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Usain Bolt

Usain Bolt is Jamaica’s superhero. Here’s why

Legendary track star is given a hero’s send-off in his final race at home 

I’m a born Jamaican

I’m a son of the soil

I love the sea I love the sun Lord I love this land

No matter where I go

Jamaica is my home

I love the girls, coconut water and white rum

“Born Jamaican,” by Stanley and the Astronauts (1979)

The Stanley and the Astronauts jingle “Born Jamaican” that earned acclaim as the country’s National Festival Song for 1979 perfectly encapsulates the love affair that Usain Bolt and Jamaica have with each other.

In a career that has spanned more than a dozen years, Bolt has racked up a slew of Olympic medals, netting his worth at more than $60 million, estimated to be the 32nd highest-earning athlete on the planet, according to Forbes. But the tall, lanky track and field star who first burst onto the scene at the 2002 World Junior Championships as a 15-year-old never changed — not his accent, not his unabashed braggadocio and certainly not his charm. He remained unapologetically Jamaican: biting his bottom lip, beating his chest and flashing his signature “to di world” pose, competitors’ feelings be damned.

“His greatest thing is his personality,” said Nodley Wright, a sportswriter for The Gleaner newspaper who has followed and covered Bolt’s career.

“He’s always carried himself as larger than life, and as Jamaicans, particularly in track and field, we have an impact on the sport that is bigger than our size. Certainly, we have had Jamaicans who’ve gone far in sport, but Bolt has had the personality, durability and has consistently done it with dominance. He always rises when the stage is big. He lives for that. That’s what truly makes him one of a kind.”

The perfect Jamaican ambassador

And, for that, Usain St. Leo Bolt — who hails from rural Trelawny, a parish in Cornwall County in northwest Jamaica — has been the perfect ambassador. When he boldly predicted that he would be a legend after his career was done, he drew scorn from many — but not Jamaicans. When he over-flashed his “to di world” pose before a race, without regard for his opponents’ feelings or track and field decorum, Yardies everywhere flashed lighters in the air and said, “Yeah, mon. A fi we yout’, dat!”

“For me, I live to make my country proud,” Bolt told The Undefeated at his farewell news conference two days before his final race in his homeland, flanked by a who’s who of track and field stars, including Americans Allyson Felix, Christian Taylor and South African sprinter Wayde van Niekerk. “When I was growing up, my role models were [five-time Jamaican Olympian] Don Quarrie and [legendary Jamaican sprinter] Herb McKenley. I watched those guys dominate and work hard to make their country proud. I just wanted to be like them.”

Perhaps it was only fitting then that Bolt’s final race in Jamaica, leading up to his final performance at the World Championships in London, was billed as a “Tribute to a Legend.” In the week leading up to the race, the country’s two main newspapers, The Gleaner and The Observer, dedicated full-page ads to Bolt, while callers on local radio expressed their love and adoration for the island’s favorite son.

The country’s sports minister, Olivia Grange, was among the revelers. “Next biggest star after Bob Marley? Yes. Anywhere you go around the world and you say ‘Jamaica,’ they say ‘Bob’ and ‘Bolt.’ It’s just wonderful, as we would say in Jamaica, ‘link up’ and connection that Jamaica, which is such a small country, has such an awesome presence through its music and track and field.”

Jamaica’s National Stadium was nearly full to see Bolt, and Bolt only. When he made his entrance at 8:15 p.m. — riding alongside the track in a black Range Rover, waving and saluting fans through the opened sunroof — the whole massive showed him love. Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” and R. Kelly’s “The World’s Greatest” provided a fitting melodic backdrop.

When highlights of his past performances played on the big screen between events, the crowd watched and cheered — as if they didn’t already know the outcome.

“Nobody can touch this man,” said Theodore “Tappa” Whitmore, the manager of Jamaica’s senior Reggae Boyz national soccer team and star striker for the team that qualified for the 1998 World Cup. “None.”

There is a mutual understanding between Jamaica and Bolt. They love him, yes — but this island of 2.8 million people has been spoiled by his consistent dominance. They’ve also come down hard on the speedster, a notorious jokester who — early in his career, and perhaps still so — didn’t care much for training.

“When it comes to Jamaica, I got a lot of love … I got a lot of banter also from the country itself,” Bolt said, referring to the expectations he knows the island has had of him over his career. “But it has always allowed me to work hard and to be like the great Bob Marley himself, just trying to make my country proud and put my country on the map.”

When the great Jesse Owens competed in the 1936 Olympics, capturing four gold medals, he shouldered the burden of winning not only for black Americans but for oppressed people around the world, in the face of Nazi Germany. When Joe Louis fought in the 1930s and ’40s, African-Americans huddled around radios shadowboxing with their hero round by round.

Bolt embodies all of that, particularly for Jamaica.

“I think I’m a legend,” he said when asked if he believes “the legend of Bolt” is real or more billboard material. “I’ve worked hard; I’ve done everything I possibly can do to prove myself as one of the greatest ever, so … yeah.”

Make no mistake: Nobody in Jamaica wants Usain Bolt to retire — not now, anyway. His longtime trainer, Glen Mills, is among them. “I have to admit, there is some sadness … unless he changes his mind. I’ve seen it all, and for all of Jamaica you’ve brought us great joy.”

Athlete retirements typically come when there’s nothing left in the tank, or when Father Time has called. But Bolt, who turns 31 in August, can still compete at the highest level.

“There might not be another Usain Bolt, but there will be another athlete, who, in his own right, will create history and in the world,” Grange continued.

The final race and after-party

When Bolt finally made it to the National Stadium track for his 100-meter race — long after Felix, van Niekerk and fellow Jamaican speeder Yohan Blake had won their respective events — it was shortly after 10 p.m. Camera phones were poised mostly for video, not pictures. Everyone stood. Police officers in corridors eased up on fans standing in their seats, even themselves getting a look.

His intro seemingly took 10 minutes, and Bolt soaked it all in, posturing like a prizefighter and flashing his signature pose and pointing to the heavens. His race looked like all his other races — his start has never been pretty, but, oh, what a finish. Fireworks erupted immediately after he crossed the finish line, and Bolt just kept running, waving to the crowd and taking a few bows, as a horde of media and security flocked alongside him. Nugent Walker, his longtime friend and manager dressed in all red with shades on, hovered close by.

With the main event over — and with an expected conclusion — everyone stayed in their seats. For Bolt, the show is never over. Dancehall big shot Beenie Man, dancer-turned-DJ Ding Dong and songstress and entertainer Tifa would be taking the field to put an exclamation point on a night for the ages.

As expected, Bolt made himself part of the show, grabbing the mic from Ding Dong and singing along to the artist’s 2010 hit, “Holiday,” dancing in the middle of a growing crowd.

“Me neva know Marcus Garvey,” Ding Dong said to the crowd, speaking of one of the country’s national heroes. “You, Usain St. Leo Bolt, are our national hero.”

When the clock hit 11 p.m., a portion of the stadium lights were turned off, presumably signaling the end of the show. But a sweat-drenched Bolt wasn’t having it, grabbing the mic and looking toward the top bleachers.

“Who lock off the light? Me will pay fi di lights … party nuh done.”

Mark W. Wright is a Charlotte-based sports journalist and documentarian.