In the 50 years since Jamaica gained its independence, the small nation has achieved an improbably high international profile, renowned for the spice of its food, the rhythms of its music and the unmatched joie-de-vie of its people.
But on Sunday, all eyes were on one sensational achievement as Jamaican Canadians packed social clubs and bars to watch their nation triumph in the men’s Olympic 100-metre dash.
At the Revivaltime Tabernacle Church in north Toronto, a thousand congregants took a break from a golden jubilee service to watch the race projected on a giant screen at the front of the room. The assembled jumped up and down, pumped their fists in the air and shouted throughout the race, their cheers swelling to a deafening roar as Usain Bolt and Yohan Blake charged across the finish line, scooping up the gold and silver medals. Mr. Bolt’s victory – in an Olympic record time of 9.63 seconds – came just a day after compatriot Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce won the women’s gold at the same distance.
The band struck up One Love, providing a soundtrack to the instant replays, as people danced with joy.
The nation’s troubles, of course, are as well known as its culture. It has a brutal history of slavery, struggles economically and has a homicide rate more than 30 times that of Canada.
To many Jamaicans, these problems have only made the island’s accomplishments more remarkable – including Mr. Bolt’s dazzling dash.
“It’s just an affirmation of the Jamaican spirit, of leadership, of strength, of not being stopped by hundreds of years of obstacles,” said Denise Jones, who is just old enough to remember celebrations on that first independence day in 1962. “Every country I go to, everyone is aware of Jamaica.”
Besides promoting the country abroad, expats like Ms. Jones play a vital role by sending money home to support schools, hospitals and other organizations vital to Jamaica’s development.
These connections run deep in Canada. Just a day before Mr. Bolt’s triumph, for instance, Jamaicans joined with their regional brethren for Toronto’s Caribben Carnival, one of the largest such events in the world, on the shores of Lake Ontario.
While an official crowd count has not yet been made, spokesman Stephen Weir said attendance seemed roughly on par with the 1.1 million at last year’s event. Trinidad and Tobago is also marking its 50th anniversary of independence later this month and, combined with Mr. Bolt’s appeal across the region, the weekend took on even greater significance this year.
“It’s a double whammy – there are just as many people cheering for Trinidad as Jamaica,” Mr. Weir said. “[Mr. Bolt’s popularity] crosses all borders in the Caribbean community – if you’re from St. Vincent, if you’re from Trinidad, you want him to win.”
The atmosphere was only heightened Saturday by Ms. Fraser-Pryce’s thrilling victory, which saw her win the sprint for the second consecutive Olympics.
Very much in evidence throughout the weekend – including at the church service – was the extent this pride has been passed down through the generations, as high-school kids stood with parents and grandparents to celebrate.
“We’re all unified, we all support our country. Everybody’s like family,” said Lemoy Whyte, 16. “Seeing Usain Bolt break his record – it makes you want to do more.”