Athletes and support mechanisms in St Vincent and the Grenadines

Over the years there has been much discussion on the matter of the absence of world class performances of many of our athletes and teams. Vincentians frequently accuse the various national sports associations of failing to keep the Vincentian flag flying at regional and international competitions and make comparisons with other Caribbean countries and their achievements. In the anxiety to point accusing fingers however few take time to engage in astute analysis of the realities impacting the athletes and teams of this country. In this Column we attempt to address the issue of support structures for our athletes.

Governments are elected to lead the country and in the process facilitate the genuine development of our people. Sport and physical education are critical to the development of a people. This latter fact has been ignored buy the government of St Vincent and the Grenadines for decades. Indeed, even our Community Development Department and Non Governmental Organisations (NGO) have ignored this for the same period of time largely due to ignorance and an unwillingness to pay attention to those involved in the leadership of sport. They, like so many others around them were not prepared to see physical education and sport as anything but frivolity. St Vincent and the Grenadines has been the poorer for it.
Governments often boast of their provision of facilities for athletes. This is not always the case and here in St Vincent and the Grenadines the Prime Minister and Minister of Finance made a major faux pas some time ago when he seemed to be suggesting that facilities here may not be the cause for performances.
In reality the facilities here have essentially been politically rather than sport motivated. It is safe to say that where the sports people have been involved the facilities have been better addressed even if there is government support. We can point to the work of the now deceased Frank Thomas and others in respect of the Arnos Vale Playing Field, Cecil Cyrus and the Squash Complex and Michael Nanton and others in respect of the National Tennis Centre. This is the reason that the aforementioned facilities were designed to serve the respective sporting disciplines and satisfy international standards.
In respect of the other facilities we have around the country the government has sought to play the political game and whenever challenged they appear only too eager to use their political clout to decry the officials of sport.
While attempts have been made to identify facilities that schools can access for sport these are not necessarily maintained at a level that could possibly encourage a significant rise in performance standards.
It is no secret that many of the facilities that have been provided by the government over the years are unsuited to the needs of the respective sports practiced in the country.
Some sports have absolutely no access to facilities. Boxing stands out as a prime example here. The leadership of Boxing remains at their wits end trying to eke out an existence for their athletes and have little choice but to rely on the National Olympic Committee for assistance to access facilities abroad.
Track and Field athletes have to work on the grass and unless there is remarkable talent it is near-impossible to favourably compete alongside our Caribbean neighbours in the sprints. The best chances remain at the level of distance running and field events. But even in the case of the latter it is a chore to get assistance with the provision of jumping pits and throwing circles around the country.
Rather interestingly the CARICOM is now encouraging the placement of concrete strips near schools for ensuring the sustainability of cricket in the Caribbean.
Without adequate infrastructure there is every reason to believe that our athletes and teams would continue to perform below par at all levels.
Equipment is in very short supply in St Vincent and the Grenadines for all of the sports practised here.
Happily the government continues to apply the National Sports Policy that allows duty free entry for sporting equipment imported by or on behalf of national sports associations. This is the one area that is particularly important for associations and for which the different governments must be duly applauded since the NOC facilitated the Policy several years ago.
Many national associations do not possess equipment to service the nation.
Some schools seek to acquire their own equipment but many cannot afford it.
In the case of track and field athletics the associated costs for equipment is near prohibitive. Schools would be better served to acquire equipment stocks over time.
It is unfortunate that where Team Athletics St Vincent and the Grenadines continues to improve its own stock of equipment each year it finds that individuals often fail to return equipment used, thereby depleting the available resources to others in the same sport.
It should be noted however that like most commodities equipment have high costs attached for the most part. While it is agreeable that a workman should own his tools it is increasingly the case that many of our sportspeople cannot afford the cost associated with the basic gear needed to participate in sport.
Each year it is lamentable the number of athletes participating in sports at their various institutions and at the Inter Primary and Inter secondary levels who do not have the appropriate shoes for the competitions in which they are involved.
Many of the athletes selected to national representative teams in several different sports do not have the appropriate equipment and have to prevail on the various national associations for assistance in this regard.
Associations do not have a source of procuring equipment for use by athletes ad infinitum. There are severe constraints on these bodies in terms of accessing finance.
As with infrastructure athletes cannot possibly make it to the top, except in cases of exceptional talent, unless they have access to quality equipment.
For several years we have been proposing to our governmental authorities here that when they travel they should always have a sports package in their handbags. That way, while they may not get their desired funding for this or that mega-project they may come away with some valuable sports equipment, be they Table Tennis and Tennis racquets or basketball and footballs or starting blocks or competition shoes for this or that sport. Instead we come away empty handed leaving our situation as bad as it was before.
Coaching is a major problem in St Vincent and the Grenadines and increasingly so as the economy sputters and individual coaches seek compensation for their work.
Coaches in Tennis, Squash and Swimming seem to have an advantage. Their parents seem more prepared to pay for their training as opposed to those who get involved in other sports like football, cricket and track and field athletics. It is also true that the children involved in the latter sports are less well off, in the majority of cases.
A select few sports have the luxury of charging by the hour. This is however not the norm here and many athletes rely on coaches to give of their time freely during the week.
The National Olympic Committee has facilitated the training of numerous coaches, numbering well into the hundreds by this time, yet find immense challenges in getting them to work on a consistent basis.
There is also the worrying phenomenon of coaches becoming overly possessive of athletes with whom they are working that accusations of athlete poaching have become a familiar feature of national discourse. One is left wondering whether the issue is one of self as a coach or the national interest.
Some coaches are angry with each other to the point that there is no sharing of information about the very sport that they all claim to love and keen on developing.
Athletes, meanwhile, are being tugged here and there by coaches who assume that the athletes are bereft of understanding what is happening about them.
Attempts at establishing a coaches association to cover the coaching fraternity in this country have failed time and again. The problem has often been differences in respect of the areas to be covered by the body.
Our coaches seem to consider themselves already trained once they have acquired a certificate ignoring the concept of continuous education. Learning never stops.
Everywhere there is research being undertaken in respect of developments in the ever-expanding scope of sport and physical education yet many of our coaches seem oblivious to these developments. Recent examples here have shown the apparent unwillingness of our coaches to make the sacrifice to learn from others with greater training and experience brought in to assist. Instead they send their athletes assuming knowledge of that which is being taught. Should they have been in possession of the relevant expertise the athletes would have been medallists at the regional and international level.
The net result of the aforementioned issues is that the athletes are the ones to suffer. The coaches in the field are always too few for the number of athletes in attendance willing to train to represent this beloved country.
Our athletes have problems accessing competitions at a level that really test their abilities, training and experience. While many an athlete may readily excel at home the situation is vastly different at the regional and international levels.
Competitions exist in abundance but the costs associated with participation are most challenging. Football has to attend competitions or face a penalty as still as the cost of taking part. Some associations here ask parents to meet the expenses of travel for their children to regional and international competitions. This is not new in sport since Canada and Australia are known for having parents meet the expenses of their junior athletes to all regional and international competitions.
Without higher-level competition our athletes would continue to believe that they have ‘made it’. Unfortunately this is often far from the truth and they need regular exposure to regional and international competition to know exactly where they are.
Happily the acquisition of a photo finish system here would mean that the real times are recorded without undue bias of officials impacting the results. The difference therefore between our athletes and those at the regional and international levels would be the surface used here at home – grass.
Finally, our athletes here suffer from lack of sponsorship. Our private sector remains hesitant to sponsor individual athletes. They see little or not return on such investments and take the route of caution.
Athletes cannot get very far without support from the private sector. They need the assistance to get by, merely to make ends meet in their participation in sport.
It is true that athletes must prove themselves deserving of sponsorship of one form or another, in this country of ours there is always great difficulty in getting sponsors on board for individual athletes.
It was simply amazing that when the Prime Minister named Nixon McLean, Cameron Cuffy and Pamenos Ballantyne as sports ambassadors he merely called on some private sector concerns to meet the financial commitments he determined was appropriate. There was no evidence of any negotiations on the part of the athletes themselves in respect of what was appropriate and the difference between what some got was cause for concern and a certain amount of antipathy. No precedent was set and certainly none was followed. Today Ballantyne is on the payroll at the National Sports Council.
The Prime Minister made his own arrangement with regard to financial support to Natasha Mayers for the early part of this year. Now that has come to an end.
Even where major sporting events are concerned there seems an unwillingness of our private sector to get involved. Often times where they do get involved there is a tendency for them to want maximum mileage for funding that cannot meet one quarter of the expenses.
Vincentian athletes have immense talent but they have not been supported enough for them to get farther than St Vincent and the Grenadines. Despite this reality our people expect them to work miracles on the field of play paying little or no attention to their needs and what is on offer.
Perhaps one of these days the ole talk would be cast aside. One day the authorities would get a realistic understanding of the role of physical education and sport in the development of the individual and St Vincent and the Grenadines enough for them to ensure that the support structures are in place for our youths.