletes that have striven so hard – every one of them.

The Union Jack flag is much bigger than Mo Farah, but his gold medal is one that will last a lifetime, whether we are applauding his patriotism or not.

This Union Jack flag looks much bigger than Mo Farah, but his gold medal is one that will last a lifetime, whether we are applauding his patriotism or not.

Our passion for sports (read: sprinting) is also firmly embedded in the “Brand Jamaica” concept. Why isn’t Jamaica tapping into our success in sports, music, food, and all the other cultural gems for which Jamaica is rightly famous? However, I would ask – is sports a part of a country’s culture? It’s universal, as the ideals of the Olympics imply. It is not “Jamaican” or “American” or “British,” is it? No. It’s just sports.

Which takes us back to the question: Is this passion for track events an opportunity to celebrate what Jamaica stands for, or is it simply a kind of hero worship? What do we want it to be – a bit of both?

Waving the flag is wonderful. Politicians (who one blogger contends are not worth a light compared to the likes of Mr. Bolt) love to cash in on the patriotic stuff. Our Prime Minister’s office is issuing a press release for every gold medal, and politicians will be delighted to share the limelight with athletes on their return to the island. Perhaps our leaders hope that some of the athletes’ glory might rub off on them, even enhance their chances in the upcoming general elections!

Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and Usain Bolt, all dressed up. It is their individual prowess that counts, not the flag-waving.

Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and Usain Bolt, all dressed up. It is their individual prowess that counts, not the flag-waving.

Usain Bolt is very much Jamaican – but then he is an individual human being, not a “Brand Jamaica” product. He is a great person; he has charisma and a kind of natural, unaffected charm and humor that is beguiling. Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce is equally appealing, with her unaffected laugh, her elaborate hairstyles and, by contrast, her sudden and serious focus. We adore them, don’t we? They are fascinating people. What drives them? Is it patriotism and love of country? Quite frankly, I doubt it.

Well, at the end of the day our sports people go back to their schedule of training, traveling, competing; and we go back to our mundane lives, until the next big event. The thrill is temporary. The euphoria – that shared “high” – quickly evaporates. After that, we can only look back nostalgically at those moments of heart-warming patriotism, when we saw our beloved athletes on the podium, smiling through their tears and singing the national anthem. We felt united then, proud of our countryman/woman’s victories, for a few minutes, hours or days. We want to relive it. 

“Jamaica, Land We Love.”  If the gold, silver and bronze medals make us feel good about ourselves, collectively – if that is all we have to look forward to – then we know the World Athletics Championships will only offer us a temporary respite. We know it. So will next year’s Olympic Games.

One thing I am sure of: This is no achievement for us, those who loll on the couch, living vicariously. It is their lasting, lifetime achievement – Usain, Shelly-Ann, Veronica, Yohan and all the other medal winners. It is our few days of escape, enjoyment…and, perhaps a glimmer of hope.

Is this Jamaica’s achievement, though? Does it unite us under the black, green and gold?

That, I believe, is an illusion.

Hold that flag high! the pose that every winning athlete must take. (Photo sponsored by LIME/Flow)

Hold that flag high! This is the pose that every winning athlete must take. (Photo sponsored by LIME/Flow)


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6 Responses to “Is Sports Intended to Unite Us?”

  1. Dennis Jones says:

    Jamaicans have the pleasure of seeing their compatriots excel on a grand stage and on a grand scale. Moreover, it’s gone on long enough with a cast of characters so that they can present to others something much wider than the individual stars (or team, when the Reggae Boyz qualified for the 1998 World Cup, we’re not blown away, and many of the team went on to play in big leagues worldwide). We and others can use that to make important general positive statements that counter the many negative images that already exist. The fact that the success reflects the hard work and dedication of individuals, who often come from humble beginnings, builds on that ability to make those statements. Look what hard work can get you! That we do this in arenas against opponents who often come from environments with more general support says much about resilience. That’s a general feel good situation that’s hard to knock down.

    World Champs and Olympics have given us so much free ads about what is good about Jamaica. Much of the world loves it, too, that this little country can stick it to bigger ones, like the U.S. We’ve done what Europeans haven’t managed–dominate the dominator. East Africans had it too, in athletics, but couldn’t or wouldn’t leverage it. We’ve been luck to have a literal larger than life hero in Usain Bolt, who’s almost born to the task.

    What we’ve started to do, too, is to show that we have something the rest of the world needs to think about as a way of doing things. Our coaches are in demand. Our athletes are also in demand, and some have taken the bait of changing nationality. Our ‘factory’ is well known. Chinese coaches are bring trained here. Look at how their tying athletes are faring in sprints and jump events.

    The PM has actually praised the medalists, not just the gold winners. Much kudos to O’dayne Richards for showing the pot is deeper than just sprinting.

  2. Dennis Jones says:

    …Oook at how their young athletes…

  3. EmmaLewis says:

    Well, you see, this is exactly what I have qualms about – “dominate the dominator.” I think sports can only contribute to nation-building to a limited extent, quite frankly. Positive statements are fine, and I love Mr. Bolt and Ms. Fraser-Pryce as much as anyone else – but I love them for their personal achievements and the great characters they are. False patriotism always makes me uncomfortable.

  4. Dennis Jones says:

    I think sport can do a lot for nation building, that bricks, mortar, and institutions cannot, because at many level it embodies whatever pride people have in themselves. At the national level, it becomes much more powerful. I think that’s what Cuba found, and worked on sports development as part of a social program.

    It also sweeps away much that ignorance and stereotyping has built. African nations have benefitted from that a lot in athletics, and even more is sports like football.

    I could add there’s some serious financial plus that comes from the successes and exposure.

    I’m not wedded to a phrase, but to the notion that is more in line with the thinking of ‘little but tallawah’.

  5. EmmaLewis says:

    Yes – sports can be a part of a fantastic youth empowerment program – although not every child is “sporty” (I always hated sport!) Another issue these days, of course, is doping. That is 21st century sports!

  6. […] Stars in our eyes: As predicted, we are all thrilled to bits by the performances of our athletes at the World Championships in Beijing this week. It is a complete, delirious distraction from the stresses of life. We get up early (or, in my case, struggle out of bed) to watch live action, which buoys us through the day. In a week or two, the memories will be fading rapidly. Meanwhile, we enjoy the moment. But is sports supposed to unite us? I asked this question in my Gleaner blog this week. The link is here: […]