In two Olympic appearances nearly 30 years apart, Grenada seized the opportunity to define itself — on its own terms and in front of the world

In 2012 there was a video posted on YouTube with an unambiguous title: “Grenadian Family Reaction to Kirani James Winning the 400m Men Olympic Gold London 2012.” The clip begins with the camera focused shakily on a small, black CRT TV. On its screen the competitors settle into their starting blocks. Off camera someone comments, calmly and clear as a bell, “This is for Grenada. We have to do well.” For any casual viewer of a 400-metre race, it’s difficult to discern an obvious frontrunner early on. But as the sprinters take the second turn and realign during the final leg, it becomes evident. In the video, the room is silent until Grenadian sprinter Kirani James rounds the corner and it’s clear he has a considerable lead. Somehow, he accelerates, pulling farther ahead of the pack, and bounds across the finish line with remarkable ease as the family watching from home erupts with ear-splitting screams.

Kirani James’s landmark gold-medal win was a quintessential Olympic David-and-Goliath story that became one of the standout moments from the 2012 London Games. James was impossibly easy to root for — immediately after winning his history-making race, he turned around and shook the hand of every other contestant before jogging over to the Grenadian contingent in the stands. Only 19 at the time, he became not only Grenada’s first gold medal winner, but his achievement remade the Caribbean island’s international profile as one of the smallest countries in the world to ever take home Olympic gold. Business Insider later awarded Grenada an unusually specific title as the world’s “most efficient medal winner” for earning the highest rate of medals per 100,000 people. It was a doubly impressive distinction given the country has a population of just over 100,000 to begin with.

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James’s win would have been the most extraordinary outcome imaginable when Grenada made its Olympic debut 28 years prior. Because in 1984, when Grenadian athletes arrived in Los Angeles for the Summer Games, they did so in the wake of a massive geopolitical event that had swept up their tiny nation in Ronald Regan’s Cold War-era effort to stamp out left-wing uprisings around the world and sandwiched it as a battleground between two sparring global superpowers. Just nine months prior to the opening ceremonies, the U.S. government had deployed nearly 2,000 troops to the island as part of a highly controversial military intervention that ended four years of radical social transformation; a socialist revolution helmed by Maurice Bishop and the New Jewel Movement party, which would become the People’s Revolutionary Government of Grenada. The invasion was an excessive show of force and condemned by many countries, including Canada, and the United Nations General Assembly, which described it as a “flagrant violation of international law” with a vote of 108–9.

Despite the remnants of conflict swirling around their arrival, when the team of Bernard Wilson, Anthony Longdon, Emrol Phillip, Samuel Sawny, Chris Collins and Jacinta Bartholomew landed in Los Angeles, the majority only teenagers at the time, their focus was direct. “It was a good PR piece for the U.S. to have Grenada represented in the Olympics, particularly in the U.S.,” remembers Wilson, a well-decorated boxer, who was the inaugural team’s captain and flagbearer. “But once we got to Los Angeles we were treated like all other Olympians. We really focused on the job at hand and took it seriously.”

“I never run for me. I always run for people that are affiliated with me.”

Grenada’s 1984 and 2012 showings at the Olympics were independently powerful acts of nation building on the world stage, and, critically, ones that took place on the country’s own terms. And Grenada is not alone in this: From the iconic black-gloved, Black Power salute by Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics to a series of boycotts by African countries like Angola and Ethiopia in the late 20th century, for countries with significant Black populations, the Olympics have a long history of functioning as an unparalleled site of ideological affirmation in front of a global audience. For Black athletes who are often in the eye of the storm, their presence and performance becomes a mirror for the nations they’re tasked with representing.

“It’s a unique feeling, to be the Olympic gold medallist [and] the first for your country,” James mused in an interview shortly after the 2012 Games, his thoughts tinged with something both immaterial and familiar. “It’s about helping other people and helping my country unite — I never run for me. I always run for people that are affiliated with me.”

It was a statement that brought to mind a moment in his country’s history when collective action was the root of world-changing aspirations, and when, momentarily, those aspirations gained momentum and sprung to life.

James's victory at the London Games made Grenada the most-efficient medal-winning country on earth — nearly quadrupling second-place Bahamas' number of medals per 100,000 people

On March 13, 1979, shortly after overthrowing the incumbent administration and seizing control of the country, Maurice Bishop, leader of the New Jewel Party — known internationally as a particularly charismatic orator — took to the airwaves to announce the start of a revolution: “People of Grenada, this revolution is for work, for food, for decent housing and health services, and for a bright future for our children and great grandchildren.” Archival material and firsthand accounts display the towering ambition of Bishop’s movement, which sought to empower the people of a tiny nation to become the architects of their own economic and social future, adhering its mandates to decolonization and consciousness-raising. Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, best known for his work Pedagogy of the Oppressed, was invited to run a workshop in an attempt to ensure the education system was informed by the realities of the community; adult literacy rates skyrocketed through the efforts of the Center for Popular Education; income tax was slashed for the lowest-paid 30 per cent of workers; healthcare became free; and low-cost housing was constructed.

Growing up in Pickering, a suburb of Toronto, I pieced together the mythology of Bishop and events surrounding the revolution from family stories. Over the years — through charged and animated stories told at an uncleared dinner table, or when I watched as my parents listened patiently to their elders, Aunties and Uncles of any variety, retell what they remembered and experienced — I developed an intuitive understanding of what the revolution was. My dad tells a story of how his grandmother, unable to travel to a hospital to receive medical care, was shocked to learn that a doctor would now simply pay her a home visit. Both of my parents, in elementary school at the time, were part of the first cohort to be educated under the new curriculum. In retrospect, I wonder how much of the education they received from the People’s Revolutionary Government influenced the way they learned how to teach and, gradually, informed my approach to the world.

“The revolution opened a lot of people’s minds and eyes,” says Wilson. “There were lots of people who would have been given a feeling of self-worth and importance by the revolution, and given a chance to be involved in the running of a country and the operation of government. Everybody was Sergeant, or Major this, or Captain that; everybody was comrade.”

In his article “Game Changer: The Role of Sport in Revolution,” Thomas Carter, a professor at the University of Brighton whose work focuses on the ethics of the human body and the politics of spectacle, explains that during periods of revolution, sports morph into something potentially transgressive. It becomes a tool to catalyze self-development, affirm the beliefs of the revolution and foster unity. In Grenada, that tool was applied in the implementation of nationwide youth recreation programs, and in taking on the preliminary work to build an environment that could one day produce a world-class athlete.

“Sport on the whole benefited from that revolution and revolutionary spirit,” says Wilson, who started boxing because it was offered in school. He credits coach Norbert Grant with getting the sport off the ground prior to the revolution, but marks a discernible shift after 1979. “When the revolution came along, boxing took on a new life of its own. The revolution provided the gym space, and you had a lot of local boxing taking place that was well-supported by the Ministry of Sports.”

“Sport on the whole benefited from that revolution and revolutionary spirit.”

In the years leading up to the revolution, Caribbean socialism had picked up steam across islands, ranging from Jamaica’s twice-elected socialist prime minister Michael Manley to the rise of Fidel Castro in the 1950s. While many world powers balked at offering direct support to Grenada, the latest nation to swing left, a number of countries, including Canada and the Soviet Union, acknowledged the People’s Revolutionary Government. Cuba was an immediate and intimate ally, largely due to its geographic proximity and ideological alignment. Castro’s government was instrumental in building a new airport, contributing industrial equipment and building materials valued at US$25 million (equivalent to nearly $80 million today). Pivotally, in 1980 they also sent 250 military-trained technicians, and two airport engineers with the aim to train Grenadian workers. But Cuba’s personnel exchange extended further. As the period also ushered in the development of new community centres around the island, boxing coaches from Cuba arrived to train athletes. At the time, Cuba had one of the top-ranked amateur boxing programs in the world.

“Training from the Cubans, and traveling to Cuba, was a totally different experience. It could not have been matched by anything else,” Wilson remembers.

The arrival of Cuban coaches in Grenada was a torch passing in its own right; in the 1960s the Soviet Union had sent coach Andrei Chervonenko to Cuba, where he famously trained five-time Olympic champion Teófilo Stevenson, teaching an Eastern European methodology that focused on the fundamentals. Through boxing, Wilson and other boxers from the country travelled extensively. “I think the revolution paid more attention to sport as a means of creating national pride, and as a kind of showpiece — an advertisement for the revolution,” he says.

Members of Grenada's 1984 Olympic contingent pose for a team photo

For all of the achievements of the PRG and its promotion of a new social order anchored by solidarity, the government is not without critics. In its effort to kickstart a number of ambitious initiatives, it also suspended the constitution, which enabled it to hold prisoners without due process, posing an obvious human-rights concern. “The revolution had some positive ideas, but the revolution did not respect democratic rights, and that was the danger,” says Tillman Thomas, who served as the Prime Minister of Grenada from 2008 to 2013.

As a lawyer and longtime public servant, Thomas initially became involved with the New Jewel Movement’s Human Rights and Legal Aid Programme, and was later imprisoned by the PRG. Escalating conflict within the government saw the party cleave between Bernard Coard, the deputy Prime Minister who was ideologically to the left of Bishop and backed by the military, and Bishop, who was backed by the people. The standoff ended in bloodshed — Bishop, and his ministers, including his partner, Minister of Education Jacqueline Creft, who was pregnant at the time, were all killed by firing squad.

What happened next has been exhaustively covered, perhaps the single most internationally reported moment in Grenada’s history: the country’s invasion by the United States. In 1983, Time magazine devoted an entire special issue to covering the events, and there’s an episode of This American Life where children simulate the invasion and fumble through its numerous confusing missteps. To give you a snapshot: Military personnel tasked with providing aerial backup, the 82nd Airborne Division, planned the attack on a tourist map of the island and developed intelligence using an issue of The Economist. The U.S. defence department, aware of the incoming blowback, issued a total ban on press coverage in the first few days of the intervention, and severely restricted reporting in the following weeks.

Wilson has one particularly telling memory: “Would you believe that after the revolution, I was in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, where the 82nd Division came from. I was talking with one of the soldiers and he asked me, ‘You’re from Grenada. What part of Jamaica is that?’”

To this day, there are a plurality of opinions on how to categorize the U.S. involvement on the island. Some Grenadians see it as a rescue mission sweeping in at the precise moment a volatile coup had dissolved into violence. Others as an invasion squarely focused on stifling the rise of revolutionary socialist governments in the Global South, and a crudely blatant gun show of American imperialism by a nation desperate for an easy win after a series of high-profile military embarrassments.

When Grenada arrived at the Olympics in July of 1984, the fallout and subsequent political reorganization was still fresh; the country was only at the beginning of its recovery from the kind of nationwide trauma that doesn’t heal neatly or quickly. The island was able expedite their approval process to gain accreditation to compete, but it was on the heels of actions by Cuba and the Soviet Union, which had both boycotted the Games presumably in retaliation to the U.S.-led mass boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics. The road to Los Angeles was touch and go; preparations came together rapidly and uniforms were made at the last minute. “We were underprepared for the Olympics, but we learned as we went along,” says Royston Lahee, the long-serving and so far only president of Grenada’s Olympic Committee. Still, Wilson made it to the quarterfinals in the welterweight class, which capped an experience at the Games that bore more firsts than just participation: It was also the first time some of the athletes used a computer. Boxer Emrol Phillips met Michael Jordan, and was taught to play console video games by Carl Lewis.

While the majority of competitors were relatively nonchalant about their arrival, athletes from neighbouring countries like Barbados, Trinidad and Jamaica, were full of questions. “We were very well respected for the revolution,” explains Wilson. “They were looking at us as maybe a possible way to go. So people in those countries were disappointed when the revolution collapsed.

“The Olympics was a chance to say, ‘We made it out. This is our future.’ But you can’t get away from sports and politics — if you understand politics, then sports will always be a part of it.”

Grenadian Prime Minister Maurice Bishop, centre, stands alongside Cuban leader Fidel Castro at a May Day rally

Social revolutions attempt to radically transform every part of society, so sports during a revolutionary period function as a microcosm of the conditions that unfolded before, during and after — a lens to better understand the relationship between people, power and the state. By design, narratives about revolutions are asymmetrical. While the rest of the world moves on, a political revolution casts a shadow over a nation long after it has left the international news cycle, its looming presence persisting vividly. For the citizens and diaspora of peripheral countries that experience moments of political insurrection, their stories of those pivotal times are held in the recollections of witnesses, then passed down through kinship lines, only to reemerge in fragments for later generations — as they did for me.

To write a story about a revolution is to attempt to freeze an active organism under a microscope. They’re stories that are unfinished upon completion; built with contradictions, and rife with oversights. Over time, collectively agreed-upon portrayals are solidified and archived. It’s a laborious, painstaking and intricate process. Yet, while there’s a generous canon capturing the most high-profile political revolutions of the 20th century, less material exists for countries in the Global South, and particularly for majority-Black countries. Though an incredible amount of work has been done by Caribbean scholars and historians to document the revolution holistically, information imperialism and revisionist histories working in tandem have a devastating impact on the communities who never hear about their historical greatness. In a way, for members of the diaspora, to write home feels like a small step toward filling in those gaps.

There is no doubt that Kirani James’s win was the result of many interconnected factors — a rare calibre of talent mixed with an unstoppable drive to compete and an ability to listen. (“I’d never trained an athlete that never questioned one word, from Day 1,” James’s coach Harvey Glance once said.) Like anything else, James’s win didn’t come out of a vacuum, and neither did the conditions that elevated him to superstar status. James came of age while Tillman Thomas was beginning to execute a set of policy initiatives guided by governance, accountability and transparency that sought to excavate the best parts of the revolution and retrofit them for a new generation. During his tenure, Thomas renamed the island’s international transportation hub Maurice Bishop Airport, and targeted political, educational and employment discrimination.

Thomas also embarked on a policy of decentralization in an effort to build up neighbourhood infrastructure. James, who grew up in the town of Gouyave in the parish of St. John, is likely a direct beneficiary of this policy — for example, through an initiative to erect lighting at public fields. “Young people could get involved and engaged in sporting activities at night, and that contributed to improving sporting facilities in all communities in rural parishes,” says Thomas. It’s not difficult to imagine that these types of policies enabled James to train longer, and provided more time and space for his natural talent to flourish.

“These things can put small nations like ours on the map because you have an idea of greatness to refer to.”

After James soared over the finish line in London, though the medal hung around his neck, the pride was evenly distributed, spread widely across all Grenadian citizens and members of the diaspora. “Having achieved what we have gives us a certain sense of identity, gives us a certain level of confidence that we can rank with the biggest and the best,” says Wilson. “When you go out and say that you’re from Grenada, people know about Grenada — these things can put small nations like ours on the map because [you have an idea] of greatness to refer to, and to link it with.”

In 2021, perhaps the most prominent vestiges of the revolution remain in the spirit of national pride and patriotism it fostered — a feeling that’s more acute because those ambitions were given a test drive. And though Maurice Bishop is no longer with us — though his remains have never been found — you cannot separate James’s gold medal from the dreams of Black excellence Bishop taught a nation to strive toward. The wish of his 1980 New Year’s Eve address was finally realized decades after his passing:

“1980 is a year when our nation achieves a height of glory and respect on the international plane never conceived before,” he promised, before signing off with the revolution’s resonant and poetic adage: “Forward Ever. Backward Never.”

Photo Credits

Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images; Chris McGrath/Getty Images; Courtesy Grenada Olympic Committee; Bettman/Getty Images.