IT will take a little time for the euphoria of the past two weeks to wear off. The 50th anniversary celebrations created positive and patriotic feelings across the length and breadth of Jamaica; and the success of our athletes at the London Olympics has again reminded us that Jamaicans do not set limits on their aspirations.
Usain Bolt lived up to expectations, achieving the ‘double double’; cemented his historic status as the greatest sprinter of all time; and justified pre-Olympics billing as the brightest star in track and field and global sports. He has earned the legendary status to which he openly aspired while keeping his feet firmly planted on the ground.
Bolt’s triumphs (and this is being written before Saturday’s relays) have certainly put him in a position to exceed the US$20-million he reportedly earned in 2011, mainly through endorsements and sponsor bonuses from global brands like Gatorade, Hublot, Nissan Motors, Visa, and Puma, according to Forbes magazine. Bolt deserves it all, and more.
The double sprint champion stands in a unique class of one; but the achievements of Shelly- Ann Fraser-Pryce, Yohan Blake, Veronica Campbell Brown, Hansle Parchment, Warren Weir and all the other outstanding young men and women who represented us so well on the global stage must not be taken lightly. They, too, have given us renewed pride in being Jamaican.
And the list includes Asafa Powell, Melaine Walker, Brigitte Foster-Hylton and Germaine Gonzalez who, while not achieving their own expectations or those of a public that is often too demanding and too quick to condemn and discard, deserve the respect of a grateful nation.
The triumphs at the Olympics were a fitting climax to the official period of celebration of the 50th anniversary of Jamaica’s political Independence from British colonial rule.
After all the initial political wrangling, the celebrations showcased our rich cultural heritage and brought the nation together if only for a moment in time. Culture Minister Lisa Hanna and her team, along with their private sector sponsors, deserve credit.
Now comes the hard part; and it cannot be business as usual. All of us, leaders and followers, have to figure out how we can draw from the best of our past as well as the inspiration and the example of athletic triumph to set and achieve new globally competitive benchmarks.
In many areas of national life we have, as a country, underperformed for most of the first 50 years of our Independence and the much longer history of struggle to emancipate ourselves from the enduring shackles of colonialism.
As we did after the medal haul from Beijing in 2008 and earlier in 1998 after the football team qualified for the World Cup in France, we will engage in another debate about how best to honour the athletes; and the Government will make obligatory promises, sometimes to forget them soon afterwards.
Cash will likely be on the agenda. Should we follow the example of countries that give large cash incentives for gold medals?
The Italian Government is reportedly the most generous, paying US$182,400 to any Italian who wins a gold medal. Next is Russia, paying nearly US$135,000 and third is France paying US$65,200. In the host country, Olympic athletes receive zero, meaning British stars will get a pat on the back and hopefully more private endorsements.
In the US, gold medal winners get $25,000 from the US Olympic Committee and, in this election year, politicians are trying to curry public favour by jockeying up to support amendments to tax laws that would make the gifts tax-free.
Incidentally, the British press were raising eyebrows about the Italian generosity, considering that the country is struggling to cut spending to get its wobbling economy back on its feet.
Jamaica, similarly facing financial difficulties, may not be in a position to make big financial gifts as Dr Peter Phillips, the minister of finance, seeks to reduce public sector spending as part of a package of measures that have to be implemented before the Government can secure a new agreement with the International Monetary Fund.
After the Beijing Olympics in 2008, then Prime Minister Bruce Golding promised to set up a committee to think through how best to honour the achievement. Among other things, he said he would ask Portia Simpson Miller, then opposition leader, to name a representative to the committee.
I may have missed its work, but I don’t recall what happened to the committee. Nor do I know what happened to the initial announcements by Mr Golding that Government would immediately begin to improve some roads in inner city communities in Waterhouse, the community that is home to 100-metre gold medal winner Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and the Whitfield Town area which produced hurdler Melaine Walker.
At the time, I applauded the prime minister’s instinct to use Government resources to make a lasting contribution to improving the physical conditions in communities that have been neglected for far too long. It is still something worth doing.
What we should not be doing is declaring a public holiday. A suitable public ceremony when they all get back to Jamaica after the season will be most appropriate, but a holiday from work would miss the most significant reasons (besides talent) for their successes: leadership and guidance, hard work, discipline, having clear objectives and strategy and sticking to a painful training regime.
Melaine Walker summed up what is required and what she was missing in London: “Mentally, when I am ready I can do anything,” Walker said. “I was ready, but I’m not sure if I wanted it that much; I don’t know, I don’t know this feeling, I went out there and I ran, but I wasn’t feeling it, there wasn’t any fire.” She understands, and I am sure the fire will return.
The private sector must also do some things differently. We know that our television screens and newspapers will be filled with advertisements paying tributes to the great performers. That's OK. But it is not enough.
I will repeat part of my 2008 column after Beijing: “Every time there is a serious upsurge of violence in some of our communities there is Government talk about investment in social intervention programmes, and private sector leaders get a lot of media attention pledging to create jobs and economic opportunities. But as the guns fall silent, temporarily, the promises are forgotten.
“It is not enough to heap praise on the few who made it despite the odds. The reality is that most do not. The private sector must begin to take a broader and long-term commitment to inner-city development. And the political leadership cannot continue to evade its responsibility to provide better political management, governance and leadership befitting a country with such talent.” Has anything changed?
Today, more Jamaicans have access to basic services, public health and educational facilities than was the case at Independence in 1962.
Social exclusion based on race, class and language is far less rigid than it used to be. The press is freer and more people feel they have a right to hold their Government accountable.
But many things are on the downside, including a wobbly criminal justice system and an economy that has failed to deliver acceptable levels of economic growth over most of the period. Income per person today is the same as it was in 1973 and, over the past 40 years, economic growth has averaged only 0.8 per cent.
In this context, athletic achievements among the exceptionally talented mask our disappointment in those areas where we have underachieved. Their success is our success; it reminds us that we are capable of anything.
Equally, it reminds us that there are no easy options. So while we bask in their reflected glory, we Jamaicans at every level — individually and collectively — should use this time and this inspiration as examples to emulate. Now, it’s our turn.