Double Olympic 100 and 200 meters champion, Elaine Thompson-Herah, was a guest on former 100 meters world record holder Asafa Powell’s YouTube channel recently, and the discussion got both of the track legends in trouble. To make a long story short, they discussed in frank terms some of the challenges of being a celebrity in Jamaica. Clips of the interview made the rounds on Jamaican social media, because of the perceived lack of humility displayed. The sticking point was Elaine and Asafa’s (truthful) claim that they aren’t “regular people” and didn’t want to be put in that category. You can imagine the firestorm!
While the politics of celebrity interest me, this all made me think about elite 100 meters sprinting and how ruthlessly it strips away any fakery. Frauds and shirkers cannot excel. There are no teammates to pick up the slack. There is no time to shake off an early misstep. You can’t dance around the ring to avoid your opponent and tire her out. There is nowhere to hide. You have to get down in those blocks and across the finish line alone. Every iota of the false comfort from the hype machine falls away when the starter tells you to get on your marks. It’s a psychological bear trap. Usain Bolt is such a happy-go-lucky, chill guy that his smile and showmanship tricked us into forgetting that you have to be a stone killer with ice water in your veins to dominate the 100 meters. Elaine is a killer too. Talent and hard work aren’t enough to beat someone like that. There is a world of difference between running fast and sprinting fast in front of the world in a high-pressure race. The point of separation is mental. Asafa struggled somewhat in this department and often didn’t give his best performances on the biggest stages. Even so, he held the world record and has run sub-ten seconds more times than anyone else in history. These are not small accomplishments. In fact, they are almost superhuman. I didn’t understand why these two extreme outliers telling the truth about not being “regular people” was so incensing. Then I thought about it. Sports fandom is in large part about cloaking yourself in other people’s accomplishments and claiming them for yourself by association. Demanding “humility” from star athletes greases the wheel that keeps this machine humming. When fans’ entitlement is challenged about this, it sparks an aggressive defense.
“Be humble” has always bothered me when it’s directed at elite athletes. We normals can’t grasp the level of belief in self it takes to accomplish what they do. They have to believe they’re better than everyone else to be better than everyone else. Even the slightest sliver of doubt can derail them. Deep down, I think most of the complaining fans understand this, and it showed in the way they “psychologized” Asafa at every turn. Even so, the need to have the superstar athlete play along with being “just like us” remains. When they withhold the fantasy, the backlash from the fans can be brutal. I love Elaine Thompson-Herah and am inclined to defend her, because we’re from the same neck of the woods in Jamaica and attended the same high school. I don’t think the scale of her achievements are appreciated. No woman in history has ever won the 100 and 200 meters double at back-to-back Olympics. Think of all the great sprinters of past eras. It’s an astonishing feat, especially when you consider that after a long struggle with injury, she was largely written off. Elaine was treated pretty shabbily by Jamaican track fans during that time, and it’s understandable for her to be less inclined to play the likability game than others. By the same token, Asafa never had a big Olympic or World Championships moment in an individual race, and he was raked over the coals for it by Jamaican fans. There is understandable resentment there as well.
The foundation of Elaine and Asafa’s achievements isn't flashy or sexy: it’s dull, plodding consistency. It’s knowing that you can do it, because you’ve done it before or gotten very close consistently, in training and, most importantly, under pressure in competition. That consistency, when combined with a rare talent and nerves of steel, creates a floor that’s a ceiling for other elite athletes. Pull Elaine's semi-finals for the 100m in Tokyo and look at the ease with which she ran 10.76 seconds - a high ceiling for everyone but a handful of other athletes. For all the complaints from hard-to-please Jamaican fans about Asafa’s “poor” performances, his floor was global finals, and he wasn’t running last, unless he was injured. He was also consistent – hence all those sub-10-second runs. Fake humility may help some people in the process of getting to the top of the pile, but others, particularly those who have struggled, may need to nurse grudges and cultivate some arrogance (see, Michael Jordan).
Another aspect to this story that has specific cultural underpinnings is the notion that Jamaicans aren’t “impressed” by celebrities. I don’t buy that at all. I think we have a robust culture of pretending not to be impressed, but that’s for another post. Thinking about all this left me pondering the question: Do we like humble people, or do we like humbling people? There is a way those things can look the same at first glance, and that conflation is definitely at work in the way Elaine and Asafa are being discussed.
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If you’re on Twitter, you will have noticed the glitches. Ever since Elon Musk took over and gutted the workforce, the app hasn’t been running smoothly. I’m not talking about the HBO-limited-series-worthy drama taking place back at Twitter HQ or the unpaid office rent. The behind-and-front-of-the-scenes flailing of the “genius” tech overlord is playing out in the functionality of the app. If there comes a day when it simply doesn’t load, I won’t be surprised. I also won’t be surprised if it doesn’t ever come back online. The necessary transfer of obscure institutional and technical knowledge may not have taken place in all the chaos of Musk's takeover of the company. If certain balls get dropped, it might be impossible to pick them up again.
While it wasn't an explosive trash fire like the rapid decline of Twitter, I’m reminded of what’s been happening at Medium. When I joined the site in 2018, I was already a relatively late adopter, but I got in just under the wire at a time when there was still a front page for the site, and it was possible for someone unknown to get featured. I was lucky enough to win that lottery a couple of times. Medium also paid pretty well, especially after they added their own in-house publications. I wrote some great pieces and worked with some great editors. In May of 2021, management nuked those publications from orbit. Medium hasn’t been the same since. It feels like a ghost ship to me now. Maybe I’m the one who has drifted away, but I find that it’s harder and harder to hear and be heard on the site.
There were red flags about what would happen at Medium. Every 12-18 months since I joined, there has been some cataclysmic change that causes upheaval for writers. Medium isn’t unique. Remember when fraudulent Facebook metrics convinced everyone to “pivot to video”? Online publishing never recovered. YouTube routinely makes paradigm-shifting changes to its algorithm that are disastrous for creators. Farther afield, the massacre of HBO’s catalog the new owners are carrying out is a particularly stark warning. Shows that were available only on HBO’s streaming service are disappearing, and no physical media of them has or will be sold. We can’t trust these sites and companies to be the keepers of our creations. To rely on them is to be one bad mergers and acquisitions transaction away from having your life’s work thrown in the trash. I’ve known that for some time, but I’ve been lazy about setting up my own platform, because of the reach I was getting on Medium. The landscape has shifted, though. Even for some early adopters with large followings on the site, the reads have dried up. It hardly seems worth it to post sometimes. If I’m going to yell into a void, I think it should be my own.
I’ve had a website for some time, so I decided to add a blog page to it. I’ll still use Medium on the off chance that I can catch a wave, but I was never really cut out for “power posting,” which is what you need to do to be successful on the site. You have to yell about the same things in the same way almost every day. I could for a while, but I burned out. Another problem is that I have too many varying interests, and you need a clear niche to really do well on a site like Medium, as it’s currently structured. Blogging on my own site will be more personal and casual and more frequent. I will continue to produce essays and longreads. I’m still working out exactly how and where I’ll share them.
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