Confronting the Challenges of Sport Part II

This Column is the second part of the Feature Address delivered at the Team Athletics St Vincent and the Grenadines Award Ceremony on 2 February 2013.
Our involvement in competitions has been good. In 2012 we had no choice but to send those athletes we thought had the potential to the national trials for CARIFTA in Trinidad and Tobago, and the following week to national trials for CARIFTA in Grenada. We sent no one to the CARIFTA Games, and the rationale was simple. If you couldn’t make the standards in either of those two trials, and you couldn’t beat anybody in those two trials, then you had little chance at US$1200.00 per ticket. It was not worth the while. It is the same policy that will be followed this year.
The facilities here, outside of field events, do not lend themselves to realistically determining whether people are capable of making the established standards. To give them a fair chance they have to run on the surface and against the quality competition.
We must say that it was unfortunate for Nicky Ann Stephens because when she went to Trinidad she had no competition. Unfortunately, she had no competition. She was significantly better than anything they had so they didn’t want to participate. So she won in a sense, by default. In Grenada, they also did not have anyone to compete with her, so they cancelled the event. That was her ill fortune in 2012.
We participated in every one of the other tournaments that were available to us – NACAC U-23, CAC Junior Championships in El Salvador etc. We sent those who we thought were short-changed for the CARIFTA experience. Some of them, first time travelling to international competition, got what we can only describe as a baptism of fire, and I think they are aware of what that meant. They knew in El Salvador where they were relative to the international competition they are up against.
We continue to congratulate the Thomas Saunders Secondary School yet again for having made the journey to the Penn Relays. It’s a tall order, in excess of $30,000, but the school has made the effort. They have opened the door, they have put a foot in the door, opening up opportunities for others to follow. It was long in coming but at least they made a start. They have gone for two consecutive years and they are planning to go again this year. So we congratulate them on the efforts they have made. Sure there are challenges; sure they are on a stage that is global; but they are competing against the backdrop of what we have just described as some of the challenges we face in our sport. Therefore we have to contextualize their performance in order to appreciate the tremendous effort that is involved. Congratulations to Godfrey Harry and his group, the principal and staff of Thomas Saunders.
Our athletes who go abroad are also faced with challenges. Those who are in college are forced to compete almost every week in the indoor and outdoor season so that by the time we get them at the end of their outdoor season they are more than a little tired. In many instances they are finished for the year.
Those who have finished school are trying to find ways and means of keeping themselves involved in the sport and that means funding. Without the funding they are unable to do so. Some may try to find jobs in the United States and have difficulty being able to work and compete. The usual fee for working with a coach is in excess of US$50,000 a year if you want to be any good and of any use to your country. We have not been able to afford that. The best we’ve been able to get is from the Olympic Solidarity, which offers US$1000 per month for the athlete and that must cover expenses plus training. Woefully inadequate!
We are often critical of those who try to make it on the international scene because we want results. We want to see our names on the board; we want to know that they have achieved; but we don’t often ask what is required. Even here at home, the shoes; we expect when we give somebody a pair of shoes or we purchase a pair for them, that it must last forever, so when they come to you again you ask, what happen to the last one” Well it finish! Spikes tear; they are used on a regular basis. People need vitamin supplements. Many need medical check ups on a regular basis. When, for example, we hear Pamenos Ballantyne bemoans that he’s running on empty, it is of serious concern.
If you want to be on the international scene you have to eat right, you have to train right, you have to have the right equipment, you have to have facilities, you have to have the support.
Most international athletes now have a manager that takes 20% of their earnings plus expenses and a coach that gets 5%. The coaches are now saying that they are doing most of the work so they want what the manager gets. The managers are saying, well if you get that then I have to raise mine because I am getting the athlete into the competitions, not you. No matter how well you train them, I am getting them into the meet.
Top athletes have access to medical attention and they have access to sports psychologists, something that we don’t pay attention to. We believe that people go out there and perform. But when Shne Joachim went to the World Short Course Championships late last year and she walked into the arena and realized, wow, it takes a sports psychologist to bring her back down to a state of mental readiness for the competition in which she was about to participate. When an athlete enters a track and realizes that the entire population of St Vincent and the Grenadines is in the stands all sorts of things happen to you. It’s a sports psychologist that is needed to stabilise him/her.
When the US team travels, it’s an amazing thing, and that is why sometimes our athletes come back overawed, even at the junior level. You watch the US athletes prepare themselves. The coach tells them go and warm up, they come back and the physiotherapist takes over, and then when the physiotherapist is finished with them and they are going into the Call Room there is a lady with a little folder, and she opens the folder to the athlete’s number and she pins it on; not even that the athlete is doing for him/herself. And when the athlete comes off the track she is waiting by the same gate to take off the number; a simple task that many may think demeaning. She folds it out and puts it back into the folder. The athlete does not have to worry about where his/her number is or where the pins are. Every little thing is taken care of. Some people may say they are pampered. But the idea is that the athletes must be focused on one thing and one thing only, running his or her race.
Can we reach that stage? Sure we can. But it requires a tremendous amount of effort on the part of all of us. Our athletes need encouragement; our athletes need higher levels of commitment. We have had challenges. Some people complain that they don’t like how some coaches speak to athletes. That may be with a fair measure of justification, but when you are getting into the business of working with athletes, and you see the potential in the athlete and you find that the athlete is not even coming to the point of awareness of the potential that he/she possesses it hurts you. It hurts you. And so you want to encourage athletes to come, take a look at yourself; recognize what you have –  a capability that some of us never had, to take you to another level. We need athletes to take an introspective look at themselves to recognize that they have talent, and that if they work well with the coaches; if they give that level of commitment; that they are able to achieve their potential in sport.
Bolt is showing you what can happen. Jamaica doesn’t talk any more in tourism terms about Brand Jamaica. They talk instead about Brand Bolt. Because the monies that he has brought into the country from a tourism perspective is significantly more than they have been able to do in the last decade with all the money that they pump into promoting tourism. Brand Bolt. What he has been able to do as a sportsperson. Bolt would walk into a country and be recognized long before they see Portia Simpson, who is the Prime Minister. That is what is possible with sport. And so he has been made to understand that now he has to be a role model not just for younger athletes in Jamaica but for the entire society, because the world sees Jamaica as Bolt. And now sports tourism is blossoming because a number of countries are sending their athletes to be trained in Jamaica; the latest being Australia, sending people to try to find out what it is that they are doing in Jamaica that they are not doing in Australia.
Those of you who have gone to Jamaica know that they are not really doing anything different. What they have is a culture of sport. It is a culture of sport. Everybody has an interest in doing well in athletics. They want to see the country go forward. They love sport. Since they won their first gold medal with Arthur Wint in 1948 in the Olympics, they have not looked back. They have continued to try to better themselves each time they go to the World Championships; each time they go to the Olympics. Their school sports have therefore become a model for the world. The Boys and Girls Champs is an entire week. Nobody dares talk about the loss of instructional time during that week; nobody talks about the loss of instructional time. But we hear that all the time here at home. We are taking the children out of school; too much time for sports. So we have a major, major issue.
A word on our coaches!
Coaches are at times very, very strange individuals. Perhaps it is because they want to see the athletes succeed, that at times they wrap their own successes into the successes of the athlete. So that at times they can become very, very selfish people. They can become overly concerned with building their group almost at the expense and exclusion of everybody else. Sometimes, deliberately or inadvertently, they can say things about other coaches that are taken back by athletes to their peers who then get it back to other coaches. This impacts negatively the development of the coaching fraternity. There is absolutely no reason why coaches working in the same field, ostensibly for the same objective, cannot find cause to work together to develop the sport in the best interest of the nation.
There is every reason for our coaches to recognize we are all in this together. It is not about you; it is not about me; it is not about the individual. Ultimately, it is about the well being of the athlete and the well being of the country. Therefore, there has to be a greater sharing of ideas.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with one coach seeing another coach doing something that is not consistent with modern training techniques and you can’t say, may I speak to you a minute please, I think you should be doing this or I think you should be doing that. That is in the interest of the athlete and ultimately the interest of the development of the society. That is what you expect of your teachers. That is what we refer to as professionalism. And what we want among our coaches is the shift to that level of professionalism. Failure to do so will pull us back down. The athletes must never become victims. Athletes must know that as athletes they are friends of other athletes.
Sport builds camaraderie. It builds friendship. It is not supposed to build division among athletes and certainly not division among athletes in a small country like ours.
National Pride
There is something we call national pride and we need to build that. We need pride as Vincentians. We need to recognize that as a nation, small as we are, with the limited resources that we have, we have achieved a lot. We have underplayed the important role that Pamenos Ballantyne has played in this country when for years he was the Caribbean’s best distance athlete. What value did we place on that? What value did we place on it? Now we recognizing that he is coming, and I don’t want to say twilight years lest he comes after me and tells me something different, but that he is like the rest of us, getting older. There are people who are gloating when he is defeated in a race and to what end? To what end? Age is something that impacts all of us. At a point when he was at his peak, did we give him the kind of recognition that he deserved? And how do we treat him now that he is moving over into another phase of his life, into coaching?
We have to recognize that we have young athletes coming up you know, and when they look to see what has happened to the athletes who went before them, is it encouraging for them to stay with the sport? If that is the way we going to treat our ‘heroes’ then why should I stay with the sport? Why should I even have an interest in the sport? They ask themselves. It is something we need to take seriously into consideration.
The only way to combat sloppiness; the only way to combat inefficiency in our sport; the only way to combat incompetence is to be professional. To get an understanding of what is required for us to take the bull by the horns and say, this is our sport. We want to remain the leading sport for individuals in the country, and we want to be able to keep our heads high whenever mention is made of athletics. The future looks bright. When you see the numbers that came out for the last three weeks at our Mini Meets and Relay Classic, you feel enthused that there is a resurgence in athletics.
There has been a lot of controversy surrounding the involvement of Michael Mercy Ollivierre since he came back. Many things have been said. But whatever has been said he has gotten more people running; he has gotten more people running; and whatever else has been said other coaches have begun to take up the challenge and say, well we want to do better. Even if it is to combat him, it does not mean as we said earlier that it must lead to division in our coaching fraternity and in our sport. But anybody that brings more athletes to the table; anybody that improves the level of performance of our athletes; anybody that works diligently to ensure that we have a sport that is active and vibrant; even if it means getting others to challenge that person, has to be welcomed in our sport.
Whatever challenges and difficulties we may have otherwise we have to confront that square on as a fraternity. It is our sport. Let us solve our problems among ourselves. At the end of the day, whatever challenges we have we can face up to them. We are a people that are resourceful. We are a people that are resilient. We are a people that have the capacity to do better. We can and must excel, and that is not the club we talking about, by the way. At the end of the day let us go forward from this session today with one aim and that is to maintain athletics as the number one sport for individuals in St Vincent and the Grenadines.