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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