Call me "licky licky." A few years ago, 26 to be precise, I thought I'd leave Jamaica and move to New York to write. Now I have a U.S. passport, two American publishers, and a writing residency at a small New England college where one of my favorite writers — a Mr. Nabokov — used to teach. I owe this country a lot. Some would say everything. But with the Olympics, there's a good chance that my loyalties will change.
So call me licky licky — "flaky" in Jamaican English. But it's hard not to get caught up in the island's Olympic dreams. In Beijing, Jamaica has dominated the men's and women's sprints.
Perhaps the most exciting figure in track and field these days is Jamaican speedster Usain Bolt, who turned 22 just last week. At 6-feet-5-inches tall, he's as naturally proportioned for his sport as a jockey with a 60-inch waist. But this didn't stop him from setting world and Olympic records in both the 100- and 200-meter races. In the 100 he broke the record even though he began letting up and celebrating far from the finish.
And the Jamaican women swept all the medals in the 100 meters.
Jamaica's success in track and field is a secret hidden in plain view. Since making its debut in 1948 at the London Games, Jamaica, a nation of 2.75-million people, has won dozens of Olympic medals.
Jamaica's love of speed seems at odds with its hard-nosed commitment to nonchalance. On this island, nothing is done in a hurry. The most urgent request is often met with, "Soon come." On first hearing, one might think this phrase means, "In a minute." On third and fourth hearing (which might come after an hour of waiting), the meaning becomes quite clear — "When time permits" — which may in fact be never.
But being at odds is not at odds with how Jamaicans see their country or themselves. They understand their country to be a contrary place. It is after all one of the most violent places in the world, with more than 900 murders since the beginning of this year. At the same time, the island is one of the world's most popular holiday destinations. It's a paradise that many of its citizens would like to escape.
In fact, repatriation to Africa is one of the central tenets of the Rastafarian religion, which began in the slums of West Kingston in the 1930s and was spread around the world through reggae music. Migration is one of the central themes of Jamaican existence. To be Jamaican means to move — to Panama and other Central American countries in the 1920s, to Cuba in the 1930s, to New York in the 1940s, to London and other parts of England in the 1950s, to New Canada in the 1960s, to New York and Miami and Hartford, Conn., from the 1970s until now.
What does all this have to do with running fast? The Jamaican love of sprinting, something you see when a hundred 12-year-olds take off across a dusty field after school, a phenomenon as spectacular as seeing a herd of antelope fleeing across a plain, is rooted in the notion of flight, in the notion of defiance and aspiration expressed in the grammar of the body.
In sprinting, Jamaicans recognize the cadence of a lost body language. It is a language that shapes the way they move in the same way that the language of the Yoruba people of Nigeria and the Akan people of Ghana, from whom millions of the islanders are descended, have indelibly shaped the way they speak. Sprinting is the physical argot of the runaway slave. For a slave, escape was an act of defiance, a loosely punctuated treatise, with commas and no full stops, on the topic of being free.
Every culture has its founding myths or narratives, its idealized self reduced to a few names and moments. We know what they are in America — Paul Revere riding through the night, Washington crossing the Delaware, etc. In Jamaica, the most deeply rooted narrative is that of the Maroons, the runaway slaves who formed resistance groups in the mountains and fought the British from 1655 to 1796, and finally forced the invaders to sign a treaty that allowed the rebels to remain an autonomous people.
Young Jamaicans become athletes because they want to escape. They know that if they run fast they can literally run away: on scholarship to an American university where they can get something more valuable than an Olympic medal — a degree, a profession.
Top sprinters now study and train at the University of Technology (UTECH) in Kingston, which, despite its fancy-sounding name, has a grass track and an un-air-conditioned weight room. It's like the early days of reggae, when Bob Marley launched his career. Low tech, high ideals. Local talent. Global conquest.
There is something beautiful and redemptive in this. Something that suggests there is the possibility that Jamaica is able to compete on many levels, in many arenas — commerce, technology, agriculture — if it finds a way to harness the spirit of its sprinters and sell it.
Jamaica is a country in crisis. In addition to its high murder rate, it has one of the world's highest rates of international debt. But Jamaica is a place where people have always managed to survive. The Jamaican people have perfected the art of making simple survival feel more like a celebration. They dance and make love and drink rum and plan for their children's futures even as loved ones get murdered or succumb to disease. Defiance is a way of life.
I remember seeing videotapes of Bolt winning races at the national high school athletic championships in Kingston when he was 15. Like the nation that believes in him, Bolt runs as if he's at odds with himself. Coming off the bend in the 200, he has a little hunch and a little tug, a slight heave with every other stride. It makes him look like he's throwing an uppercut with that strong right arm, like he's fighting time. Nothing's going to hold him back.
He runs the way we all want to live our lives, like he's free, like he can put distance between himself and anything he doesn't want near him, like he can reach anywhere he wants to go.
In a country like Jamaica where economic realities can lead to despair, the myth of Bolt has special value. And can one think of a better name for an Olympic hero than Bolt?
Novelist Colin Channer was born in Kingston, Jamaica. His most recent work of fiction is The Girl With the Golden Shoes, a novella.