SI Vault
October 20, 2008
After winning Jamaica's first Olympic gold medals in the 100 meters, sprinters Shelly-Ann Fraser and Usain Bolt returned to a party that is still jumping—from the slums of Kingston to the country roads in Trelawny
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October 20, 2008

Bringing It All Back Home

After winning Jamaica's first Olympic gold medals in the 100 meters, sprinters Shelly-Ann Fraser and Usain Bolt returned to a party that is still jumping—from the slums of Kingston to the country roads in Trelawny

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The sprinter flew into Manley International hours ago, nerves rattled, desperate to sleep. But now she sees the welcoming crowd outside, and her braces shine in the Kingston night; now she's tunneling into the people, giggling in a black hoodie with a skull and crossbones and the words LOVE KILLS ablaze across her chest. Shelly-Ann Fraser climbs onto a plush convertible, perches atop the trunk like a parade queen as it roars away. A dump truck, loaded with faces from her old neighborhood, pulls up soon after, too late. SHELLY-ANN, says the banner strung across the rear, WATERHOUSE.

The homecoming has begun. They're filtering back, the heroes of Beijing, the biggest shock of the 2008 Olympic Games. Who saw Jamaica coming? Who saw that this nation of just 2.8 million, the island whose reggae legend, Bob Marley, sang famously, "Let's get together and feel all right," would get together with the rest of the world in China and kick its collective tail? Yet that's what happened night after night in the Bird's Nest: Jamaica won 11 sprinting medals, six of them gold, three alone on the wings of record-smashing supernova Usain Bolt.

No nation—not nearby Cuba, not even the mighty U.S.—came close to the island's per capita haul. China expended seven years of blood, sweat and cash to win the 2008 gold medal count, and it came away with a mere 51. If it had won at Jamaica's rate, China would have 2,785 Olympic champions to brag about.

Still, it's easy to think Jamaicans could have been happy with just two. As Fraser says, Jamaicans "eat and sleep" sprinting, and there's no sprint more glamorous than the 100 meters. In Beijing, Fraser and Bolt became the first Jamaican woman and man to win those Olympic titles. It's a bonus, of course, that between the 21-year-old champions—Fraser from inner-city Kingston in the east, Bolt from country-road Trelawny in the west—Jamaica gets a vivid embodiment of its grim trials and great talent. And it's a gift for the curious outsider that between Fraser's return home at one end of the week and Bolt's at the other, all the national pride, defensiveness, joy and paranoia attending their success will bubble to the surface and pop.

So we stumble out of customs with the rest of the tourists and see the hundreds of fans jamming around the convertible. We see Fraser, hardly fresh off a 20-day post-Olympic whirl through Switzerland, England and Germany, hardly awake after winning the IAAF/VTB Bank Athletics 100-meter final and $30,000 in Stuttgart the day before, so scared of flying that she had white-knuckled her way back without rest. We wander over. Someone mentions a party.

And off we go to Kingston's Waterhouse district, rolling slowly through the dark, around the man-sized potholes. "This true garrison," says Ralph the driver. We climb out in the Waterhouse neighborhood known as Moscow. It's past 9 p.m. A mural livens the wall at the end of Ashoka Road with the words AMAZING! and 10.78 SECONDS on top and Fraser's luminous face below. An eight-year-old boy lopes past, swigging a bottle of beer. Power lines droop to neck level. Bony dogs lap at the raw sewage along the road. Garrison is the Jamaican term for inner-city areas besieged by internecine violence and dominated by quasi-political, often criminal gang leaders known as dons. Factional warfare in Waterhouse has already claimed more than 30 lives in 2008; word is, the conflict among Moscow, Back Lane and Bush Mouth has accounted for about a dozen of them.

When Shelly-Ann won the 100-meter final in Beijing on Aug. 17, the killing in Waterhouse all but stopped. This is no surprise. In 2002 two-time Olympic silver medalist Juliet Cuthbert found herself facing a gunman in downtown Kingston. "After I realized I had no money to give, I thought, He's going to kill my ass," Cuthbert says. "I told him who I was. He put his gun away, gave me back my cellphone and said, 'I'm sorry. I didn't know it was you, and times are hard.' That's the respect an athlete gets in Jamaica." During the nine days in August during which Fraser and Bolt led Jamaica to unprecedented Olympic success, the crime rate dropped across the island.

No one is fool enough to predict that the calm in Waterhouse will last. "But at this moment," says Shelly-Ann's twentysomething uncle Omar Fraser, "it's peace, love and happiness."

More than a thousand people mill about Ashoka Road: Any minute now Shelly-Ann will come home for the first time since Beijing. A bank of 10-foot speakers squats in the center of the street. A makeshift bar sits in front of the Frasers' tenement. Dancehall tunes rattle and pound; a peanut vendor pedals by, his oven emitting an ear-splitting hiss. A woman with green and gold cords braided into her hair brushes past.

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