Jamaicans paint town gold in honour of independence – and Usain Bolt

Today was already a special day for London's expat community – even before Sunday night's glory

In symbolic ceremonies in London and Birmingham yesterday, the Union Jack was temporarily lowered and replaced with the saltire-based flag of Jamaica, in recognition of the Caribbean nation's 50th anniversary of independence from British rule.

That change was mirrored at London 2012 where the red, white and blue bunting that had been ubiquitous around the North Greenwich Arena and other venues for nine days, momentarily gave way to the Jamaican colours of black, green and gold, fluttering in the Thames breeze, which also wafted the cooking smells of brown stew chicken and curried goat.

Thanks to the efforts of victorious sprinters Usain Bolt and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, Britain's Jamaicans are walking with an extra spring in their steps.

As Olympic gymnasts performed routines inside the arena, outside on the newly built Jamaica House Terrace an impromptu choir of female voices offered up a rendition of "Jamaica, Land We Love" and then an alternative anthem, "Buffalo Soldier" by Bob Marley.

Beverley Clarke, a health visitor who won an OBE for services to fostering after coming to England from her birthplace of St Catherine, Jamaica, and who now lives in Sutton, Surrey, was in the queue for Caribbean cuisine.

"It's fantastic," she said. "Jamaica is punching from the waist upwards and continuing to achieve right across the globe." Bolt's achievements would be inspirational, she said: "He's such a sweet young man and sets an example to all our young people."

Justin Campbell, 15, raised in Jamaica and now living in Slough, said he had "no doubt" Bolt would win a further gold in the 200m and said he was equally proud the island had "been self-sustaining and able to succeed for 50 years without colonial rule".

For Jamaica this is a huge opportunity, which is why its government has established Jamaica House at the O2 to use this moment to drum up trade. Among those attending events were Anthony Hylton, minister of industry, and Wykeham McNeill, minister of tourism. As Jamaica reaches 50 it is feeling the pressure the economic downturn places on North American tourists and remittances sent home by Jamaican expats.

“This is a great time of celebration but also a time for reflection as to how the country can move forward and progress. The country is at a crossroads,” said George Ruddock, Jamaican-born managing director of GV Media, London publisher of The Voice and Weekly Gleaner newspapers.

Many feel that Jamaica failed to market its brand after the Beijing Olympics in 2008. The 50th anniversary has offered greater opportunity in London. Rob Hallett, president of international touring at entertainment giant AEG Live, recognised this by putting on 12 reggae concerts at the O2, culminating with Jimmy Cliff.

On his way to rehearsals for that show last night, reggae singer Bob Andy praised Bolt for electrifying the anniversary celebrations. “That’s the ultimate that any one individual can give to Jamaica – it’s opportune and almost mystical. If one man can do that then Jamaicans can come together to move from austerity to prosperity.”

Anniversary celebrations took place in Manchester, Huddersfield, South Wales and Birmingham, where Victoria Square hosted four days of fun. "It's like a big party at the moment," said Prince Morgan, dressed in Rastafarian colours. But amid the celebrations, he had a word of caution about the nation's future. "Are we truly independent? The head of state is still the Queen," he pointed out, noting growing calls for a Jamaican republic. Usain Bolt for president?

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