Olympic champion Shelly-Ann Fraser makes fast work of fame game
A hero in her homeland, the world gold medallist is determined to achieve equality for women’s sprinting
By Anna Kessel
The Observer, Sunday 9 May 2010
Jamaica’s Shelly-Ann Fraser celebrates winning 100m gold at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Photograph: Kay Nietfeld/EPA
In Jamaica, community walls are like billboards – only headline-makers have their portrait painted on them. Two years ago, as Shelly-Ann Fraser crossed the finish line in Beijing to win Olympic 100 metres gold – the first Jamaican woman to do so – the mural artists of Waterhouse, in Kingston, set to work on their latest idol. There was one distinguishing factor to set Fraser apart from their previous subjects: she was alive.
Fraser was born and raised in Waterhouse, one of the most violent communities in Jamaica, and the diminutive world and Olympic champion has worked hard to avoid becoming another depressing ghetto statistic. When the 23-year-old was immortalised on a neighbourhood wall it meant more than that she had become famous: Fraser’s achievements were a source of pride for the whole community.
“That mural was already up there by the time I got back from Beijing,” says Fraser, still breathless at the memory. “I was so shocked. The only time they draw people on the wall where we live is when they’re dead.”
Fraser’s mother, Maxine, made the difference. A single parent, she worked as a street vendor to earn the money to send her children to school. Her investment paid off – Fraser is studying for a degree in child development and has ambitious plans to create a legacy of change for Jamaican children.
The reverberations of growing up in Waterhouse run deep, though, and it is revealing to hear Fraser describe the games she played when she was a child. She and her brothers held “shoot-outs”, fighting wars, street versus street, mimicking the gun battles that went on around them. They loved toy soldiers, plotting out grand battles on the floor of their home. They also liked playing with lizards.
“I killed a lot,” she says, laughing at the memory. “Sometimes we’d catch them alive, then we’d get syringe needles that we took from someone who lived on our road because they were diabetic or something and we pumped water into them. Sometimes I’d inject them with each others’ blood. My grandmother was always telling me stop catching the lizards or one day I’ll meet duppy [a ghost]. Ghosts are a scary thing and nobody wants to see a ghost or a spirit.”
Despite her girly features – bouncing braids and a cute-as-a-button smile – Fraser says she has always been a tomboy. “I’m not girly. I prefer sneakers over heels. I grew up playing with boys. I would drag along after my brothers and they would hit me and tell me to stop following, but even now I don’t have many female friends,” she says.
One of her closest confidantes is the former 100m world record holder Asafa Powell, with whom she trains at the MVP track club in Kingston – a rundown place where a collection of the world’s greatest athletes perform sprint drills on a beat-up grass field and leg raises while hanging off a wire fence.
When Powell was upstaged by Usain Bolt in Beijing, finishing fifth, Fraser comforted him. “I told him before my race: ‘I’m going to win the gold medal for the both of us.’ I understand that he felt really bad after the Olympics. I was with him before the final and after it but I made sure not to talk too much about the race, just to try and get him to smile. Just give him joke because he’s always acting crazy and I’m always acting crazy and that’s the way we like to be. We’re really close off the track because he’s my boyfriend’s best friend.”
Fraser was true to her word, winning the gold medal. She won a world title the following year. Yet that her profile still does not match Powell’s says much about the lack of media attention given to female sprinters. The inequality does not surprise her – even after winning gold in Beijing she knew what to expect. “I didn’t want to go to the press conference they had after we [Jamaica] won all our medals,” she says. “I knew that the only person they wanted to ask questions to was Usain. I thought: ‘Why bring us all the way from our hotels?’ I for one was upset.”
She does not begrudge Bolt the attention he receives, but she does question the received wisdom that says a fast man on the track is more highly prized than a fast woman. “A lot of females don’t get the recognition men do in track and field and that’s weird. We work just as hard as them, we might not be breaking world records because they’re so out of reach but we’re still doing great things. I guess a lot of people are more interested in watching men.”
Fraser hopes that the situation might change should a woman manage to break Florence Griffith-Joyner’s 22-year-old 100m world record, of 10.49sec, but she cannot be sure how much longer the sport must wait for that to happen. Many believe Flo-Jo’s time beat not only her rivals but the drug testers too.
“I really don’t know if it is ever possible. Carmelita [Jeter] last season ran 10.64 [the closest anyone has got to Joyner] and I was just stunned. But I was also happy that she did because it elevates women’s running now, and so a lot more people are looking forward to the competition between us.”
That competition has played out around the world with the American Jeter, Fraser and another Jamaican, Kerron Stewart, pushing each other to run faster times.
After all that Fraser has achieved, it is incredible to think that two years ago Jamaicans campaigned against her selection for the Olympics, because the 100m world champion Veronica Campbell-Brown had, as a consequence, been left out. Fraser was a young upstart, ranked 70th in the world, when she beat Campbell-Brown at the national trials. The public were not happy.
“I faced a lot of adversity before that race,” she says. “A lot of people didn’t want me to run, they said I was too young. But I didn’t let it faze me that much. I just knew I had to run because the rules guaranteed me a place on the team. I actually got a lot more determination because of it.”
To prove the doubters wrong, and to earn their adulation, proved an emotional experience. “I was lost for speech then and I’m lost for speech now. I still look back at that race and get goosebumps. To be the first Jamaican woman to win a gold medal was so exciting. To add that title to my résumé was equally as important as the medal itself.” Fraser then proved that she was not a “one-time wonder” when she won the world title.
Now her sights are set on defending both titles, at the 2011 world championships in Daegu, South Korea, and the London Olympics in 2012. She says she wants to keep sprinting for seven years, which seems a long time for a young woman who has won the world’s greatest accolades. Why continue?
“Because so far I’ve been plagued by injury and I think I can be even better than I am now. I’m young, for one thing, and I only started doing really hard work in training in 2006 – I didn’t train that much in high school. So I’m basically what you call ‘fresh’. I still have a lot more in me to give.”
In July, Fraser will compete in the Diamond League at Gateshead. With no major event this year, she has targeted the top prize. “I would love to win the diamond,” she says. “A nice ring on my finger … it would mean a lot to me to be the first person to win the diamond.” She pauses. “I guess I’m just one of those persons who always want to be the first, in whatever it is.”
If she can keep up that habit, Fraser will secure her position as the first lady of sprinting.