By Dr. Hume Johnson
Usain Bolt is now most surely the greatest athlete who ever lived. Named among sporting greats such as Mohammed Ali, Michael Jordan and Pele, the Guardian newspaper calls him ‘a colossally potent figure in sport’s modern history’. For the rest of the world, Usain Bolt is an icon, simply a legend. Though world has claimed him, Jamaicans will always be proudest to say he is Jamaican.
As a scholar of nation branding, Usain Bolt’s “Jamaicanness” – from his daring to achieve the greatest and grandest goal he had set for himself, hard work, discipline and focus to his dance moves and braggadocio on the track to as well as his charisma is important because it reveals to the world an insight into the superlative power and potential of “Brand Jamaica”. Jamaica is changing, achieving new levels of recognition internationally, thanks to Usain Bolt. How can Jamaica capitalize on its growing national image and international fame and glory brought about by Bolt to establish its competitive identity in the world, and communicate a good, believable, coherent and positive image of itself to the outside world? How can Jamaica properly honor and truly celebrate the magnitude of the achievement of its latest global superstar, it’s national hero? I immediately have some ready answers, options which I believe are open to the Jamaican authorities:
- Make Usain Bolt a National Hero: Without question, Bolt already is a national hero but Jamaica must move to formally declare Usain Bolt a National Hero. Jamaica has 7 named National Heroes so far – Marcus Garvey, Sam Sharpe, Paul Bogle, Norman Washington Manley, Sir Alexander Bustamante, George William Gordon, and Nanny of the Maroons. These Jamaicans collectively fought to secure our freedom from 400 years of British slavery, assisted in the early decolonization movement and were architects of modern Jamaica, creating the nation we have today. Their contribution to Jamaica from the 17th century up to 1962 when Jamaica’s achieved its independence from Great Britain is unquestionable. So what of the heroes of modern Jamaican from 1962 onwards – those who propelled us onto the world stage, and sustained our competitive identity in the creative cultural industries and in sport, whose body of work keep the nation relevant in the global arena. Usain Bolt is undoubtedly one of these heroes of the modern era. Yet, Jamaica was internationally famous before Bolt came along. Indeed, he stands on the backs of others equally deserving of National Hero Status such as Bob Marley, Michael Manley and Louise Bennett. Jamaican authorities must provide the nation with historical continuity by immortalising contemporary achievers of greatness. It must give young people modern heroes to learn from, and model. To recognize him as a National Hero is not about his winning a few gold medals at the Olympics but for what it represents. We must understand that formal slavery is over, so outside Bob Marley who fought against mental slavery (and who deserves to be equally rendered a National Hero), there shall be no more heroes of that sort. Our modern heroes are and will be of a different ilk. They will make immense contributions that are other than fighting slavery. Our current National Heroes fought for our freedom so that we can now go out and transform our society and the world. Freedom now means to impact your society, and the world. Modern heroes such as Usain Bolt (as well as Bob Marley) have transformed the Jamaican society, compelling a new national self-confidence, nudging us to see ourselves differently, greater. Because of Bolt, we stand even taller, stand more confident in the world. Usain Bolt has transformed Jamaica’s outlook, his industry and has left an indelible and enduring mark on the world. What he has achieved for himself has become a superlative Jamaican asset. He has become among those we hold up as a marker of our greatness as a country. We cannot now limit our definition of what a hero is, and reduce Bolt’s contribution to Jamaica to simply winning a few races and Olympic medals. His contribution is more. It comes from what he represents in symbolic global culture. His heroism comes what he represents, and the enduring nature of his impact on Jamaica and the world.
2. Depict Usain Bolt on Jamaican Currency: Usain Bolt is deserving of recognition on the Jamaican currency to reflect the athlete’s great impact on his nation and the world. A weak Jamaican currency notwithstanding, appearing on a bank note of your country is one of the most distinguished recognition any citizen can get. I am unclear as to the Bank of Jamaica policy on who gets to be depicted on Jamaican currency. This honor should be reserved for any Jamaican who actually makes a uber distinguished and marked contribution to Jamaican development. US civil rights leader, Harriet Tubman recently broke the paper ceiling as the first African American to be depicted on a US currency. This comes after a popularity poll and much lobbying of the US Treasury Department. South African hero Nelson Mandela – who led South Africa out of a vicious apartheid rule, was also honored with his depiction on the South African currency, the Rand. The new 10, 20, 50, 100 and 200 rand notes, featuring the smiling face of Nelson Mandela, went into circulation in 2012. Currently, some of our national heroes are honored on a Jamaican bank note, others on coins. Sam Sharpe’s image graces the $50, Nanny of the Maroons is on the $500 note, and though not yet a National Michael Manley is on the $1000 note. A new bank note depicting Usain Bolt is an appropriate honor for the athlete.
3. Rename National Stadium in his honor: This is place he began his sprinting career during the National Boy’s Athletics Championships, and from which he catapulted into the world’s fastest man. The stadium should carry the name of Usain Bolt and also recognise in other creative ways, the many legends of Jamaican athletics who have graced its – from Arthur Wint, Herb McKenney and Merlene Ottey to Veronica Campbell-Brown.
4. Erect a Statue of Usain Bolt: As we seek to restore Jamaican monuments and unveil new ones that tell the story of the Jamaican people, about our history, our struggles and our achievements, a statue of Usain Bolt is in order. I understand a statue is in the works to be erected in the parish of his birth, Trelawny. On a recent trip to South Africa earlier this year, I went to visit the 9m bronze statue of Nelson Mandela (weight 3.5 tonnes) which looms over Union Buildings (the political offices of the South African President) in Pretoria. It is a tourist attraction. A statue of Usain Bolt (of this same size and magnitude) would be a constant reminder for Jamaica to always strive to maintain the Jamaican values which made Usain Bolt a success – perseverance, discipline, courage and hard work. His statue will remind Jamaicans of his superb commitment to country and his contribution to world athletics and Jamaica’s global image.
5. Celebrate “Usain Bolt Week” – from August 21- 30: Usain Bolt can also be celebrated through a “Usain Bolt Week” which would stretch from the athlete’s birthday on August 21 to August 27 each year. This would be an occasion for Jamaican authorities such as the Government through its embassies and consulates, Diaspora organizations, schools and colleges to celebrate Jamaica’s sporting brand, unveil programs to promote fitness and wellness, and athleticism where athletes develop their sprinting technique using the signature “Boltian Sprint Technique”. This week of activities should also aim to address issues of sport and social transformation and building a viable sports economy.
6. Establish a National Sports Museum (with special Usain Bolt Exhibit): Finally, Jamaica’s unique contribution to international athletics should be articulated in a National Sports Museum, with a special Usain Bolt exhibit. This exhibit should include a robust catalogue of digital and physical artefacts honoring the life and work of the legendary sprinter – world and Olympic events, training, interviews with the athlete, his Jamaican teammates, his rivals, coaches, family, endorsers etc. The exhibit should include official documents ( tweets, emails, handwritten notes); personal belongings (such as gear Bolt would’ve used during each Olympics, etc,) photos and other articles that trace his journey from schoolboy to legend).
Finally, I’ll say this: The balance of power in world athletics has well and truly shifted, in Jamaica’s favour, and we have Usain Bolt to thank for that. Since he bolted to victory in the 100m and 200m for three consecutive Olympics, Usain Bolt (helped along by historical contributions from his compatriots such as Veronica Campbell-Brown, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, Merlene Ottey and others) has become the marker of Jamaica’s sporting success. Track and field has become a core pillar of Jamaica’s national and international identity – how the nation sees and talks about itself, how the nation positions itself in the world; how it expects other people to see and talk about the nation. Usain Bolt is a symbol of Jamaica’s soft power, and its enduring relevance in global sport, and the indelible mark he has left on the world. Usain Bolt therefore deserves to be recognized in a way which is equivalent to his stupendous contribution to the nation, and the world.
Dr. Hume Johnson is a brand consultant, and a Professor of Public Relations at Roger Williams University, Rhode Island, United States. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org