Like in most countries around the world, the Olympics are a chance for people to come together and celebrate their national pride through a (perceived?) moral lens of fair play, excellence, courage, and equality. In Jamaica, where athletic ability is a source of national pride, the Games offer a platform upon which positive attention is drawn to the country.

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This year’s Olympics brought considerable attention to Jamaica’s track team. Usain Bolt’s hero status reached truly epic proportions, and the drama and excitement surrounding his three races were the talk of the nation for the duration of the Games. The Cuso volunteers went down to Halfway Tree (a commercial hub in Kingston) to watch the men’s 100m final, and the excitement made your skin tingle, your heart pound, and your ears ache – the race might have lasted less than 10 seconds, but I am certain people made themselves hoarse from cheering! Bolt’s camaraderie with Andre De Grasse was of course a source of much enjoyment for fans, while American sprinter Justin Gatlin drew boos and teeth-kissing whenever he was mentioned.

It wasn’t just Bolt that captured people’s hearts and attention. ‘Pocket-Rocket’ Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce was a true inspiration as she competed in the women’s 100m, 200m and 4 x 100m with a fractured toe. shelly and elaineWhen Fraser-Pryce missed out on gold in her events (capturing a silver and bronze in spite of her obvious pain), up-and-comer Elaine Thompson sprinted ahead to keep the medals in the country, giving the nation a new champion to cheer for. And Alia Atkinson, the first black woman to win a world swimming title, may not have won a medal at these Olympics, but as a former YMCA swimmer she was the topic of many conversations and much well wishes at work. 

Nationalism and the Olympics are always interesting (and sometimes controversial) bedfellows, and Jamaica is a prime example of this tension. One one hand, people are very proud of the country’s athletic successes and claim any successful athlete with Jamaican heritage as their own, no matter what country they compete for. There was much fawning over Japan’s Aska Cambridge (whose father is Jamaican), and speculation any time anyone from another country succeeded (especially in track and field sports) that they must be at least part-Jamaican. In contrast, I heard some minor rumblings of annoyance for Yona Knight-Wisdom, a diver of Jamaican heritage who chose to compete for Jamaica in spite of never having lived or trained here. Some felt he had ‘used’ the country just so he could compete at the Olympics, having failed to qualify in his homeland of Great Britain.

There is a lot that can be said about the cultural spirit of Jamaica and how it impacts the diaspora. With more than half of all Jamaicans living outside the country, defining national identity is a very different exercise than in Canada, where multiculturalism and immigration are (ideally) an essential component of our cultural pride. It has been interesting to navigate these conversations within the lens of the Olympics (how many times have I been reminded that Donovan Bailey was born in Jamaica?!), but these tensions speak to much deeper questions about cultural identity and nationalism, both within Jamaica and around the world.

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