One of the more poignant moments of Sunday’s electric track-and-field lineup in the Olympic Stadium came in the semifinals of the 400 meters. Oscar Pistorius, who had managed to reach his goal and qualify for the semi-final, finished last. There were cheers for Pistorius though, from around the stadium. But more importantly, the young sprinter who had led the field came over to the South African and exchanged numbers.
That young man was Kirani James, and on Monday, the native of Grenada provided a more ample reason for the world to remember him. He won the Caribbean island’s first medal. And it was gold.
James dominated the 400-meter field with a run of such startling proportions that experts were already likening him to the legendary Michael Johnson. The soft-spoken James, though was quick to dismiss such comparisons.
“Obviously he’s (Johnson’s) been a huge thing for our sport and our event. Obviously everyone wants to reach that level and some point,” he said.
“But I’m just focused on the best that I can be and don’t try to be like Michael Johnson because if I try to do that, every time I fail is going to be a disappointment for me and a disappointment for everyone.”
James lacks the outward sparkle of an Usain Bolt or the bullish demeanor of a Justin Gatlin. He does not possess the evocative nature of Felix Sanchez, but he is an athlete who has long been touted as the next big thing of 400 meter running. That he hails from Grenada makes this fact all the more remarkable.
Until Monday, Grenada had never had an Olympic medalist in any event. But the 19-year old nicknamed the Jaguar emphatically crushed the suspense out of one of the sport’s toughest races and crossed the finish line in 43.94 seconds. He also became the first non-US athlete to break the 44-second barrier.
James was born in a small fishing village in Grenada to a father who is a labourer. His village is called Gouyave, a name given by the French, because of the abundance of guava trees. Now though, Caribbeans call it the village that never sleeps.
“I suspect there are giant street parties going on,” said James. “In my community that is how we celebrate success.”
For the 100,000 or so people who make up population of Grenada, James’ gold medal is the highest honour.
“Just being here and being an Olympic gold medallist is a huge step for our country in terms of just stepping up to the plate in track and field and going out and putting us on the map,” he added.
The gold medal and hopes of a future in which he might one day break the record of Michael Johnson should spur the teenager on to greater things. But despite the gold his classy gesture with Pistorius will probably endure in the collective memory a little while longer.
“It was just spur of the moment,” said James.
“Oscar should be a huge inspiration for everybody, whether you’re a track athlete or a normal person. You can be somebody no matter what kind of disability you have.”
And the man, who hails from a fishing village, knows this better than most.
-With The Daily Star input