If you ever doubt the global blanket of sports television, just know there’s something called ESPN Caribbean. There’s and ESPN Asia, Australia, Brazil, and ESPN-UK too. To my research there is no ESPN-Siberia yet. The ESPN Caribbean network airs in 32 countries, including one I visited recently. ESPN Caribbean SportsCenter in Jamaica features sports like America’s Cup yacht racing, grand slam tennis, a little golf, something called Netball (the “Jamaican Sunshine Girls” team is currently ranked third in the world), and a whole lot of soccer and cricket. There is most certainly MLB, NBA and NFL action, but not before you wade through scores and highlights of the Caribbean Premier League, the Caribbean Super 50, the Karbonn Smart League, the English Premier League, German Bundesliga, Spanish La Liga, Italian Serie A Soccer, and the uber-important International Cricket Council with its wickets, nurdles, and wicked googlies. If I could name a single famous cricketer, Jamaican or otherwise, I would do it here. I can’t, but I do know that Patrick Ewing was born in Kingston, Jamaica and excelled at that game along with soccer. Jamaican icon Bob Marley was supposed to be excellent on a football pitch.
Usain Bolt currently dominates the Jamaican sports scene, as much as a single athlete can; the fastest human in the history of the world will tend to capture the attention of the nation in which he was born. He is relatively absent in the media, as Jamaicans seem to love their sports and sporting action more than they worship their sportsmen and women. Bolt adorns a few roadside billboards, shilling for cell services and energy drinks, but other than that he’s not as ubiquitous as you’d think. Opposite of the U.S. where we tend to define the performance by the performer, and an athlete like LeBron James can shake the rust off the belt of a once-proud city like Cleveland with one moving van full of sneakers, tank tops, and elbow pads (c’mon Buckeyes, he didn’t cure cancer, he plays basketball). On a short bus trip from Montego Bay (the inspiration of The Beach Boys, Bobby Bloom and Jimmy Buffet) to Falmouth in Trelawny Parish (where James Bond jumped a speed boat onto a cop car) our tour group passed Bolt’s high school, what are the odds? Ben Johnson, incidentally is infamously from Falmouth also, must be something FAST in the water there. The fact of that coincidence was startling until you realize that there are only 2.7 million-some people on the island spread out over 4,244 square miles, a good two-thirds of it coastal and accessed from the main highway; not exactly like landing in Los Angeles and randomly driving by the White House.
The Jamaican Bobsled team famously competed in the 1988 Calgary Olympics Winter Games. Disney made a movie about them called Cool Runnings, and that name is plastered on everything from convenience stores to jet-ski rentals shops. Side note, renting jet-skis is against the law in Jamaica because tourists kept smashing into each other on them. As you’d imagine on a Caribbean island (where the ocean water temperature in August is a squishy 97 degrees by the way), water sports are plenty, the moratorium on wave-runners notwithstanding; scuba diving, windsurfing, sailing, waterskiing, snorkeling, parasailing and deep sea fishing.
Epilogue: The poverty in a Caribbean country like Jamaica registers when you internalize the fact that it can’t snow there. No population could survive a frigid climate in homes with so few amenities, like running water, a workable furnace and, often, walls and floors. I found myself and my family being escorted up the North Coastal Highway in a local taxi, from Negril to Mon-Bay. We were escorted by friends of a friend, real Rasta’s, dreads and all. The view was postcard tropical, blue-green ocean waves crashing on beach-heads and cliff sides. We stopped at a roadside shack, one of many, for something cold to cut into in the tropical heat. Our guides knew the place. They talked with the proprietor. Jamaicans speak English, until they don’t want you to understand them, then they speak something that isn’t English. Soon were sipping water from a raw coconut, and a mango concoction from a plastic cup.
I wander out of the broken-down bar, all particle board and corrugated tin. There along the roadway two kids are kicking a half flat soccer ball in a dirt driveway. Yeah, they like their sports in Jamaica. I lace up my shoes and join in.
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