On Monday night, about 103,000 Grenadians went bonkers after Kirani James won the gold medal in the men’s 400-meter race at the London Olympics.
Make that 103,000 Grenadians and one delirious African-American columnist that writes for a certain web site you all know and love.
James, a 19-year-old native of the tiniest island in the Caribbean, dusted the 400-meter field by running the 400 meters in 43.94 seconds. Before James’ historic victory, only American 400-meter sprinters had run the distance in fewer than 44 seconds.
There were no Americans to run either under or over 44 seconds in the 2012 Olympic men’s 400-meter final. LaShawn Merritt, America’s best hope for any kind of medal in the 400 meters, pulled up in an early heat with a bad hamstring. (America’s other two 400-meter contestants failed to make the finals.)
Perhaps that’s just as well. Merritt only saved himself the humiliation of getting dusted by James, just as the others in 400-meter field were.
Full confession time: I admit I was a bit miffed that no American 400-meter runner made the finals. This is, after all, OUR event, darn it. In the 2008, 2004 and 1988 Olympic games, our 400-meter runners swept all three medals in the event.
Except for the 1980 Olympic games, which the United States boycotted with other Western nations to protest the Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan, an American won some kind of medal in the 400 meters every Olympic games since 1920.
But if no American won gold in the 400 meter men’s final at the London Olympics, I was happy to settle for the next best thing: a 400-meter runner from my favorite Caribbean island ever winning the event.
My love affair with the island started nine years ago, when I traveled there to do a story about the 20th anniversary of the U.S. military intervention – some called it an “invasion,” while still others called it an “American imperialist invasion” – of Grenada.
The invasion was precipitated by some nasty business Grenadians were reluctant to talk about in 2003 and, I suspect, are just as reluctant to talk about today.
In March of 1979, a group of Grenadian leftists known as the New Jewel Movement led a coup that deposed Prime Minister Eric Gairy. Maurice Bishop, who became prime minister, and Bernard Coard were among the leaders.
A little over four years later, in October of 1983, Bishop and Coard had a falling out. What was known as “the Coard faction” placed Bishop under house arrest, but his supporters freed him on Oct. 19 and occupied a fort in the Grenadian capital.
Army forces loyal to the Coard faction invaded the fort and took control. Army troops lined Bishop and 10 of his cabinet members up against a wall and machine-gunned them to death. The Coard faction then imposed a dusk-to-dawn, shoot-to-kill curfew on the tiny island.
President Reagan sent in American troops ostensibly to protect American students at Grenada’s medical school, but also to take down what he called “a group of Marxist thugs.”
That might have been the only time in his presidency that Reagan actually understated a situation.
No wonder Grenadians were reluctant to talk about this mess. When I was in Grenada, I went with two colleagues: Elmer Smith of the Philadelphia Tribune and my BAW colleague Tonyaa Weathersbee.
One day Smith and I tried to get an interview with the editor of a Grenadian newspaper who had been jailed by the New Jewel regime. He seemed reluctant to talk, but told us to come back the next day and he MIGHT tell us something.
We returned the next day, only this time with Weathersbee. After the editor took one look at Tonyaa, we couldn’t shut the brother up.
Other Grenadians, remembering the trauma of 1983, were not and have not been as loquacious. That’s why, perhaps more than any other nation, Grenadians NEEDED for James to win that gold medal, the first in the nation’s history.
Now Grenadians can rejoice; they can celebrate; they can finally put the agony of 1983 behind them and rally around the man who not only brought them that first gold medal, but who also showed a great deal of class, sportsmanship and dignity while doing it.
Congratulations, Kirani James. And party on, Grenada.