The annual Inter Primary Schools Athletics Championships (IPSAC) and the Inter Secondary Schools Championships (ISSAC) are upon us. The Heats for both events have already taken place. With the nation’s premier track and field facility at Arnos Vale being occupied in preparation for Cricket and then the FIFA World Cup second round preliminaries, the athletes have to find alternative places to adequately prepare themselves.
For yet another year however questions have been raised regarding the number of events in which several athletes participate both at the Heats and the Finals of the respective competitions.
Over the past few years some coaches and officials have raised the issue of whether or not there should be a policy established that limits the number of events in which any single athlete should participate on any given day. The concern extends beyond the IPSAC and ISSAC through to the individual school’s annual sports day.
Some have argued that the athletes are being done a grave disservice since it is simply unfair for them to be asked to do several events on a single day.
It must be remembered however that the secondary school students now have two days of Heats. On one day the girls have their track competition while the boys have their field events and the reverse occurs on the second day. Only a few selected field events are taken through to the day of the Finals.
In the case of the IPSAC the students have all of their events on one day for the Heats and again for the Finals.
Interestingly the athletes participating in the IPSAC appear less likely to collapse at the finish line or during an event than their counterparts at the level of the IAASC.
It may be said that the younger primary school students are generally more active and physically fit that those attending the secondary school. The former appear full of life and eager to participate.
During the athletics competitions the primary school students seem to compete for the sheer joy of it. Thus, when an athlete falls or drops the relay baton he/she is more likely to get up or pick up the baton and continue running as if his/her life depended on it. In contrast, the secondary school student finding him/herself in the same situation is more likely to stay on the ground or pick up the baton but only to jog or walk the rest of the relay leg. In the latter case there is an attitude that seems to suggest that since the chances of winning have been significantly reduced or rendered impossible then it is useless to exert oneself.
Those who have been articulating the position that today’s athletes are being asked to contest too many competitions in a single day are suggesting that the athletes are being physically stressed and that they cannot give of their best in so many events with limited time for recovery between them.
The medical team has often cited similar concerns but also highlight the fact that the majority of injuries sustained by athletes at Heats and Finals appear more related to the inadequacy of the athletes’ preparation than any other factor.
It is most interesting that the majority of the complaints about the number of events athletes are asked to contest on any given day are largely articulated by coaches, not physical education teachers.
Indeed, where some principals and head teachers feel the same way as those who complain about the numerous events in which one athlete is asked to compete readily implement their own limitations on their athletes.
At the international level there are established recovery time periods between events. This is designed to give the athlete adequate time to deliver best performance between events.
The tradition in St Vincent and the Grenadines, like so many of the Caribbean, has been to have young students compete in many sports and many different events.
Indeed, it was common practice to see very keen rivalry at the individual school’s athletics meet and also at the ISSAC for the victor and victrix ludorum titles across the country.
Many schools have been proud to showcase the number of points earned by the top athletes, establishing new record levels for others to follow.
It has also been argued that the athletes of the past were significantly fitter, physically and psychologically than is the case today.
Parents were also very eager to encourage their children to prepare for the school competitions so that they can be there to witness their performances and be proud of their achievements.
Some suggest that in the past participation in school sports was more than just a school activity. It was also a community activity. Communities were eagerly looking forward to the annual schools’ competitions to earn bragging rights as much as the schools attended by the athletes.
There did not appear to be too many complaints about the number of events contested by any single individual back then.
What then has changed?
Are the children and youths of today softer than the children of the past decades?
Is it that the children and youths of the past were abused by their parents, teachers and coaches to over-extend themselves physically at their respective competitions?
Are they being abused today?
There are those who would argue that the major difference between the athletes of today and those of the past is the matter of upbringing.
It is claimed that in the past the children had fewer distractions and were engaged in sporting and recreational activities from a very young age. Children were running, jumping, throwing, kicking, batting and bowling if only because this was how their free time had to be utilised.
Participation in school sport was seen as an obligation and a privilege at once. School was an extension of the family and the community.
There were no televisions or cell phones to take them away from the practice of sport in their formative years.
Once the accessories of modern technologies entered the homes we witnessed the gradual reduction of participants in sport at virtually every level.
The family interest and encouragement as well as the community support acted as a major boon for the young athletes who worked to excel and so impress everyone.
Training was also communitarian in nature in the past and this both at school and at home. Family members and leaders in the community were as eager as the teachers to ensure that the athletes were appropriately prepared.
Many may recall that with fewer schools in the early years the St Vincent Grammar School competed in national sport competitions. The athletes were known nationally in ways that do not now happen.
Outstanding athletes moved from one sport to another and sought out events in which they could excel. Little attention as paid to the number of events in which they competed. It was enough that they competed and excelled in as many events as possible.
Some suggest too that greater attention as paid to nutritional support at home. There were fewer varieties of junk food and the sterner parents of the day ensured that children ate what was placed before them. Today children, at a very early age, appear to be the key determinants of what they would eat and junk food is often a priority option. One has only to examine what are their preferences during the break and at lunch to understand what is happening.
The sports medicine personnel have lamented the poor nutritional support evident in several of the cases examined at the annual ISSAC in particular. They recognise the poor eating habits of many of the students engaging in sport. Of course this has to be understood in the context of the economic position of many of the families of the athletes involved.
Similarly, the sports medicine personnel make mention of the general weakness of many of the participants. Add to this the poor preparation for the events and we have a number of athletes taking to the ground in numerous events on any given day.
The question therefore remains, what should be done in the contemporary situation?
Do we restrict students or allow them to contest as many events as they are good at during competition?
In sport it is always advisable that unless the sport requires it we should avoid asking the athlete to specialise too early in life. This therefore suggests that the young athletes in particular are allowed to enjoy themselves.
We do need to be mindful that athletes are human beings and that much emphasis is now being placed on safeguarding them. We ought not to exploit children at any time and this includes sport.
It is also important to note that most schools do not have their students insured. Many of the nation’s athletes have not been subjected to any sort of medical evaluation prior to getting into sport. Perhaps it has been our good fortune that we have only had a few incidents in this regard. Having a single incident is one too many.