International sport has developed to the point of amazing professionalism to such an extent that it now appears appropriate to ask what are the critical factors driving the sport development process now and in the future.
When we examine sport on the global scene we are amazed at the gross difference in approaches to sport undertaken by the different islands and often we wonder whether, as in everything else in the world, the size of the country matters.
When we look at the situation in the Caribbean where we all claim to be small compared to much of the rest of the world, we are left pondering the same issue of whether or not size matters.
Can small countries ever really rival larger ones in international sport?
Some years ago it was revealed that the French football federation had emerged from a world cup engagement with a debt in excess of $90m USD. The federation did not fold up. Instead it continued its engagements in successive competitions at much the same pace as hitherto.
We are often amazed at the staggering figures announced for the purchase of players when the transfer season begins in Europe and ponder how such a phenomenon has become possible. Each year the cost of some players seem to increase beyond the imagination.
Our sport loving people in the Caribbean consistently follow the sport of football in Europe, South America and more recently the USA, taken in by the capacity of these countries to facilitate professional leagues that play a major role in the development of athletes to the point where they make full careers out of their involvement.
By way of comparison the vast majority of Caribbean countries have been unable to establish anything remotely resembling a professional league.
Other federations often envy the national football federations in the Caribbean because of the financial and other forms of assistance that FIFA provides on an annual basis. Few however take the time to ponder the requirements imposed by the same FIFA on these federations in terms of the number of competitions in which they must participate.
Because football is a team sport the expenses in preparing national teams and participating in competitions incur heavy expenses.
Even where FIFA, through its Gold Project, allows for national federations to own their facilities not many of these bodies appear to be able to transform their facilities into income-generating institutions quick enough to enable them to become viable independent organisations in their respective countries.
Of course we must not forget the rash of corrupt practices that have befallen numerous national federations in the sport around the world over time, even at the very highest level.
In the Caribbean, Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica and to a lesser extent Barbados, larger entities with relatively stronger economies have been able to access government support and local sponsorship from the private sector in the sport.
One is therefore forced to ask what is it that prevents all of the others from being able to develop viable football competitions on an annual basis that permits some of the athletes to move up the ladder of professionalism.
Football is easily the most popular sport in all of the islands of the English-speaking Caribbean yet one gets the impression that the disparity between large and small countries impacts all aspects of the game in the region.
Ever since the introduction of the game of cricket in the Caribbean and the establishment of a West Indies cricket team there has been issues regarding the selection of teams.
Cricket aficionados around the region remain convinced that size of country matters when it comes to the modus operandi of the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB).
Some suggest that it must have taken a great deal of political horse trading for Julian Hunte of St Lucia, to have earned the confidence of his counterparts in the WICB to have been elected president of the organisation and to stay there for several years.
Some would argue that while every member country in the WICB has national cricket competitions there is no level playing field. The WICB, in recognition of the small size of some of its members were only too happy to have the Windward Islands and Leeward Islands band themselves into two groups. This has immediately placed the athlete sin the sport in the islands that make up these groupings at a distinct disadvantage but the arrangement has been somehow made palatable to the leaders of the sport in the respective islands to their own detriment.
Has the situation bve4come acceptable because of the size of these countries?
Is there not as much talent resident in the smaller countries as is the case in the larger ones, percentage-wise?
Why do we make so much about the treatment meted out to the likes of FO Mason, Michael Findlay, Irvin Shillingford and more recently, Darren Sammy of St Lucia?
Why was it that at one stage Antigua and Barbuda gave serious consideration to withdrawing from the Leeward Islands grouping and seek independent membership of the WICB?
At the level of leadership too we find that the disparity exists. Administrators from smaller countries are somehow immediately dismissed or have to hitch themselves onto the coattails of the representatives of the larger countries to be deemed worthy of a position on the executive of the regional body.
While we understand that the larger countries have equally larger populations and therefore more people engaging themselves in the sport, this is not reason enough for the disparities that exist.
Our once precious West Indies cricket team is now in virtual tatters. The better players have come to recognise that despite the change of economic fortunes of the WICB the treatment they receive has not really kept pace with modern trends in the sporting industry. The net result of this is their eagerness to commit to play where the financial rewards are best. So it is that whereas in the past our better players were committed first to their respective countries and then to the regional side, this no longer exists today.
We learn via the international media of the commitment of several of our players to this or that league somewhere in the world outside the Caribbean well before the WICB is able to declare the regional team’s engagement for the coming period. It may well appear that the tail is wagging the dog here.
Our players have come to realise that talent matters at the international level. Nobody seems concerned about the size of the country from which you come. What matters to them is consistency of performance, which can only come from a commitment to disciplined training.
In St Vincent and the Grenadines there is a rather generous commitment of successive governments to the sport of cricket. When creating any playing field in this country the first sport given consideration is cricket with the laying down of a strip for the game. Little attention is given to the fact that the nation’s most popular sport is football.
Track and Field athletics is an individual sport.
Jamaica has shown the world, since 1948, that its size does not matter when it comes to producing world beaters in competition.
The very rich legacy left by Wint, McKenley, Laing and Rhoden has allowed for a continued commitment by virtually all of Jamaica to commit resources to the development of the sport.
Athletics has done more for Jamaica’s international image and recognition that any other aspect of the nation’s history, with the possible exception of Bob Marley and his reggae music.
Today, Jamaica’s economy enjoys immense benefit from Brand Bolt, the world’s fastest man.
Despite its small size relative to the major advanced industrial nations in the world, Jamaica has, per head of population, reaped more medals in the last several editions of the Olympic Games and World Championships than any other country.
Trinidad and Tobago, smaller than Jamaica, has also made a name for itself at the international level through athletics.
Grenada, with a population similar to that of our own St Vincent and the Grenadines, has produced outstanding athletes and earned its world and Olympic medals in grand style.
St Kitts and Nevis, with a population of around 45,000, has earned global recognition through the exploits in track and field athletics beginning with the evergreen Kim Collins.
The common thread in the aforementioned Caribbean countries relative to athletics’ success is the eager support that the respective governments have given.
St Kitts and Nevis is the only Caribbean country where the government has built a national stadium and handed its management over to the national federation for the sport while paying the bills for the amenities. Only athletics is played at this facility.
Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago have several synthetic surfaces for the development of the sport.
Grenada has displayed a commitment to athletics that rivals what obtains in the larger Caribbean countries.
The commitment of the private sector in each of the aforementioned countries in support of athletics has been a boon to its development and the athletes, on the track at regional and international competitions, readily produce the appropriate award-winning performances.
Grenada and St Kitts and Nevis, over the years, have had governments that have been particularly keen on the sport development process and have committed the requisite resources to sport. They have recognised that really, sport is about process.
The message for us here in St Vincent and the Grenadines is that the government of the day must garner first, an understanding of the importance of cultivating physical literacy as an integral component of our culture. That done, we must place physical education and sport at the service of every Vincentian, regardless of age, in the context of Long Term Athlete Development (LTAD) through an approach that engages all stakeholders minus the politicking.
Our small population can produce equally talented athlete sin a variety of sports if we do things right. Size does not hinder us as much as our intellectual myopia and political destructiveness.