Last Saturday night, Jamaica’s sprint king Usain Bolt bade an emotional farewell to fans at home after winning his final race in the JN Racers Grand Prix meet at the National Stadium in Kingston. Bolt will run his last race as a professional athlete at the World Championships in London in August.
He became an international sports icon the moment he lit up the track at the Bird’s Nest Stadium in Beijing during the 2008 Olympics, winning gold in the 100m, 200m and 4x100m relay. He would repeat that feat in the next two Olympic Games in London and Rio.
While Bolt was not the first Jamaican athlete to win Olympic gold, his achievements helped to raise the island’s profile in the sporting world, and ahead of his departure from competitive athletics, sports officials are looking to capitalize on sports tourism.
Last month, the island hosted the Jamaica International Invitational meet, which saw local and international track stars including Yohan Blake and Elaine Thompson, as well as USA’s Allyson Felix and Canada’s Andre De Grasse, among the competitors.
Minister of sports Olivia Babsy Grange told reporters she was proud of the achievements of local athletes which have enabled officials to host such sporting events.
“It is important that we open our doors and our arms to receiving other athletes from across the world, and also the fans, because that is the centre of brand Jamaica. We are determined to promote sports tourism; we’re determined to promote Brand Jamaica, and sport is at the centre of Brand Jamaica. We have the ten fastest men in the world and the ten fastest women in the world. You can’t ask for more,” Grange said.
“The world is in awe of Jamaica; such a small nation that has impacted tremendously on the world in track and field. And we do have our impact in other sporting disciplines, both those that are more intellectually promoted such as chess . . . and also our Paralympians and our special Olympians [are] always medalling. So it’s natural for us to be on the podium, and wherever you go Jamaica is always admired.”
Grange disclosed that as part of Jamaica’s 55th Independence anniversary celebrations this year, there are plans to expand and upgrade the Independence Park sports and cultural complex which houses the National Stadium. That project is expected to be completed within five years, and will include a sports museum.
Grange added that her ministry has commissioned statues of four outstanding athletes, which will be unveiled over the next two years. The first two, of Usain Bolt and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, are expected to be completed this year, while next year will see the unveiling of statues of Asafa Powell and Veronica Campbell-Brown.
There are also plans for the redevelopment of the Trelawny Stadium, which hosted the opening ceremony of the 2007 Cricket World Cup.
“We’re putting a running track, a baseball diamond, a basketball arena and a number of other facilities that will be at the centre of sports tourism and we’re gonna market our facilities to the world,” Grange said.
President of the Jamaica Athletics Administrative Association (JAAA), Dr Warren Blake also sees the benefits of promoting the island as a sports tourism destination, especially through events like last month’s invitational.
“Sport has really been a driver of tourism, because if you take some of the athletic events, quite a number of people in the Diaspora make it a point . . . to come home to Jamaica. So you come home, enjoy your holidays and you take in a sports event or two. Or you come for the sport event and stay and enjoy your holiday after that,” he said.
Blake admitted that Bolt’s departure may impact the local sport, but he believes the next generation of athletes will continue to fly the Jamaican flag high.
“It might affect the sport industry a bit, but we have quite a number of young talents coming up . . . . We have quite a good crop of youngsters coming up who’ll be ready to replace Mr Bolt when he retires,” Blake said.