Rewarding gold with gold
Reporting from London, Jamaica, St Kitts and Trinidad.
No-one can deny the impact the Caribbean had on world athletics at the London 2012 Olympics:
- Jamaica’s sprint side, led by Usain Bolt, earned the words “legend” and “iconic” across the world.
- Trinidad and Tobago managed a new gold event in the javelin.
- The Bahamian 4x400m relay side finally brought an end to US dominance.
- And even one of the region’s smaller territories – Grenada – ended up as the nation with the most medals per head of population in the world.
Yet as the athletes continued to notch up wins at post-Olympic athletic meets, they posed a deepening dilemma for cash-strapped Caribbean nations: how to reward such sporting excellence.
Concerns were most acute in Jamaica, the Caribbean nation with the most medals after Cuba and 18th in the overall Olympic tally.
It saw its athletes arrive home at about the same time as the IMF came to call, in the midst of a furious national economic debate.
But with large commercial backers turning the likes of Usain Bolt into millionaires, there was less pressure on the government in Kingston to dish out its own largesse.
As a result, Jamaica could afford to take its time as its athletes were feted around the world.
It waited until late September before announcing that it would award each Olympic non-medalling team member JA$250,000 (US$2,728), with gold medallists taking JA$1m (US109,000), silver medallists $675,000 (US$7,366) and bronze medallists $500,000 (US$5,456).
Many Jamaicans applauded the National Heroes Day ceremony as a proper reward for effort. But as the world media reported, many of the athletes then donated some of their own money to local causes.
The 100m women’s gold medallist, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, donated her state reward to her alma mater and to her church.
Usain Bolt presented a bus to a local school and Yohan Blake endorsed a project to encourage Jamaican schoolchildren to play.
During the Olympics, Jamaica received a timely present for its 50th Independence anniversary on 6 August, as its athletes took the gold and silver in the men’s 100m finals on the eve of its birthday celebrations.
At the other end of the Caribbean island chain, Trinidad and Tobago also received its anniversary gift, as gold medallist Keshorn Walcott arrived home in time for that country’s 50th anniversary on 31 August.
The region’s richest nation wasted no time awarding Walcott with a million TT dollars (US156,000) in cash, a TT$2.5m ($US390,000) house in Trinidad’s upscale area of Federation Park, a plot of land in his native area of Toco and, to the amusement of the international media, a lighthouse in Toco named after him.
Sports Minister Anil Robert announced in November that Trinidad and Tobago’s medal-winning athletes would receive TT$300,000 (US$47,000) at the end of December.
Popular Trinidadian swimmer George Bovell was also down to receive a reward at the 28 December ceremony for making it to the finals of the men’s 50m freestyle at the Olympics.
The scale of the rewards caused some debate, even in the oil and natural gas-rich republic.
For tiny Grenada, without the population size of Jamaica or the oil and natural gas wealth of Trinidad, leaders took a strategic approach in applauding what has since become known as the Kirani spirit.
Kirani James, who grabbed the headlines for not doing a tour of honour, but instead swapping his bib number with Oscar Pistorius after the two placed first and last respectively in the 400m semi-finals, was the obvious choice of poster boy for the country’s autumn-to-winter tourism promotion.
An entire tourism marketing campaign has been built around the 20-year-old, who was the first person to win gold for Grenada.
His quiet, unassuming behaviour at London 2012 became the centrepiece of the island’s promotion of the entire country, in what tourism officials went on to describe as typical of the “gracious and humble spirit of the Grenadian people”.
Its campaign, named Celebration of Kirani, Celebration of Grenada, includes Kirani as sports and tourism ambassador with a diplomatic passport, while his birthday has been made an official day. The slogan for the campaign: “Grenada – gracious everyday”.
With 105,000 residents, Grenada’s gold medal gave it the title of most medals per head of population, an accolade that has usually gone to the Bahamas in the past few summer Olympics.
On a personal level, Kirani James received half a million EC dollars ($US185,000) in bonds, as well as rewards and gifts from the island’s private sector.
Grenada’s Tourism Minister, George Vincent, said his country was expecting to reap rewards by contracting James as a sports and tourism ambassador.
“We are expecting benefits in the not-too-distant future in the coming season here and two, three years down the road,” Dr Vincent told Caribbean Intelligence©.
“It has not brought immediate benefits, but we are doing the PR and are converting that to sales packages for visitors to come here as we speak.”
Grenada has contracted a PR firm to promote the country on the basis of the “Kirani spirit”.
“He [Kirani] has agreed to accept the responsibility to promote Grenada and we have been getting some social media clout on him. If you go on www.grenada.grenadines you will see the tag lines and other matters we are working on,” Dr Vincent said.
“You must remember that he is only 20 years old and so we expect big things from him with his humility.
“He is just humble and gracious, like every Grenadian is, and so we are asking people to come visit and experience our graciousness.
“It is also a morale booster that a local boy can win on the world stage.”
As part of this “long-term investment” in Kirani James, a Chinese-funded stadium is to be named after him.
Meanwhile, he is currently back in college, as are many of the athletes from the wider region.
Although perhaps overshadowed by Grenada at these games, the Bahamas secured a highly significant win in the men’s 4x400 metres relay.
They not only established a national record in the process, but showed the back of their spikes to the former perennial winners, the United States.
It was a fitting finale to the Bahamas 2012 campaign that, up to that point, seemed set for a depressing conclusion.
The commercial sector was quick to reward the relay team, known as the Golden Knights.
Caribbean sports lovers were heartened to see their seasoned 400m campaigner Chris Brown being garlanded on the final night of the competition.
The Bahamas, too, debated how to reward the young people who had made their country proud.
As the commercial endorsements came in, the state announced awards of money and crown land for the gold medallists.
While the tourism officials and private companies reap the benefits of their sponsorship, the athletes have returned to their pre-Olympic lives – some on campus, others doing the sponsorship and talk show circuits.
Usain Bolt is still to be spotted in the coolest nightclubs in Europe, Yohan Blake with Manchester United, and, yes, Usain Bolt again on American TV and in Australia.
The world’s fastest man also picked up the 1 December World Athlete of the Year award from the IAAF, not to mention the French sports newspaper L’Equipe’s annual reward and the BBC’s Overseas Sports Personality of the Year awards in mid-December.
Usain still made time to tweet “Thank you” to the organisations and supporters who had turned him into 2012’s golden boy.
For some, however, as the bunting is put away, the pre-Olympic 2012 questions are being asked once again.
Jamaica’s women track stars continue to call for equal financial recognition, many are urging a joined-up wider Caribbean approach to training and others question what Jamaica can do in the future to capitalise on its 2012 sporting legacy.
Jamaican sporting experts and politicians are debating the options facing the country.
The main choices at present include diversifying into other track and field areas or building on existing strengths in a centre of excellence to attract wannabee Bolts and Blakes for a touch of Jamaican training.
Jamaica’s new national sporting policy is scheduled for delivery at year-end.
Other Caribbean nations are planning investments in new sporting infrastructure to build on the gains won in London.
But despite the glory of London 2012, the prospect of a joint Caribbean strategy to cash in on all that Olympic gold looks as distant as ever.