Carifta Games and the development of Caribbean athletics

The relatively small island of Curacao hosted its first edition of the annual Carifta Games over the Easter weekend earlier this year. This was an historic moment for the country and the people showed their appreciation by turning out in their numbers to witness the region’s best track and field athletes.
The Carifta Games, which had their origins in 1972 after the heads of governments of the Caribbean established the Caribbean Free Trade Association (CARIFTA), have been held annually without any break. It has developed into the premier youth and junior athletics championships in the world, surpassing even the IAAF World Youth and World Junior Championships.
In the early days the Games were held in countries that simply had a track. It did not matter whether the rack had a grass or synthetic surface. Participating delegations were housed in schools with mattresses on the floor and bathing facilities constructed around the facility.
Today, however, it is not possible to even venture a bid to host the Carifta Games if the country does not possess a synthetic surface. To suggest the use of schools rather than hotels for accommodating the participating delegations would be considered anathema.
There was a brief period during which an attempt was made to transform the Carifta Games of track and field athletics to a multisport Carifta Games. This initiative was again undertaken by Austin Sealy, dubbed the founder of the original Carifta Games.
Unfortunately, the new experiment was short-lived as the transformation meant the loss of control over the track and field component by athletics governing bodies to National Olympic Committees around the region.
The Carifta Games have a very rich legacy. Several of the very best athletes in the world came through this annual track and field spectacle.
Track and field statistician, Reynold O’Neal of the BVI, noted the importance of these Games as follows:
The 1972 Olympic Games in Munich were the first in which athletes who had competed at the Carifta Games would participate.  Trinidad and Tobago’s representative was Laura Pierre, who had scored a double in the 200 and 400 metres in Barbados.  Three Barbadian juniors competed in the inaugural Olympic Women’s 4×400 metre relay – Marcia Trotman, Heather Gooding(800m) and Barbara  Bisho(400m).The latter two were Carifta medalists in 1972 while Trotman won consecutive 200m titles in 1973-74…Three Jamaicans were also represented among the Carifta ‘pioneers’ at the Munich Olympics. Leleith Hodges and Debbie Byfield had won gold and silver in the 100m in Barbados, with Byfield also placing second in the 200.  Hodges went on to have a distinguished career and led off a quartet of Carifta Games athletes who propelled Jamaica to the first global relay medals by an English- speaking Caribbean team.  The other members of the Bronze medal squad at the 1983 World Championships were teenager Juliet Cuthbert, Jackie Pusey and Merlene Ottey.  Andrea Bruce may well have been the most multi-talented athlete of her generation in the Caribbean.  Even before the inception of the Carifta Games in 1972 Bruce had won high jump medals at the Pan American Games and C.A.C. Championships in 1971. At the Munich Games she became one of the youngest ever finalists in the high jump.  Bruce also an accomplished long jumper, and competent in the Hurdles, competed in the Pentathlon at the 1976 Montreal Games.
Jamaica’s Merlene Ottey through to Usain Bolt, have been victorious at the Carifta Games and gone on to world supremacy in the sport.
Marie Jose Perec of Martinique, Kim Collins of St Kitts and Nevis, Obadele Thompson and Ryan Brathwaite of Barbados, Darryl Browne, Keston Bledman and Michelle-Lee Ahyee of Trinidad and Tobago, Kirani James of Grenada, Laverne Spencer of St Lucia, Daniel Bailey of Antigua and Barbuda, our own Marvette Collis, Eswort Coombs and Kineke Alexander, have all been blooded at the Carifta Games.
The standard of the Games has always been very high and while Jamaica has been dominant, each year has witnessed improvements by other countries, highlighting the importance of the development pathway being pursued through the efforts of the IAAF and the regional institution, NACAC.
Sport infrastructure
An important legacy component has been the fact that several of the countries that have hosted the Carifta Games did so after encouraging their respective governments of the importance and urgency of constructing a national stadium. In most cases, the stadium was completed in time for the hosting of the prestigious event.
Governments of the Caribbean region, anxious to capitalise on the international recognition that hosting the Carifta Games and other major track and field competitions bring to their respective countries, readily agreed to develop appropriate sport infrastructure. Today, only St Vincent and the Grenadines, Anguilla and Montserrat, lack a national track and field stadium.
Interestingly, St Kitts and Nevis, with a population of approximately 45,000, has the distinction of being the first Caribbean nation to be provided with a track and field stadium exclusively for the sport. The management of the facility is in the hands of the track and field association.
Nevis, will soon be in receipt of its own track and field stadium.
Some countries have already hosted the Carifta Games on several occasions, regardless of their population size. This has been the case of St Kitts and Nevis, Grenada and Bermuda, to name a few.
Technical officials
In the more recent past another legacy has been addressed. The NACAC has undertaken to provide incentives for the region’s best technical officials who have attained the status either of International Technical Official (ITO) or Area Technical Official (ATO). Our won Woodrow ‘Keylee’ Williams, is one of the beneficiaries of this initiative, originally proposed to the NACAC by Team Athletics St Vincent and the Grenadines, during one of the former organisation’s Congress in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in 2004.
The rationale for this initiative was that the athletes and coaches have the benefit of travelling with national representative teams. Technical officials work at competitions at home but are not considered for any form of incentives beyond the t-shirt provided when officiating and/or the occasional reward at an awards ceremony.
Age regulations
At the beginning the founding fathers conceptualised the Games as having two age categories, Under 17 and Under 20. Following the introduction of the IAAF World Youth Championships, which were Under 18, the Carifta Games shifted the lower age category accordingly.
However, the IAAF has announced that this is the final year of the World Youth Championships and so at the most recent Carifta Congress in Curacao, the decision was taken to return to the Under 17 age category. This latter decision means that those who were initially preparing for Under 18 in 2018, now find themselves in the Under 20 age category at the Carifta Games but Under 18 at the Youth Olympic Games scheduled for Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Carifta 2017
One of the most noteworthy features of the Carifta Games in Curacao earlier this year was the loss of dominance of Jamaica in the 100m sprint event. Jamaica only won one of the four sprint finals with Trinidad and Tobago claiming two and Guyana, one. Needless to say the results stunned the Jamaican delegation, inclusive of supporters but was ample testimony of what is happening around the Caribbean.
The sprint events are globally recognised as premier events in track and field. Whatever about the outstanding performances served up by athletes in other events, the media and coaches have all placed so much attention on the sprints that the latter events hardly gain recognition, to say nothing of the athletes who enter winners’ row.
It is usually the case that winners of the sprints at Carifta are expected to go on to become champions or medallists at the IAAF World Youth and IAAF World Junior Championships before achieving elite status and medals at the IAAF World Championships whether Indoor or Outdoor.
It is therefore not surprising that track and field aficionados all seem to gauge the development of track and field in the Caribbean by the performances of athletes from the different countries in the sprint events.
The future of Carifta Games
At the conclusion of each edition of the Carifta Games the track and field fraternity is forced to commend the preparation of athletes for excellence in competition. Always, when new records are established, the view is usually that it would be difficult to go better next time around. Yet, the athletes rise to the occasion and push the envelope to attain greater heights.
The future of Carifta is secure as we learn of the outstanding performances of 12-year-old female athletes in Jamaica and our won St Vincent and the Grenadines in 2017. They have already signalled that they are knocking on the door of success.
We need only be mindful that Usain Bolt won the 200m at the World Junior Championships held in Jamaica in 2002. He was about to turn 15 years old at the time. Two years later he set the world junior record for the same event at the Carifta Games held in Bermuda.
The stage has been and remains set.
Coaches are readily adopting ever-more scientific approaches to becoming proficient in their craft and taking their athletes to higher standards.
Athletes are themselves becoming increasingly involved in working with their coaches and have a better understanding of the programmes they are being set. They are active participants in their own athletic development. Gone are the days when coaches simply insist that coaches must do what they are told without question.
The constructivist approach to teaching in the formal education system is equally important in today’s approach to coaching. It is a collaborative endeavour with the athlete being integrally involved.
The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) insists that the athlete is responsible for what is found in his/her body when tested. The athlete must therefore be mature and involved enough to ask the coach to explain what is being offered for ingestion just as much as what is to be done by way of training and why.
Carifta is a breeding ground for global athletic talent. It is one of the gifts of the Caribbean to the world. Perhaps, much more so than cricket today, track and field athletes brings the Caribbean front and centre on the world stage.
We dare not retreat.