The Caribbean’s performance at the recently concluded World Championships in Athletics in Berlin, Germany, has once more shown that the region does possess immense potential in this particular sport to such an extent that the international profile of all of the countries has been lifted beyond expectations.
Significantly, the medals and prize monies have spread more widely amongst the Caribbean than before.
Jamaica has of course led the way yet again. Usain Bolt has demolished the 100m and 200m world records as though they were not his own.
Barbados claimed its first World Senior Championships gold medal (Men’s 110mH).
Cuba won the Triple Jump but has generally not been as strong in athletics as hitherto.
Puerto Rico claimed its first ever medal at any World Championships in Athletics. Trinidad and Tobago earned a second place in the 4 x 100m Men’s Relay, third in the 400mH women and 400m men, while 17 year old Jehue Gordon of the same country finished a most credible fourth in the men’s 400mH, establishing in the process a new world junior record for the event.
Antigua and Barbuda’s Daniel Bailey finished fourth in the 100m.
St Kitts and Nevis, BVI, USVI and St Vincent and the Grenadines all had athletes who reached the semi finals in their respective competitions, an achievement that surpassed any previous performances at World Championships in Athletics at any level.
Throughout the world there is now very keen interest into the rise in athletics performances from the Caribbean’s athletes on the world scene. Some countries have even begun to investigate the reasons for this in order to replicate it in their own countries or be able to combat Caribbean athletes in the future.
The performances of the region’s athletes at the Championships have emerged from a series of important factors.
In the case of Jamaica the foundation remains at the schools level. The physical education programme is strong and given the legacy of performances in track and field athletics dating back to the 1940s and 1950s – Arthur Wint, Herb McKenley, George Rhoden and Leslie Laing – interest in the sport at all levels of the education system is very high.
The annual Boys and Girls Champs, which features four days of intense athletics competition between the secondary schools in Jamaica, is the single most popular track and field event in the country and in sport, is rivalled only by the region’s most popular sport, football.
In spite of the soundness of the schools programme Jamaica has nonetheless never established a club structure for the sport of athletics. To this day individuals rather than clubs constitute the membership of the Jamaican athletics body.
It is only in the recent past that Stephen Francis established the MVP Athletics Club comprising professional athletes led by Asafa Powell, following the likes of the USA’s Santa Monica Track Club with Carl Lewis and Leroy Burrell and John Smith’s HSI that once included the likes of Ato Boldon and Maurice Greene.
The fist top Jamaican athlete to stay at home and achieved some measure of success was Michael Mc Donald, in the early to mid 1990s. Later on the MVP ensured that Jamaica could become a home base for its better athletes. The MVP’s Asafa Powell remained at home while establishing one world record after another in the 100m. A number of outstanding athletes in Jamaica then joined the MVP and at the Beijing Olympics, seven of the 11 meals won came from this club.
Usain Bolt, a sports phenomenon by any measure, has never been abroad to train. He has been with his Jamaican coaches since early school years. It does remain doubtful whether Bolt has ever really been the kind of athlete many would have expected. He seems pure genius. His training does not suggest the kind of performances we see on the international scene unless one admits to pure genius.
Cuba was once the sporting powerhouse of the Caribbean and this long before the revolution of the 1950s. Following the revolution sport became an important vehicle of endorsement of the change in Cuban society. In this vein the Cubans were much like the rest of the socialist bloc at the time, all of whom ventured to utilise sport to showcase the benefits of the new system.
The system provided for the athletes in every regard and the response was a seeming endless parade of athletes on the medal podium.
Through the years Cuba produced some outstanding track and field athletes the most renowned of whom is Alberto Juantorena, winner of the 400m and 800m at the Montreal Olympics in 1976. He remains to this day the only athlete to achieve this feat.
But in the more recent past the Cuban system has suffered as the international economy bit into the society. Since the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta there has been a consistent slide in the performance of Cuban athletes on the world scene of athletics.
Trinidad and Tobago
Trinidad and Tobago boasts Hasely Crawford as its lone Olympic gold medallist. However there have been several athletes who have attained world records in track and field athletics. Wendell Mottley was considered one of the best quarter milers in the sport’s history but lost out on the gold in Tokyo in 1964. He finished second to Canada’s Harry Jerome.
Everyone remembers Edwin Roberts whose outstanding performances in the 100m, 200m and 400m earned him the title, Mr Evergreen.
After the era of Hasely Crawford there was a significant hiatus until Ato Boldon came on the scene and earned a world title and a handful of Olympic medals.
There has been a proliferation of facilities in the twin-island Republic, bolstering participation in the sport. Sponsors have readily come out in support of the sport following the successes of Boldon and others.
Today there is are successive generations of athletes emerging from the farthest corners of Trinidad and Tobago.
Unlike Jamaica however, there is a vibrant club structure in the sport although many of the top athletes readily move abroad. Many of the coaches schooled abroad on athletics scholarships and use their contacts to gain access for their charges.
Barbados has come a long way in the sport of athletics with Obadele Thompson becoming the country’s first Olympic medallist in 2000.
Ryan Brathwaite’s gold medal performance at the just concluded World Championships in Berlin leaves him in a class by himself, the first Barbadian to achieve this feat.
Barbados has invested heavily in the sport of athletics. The national stadium was constructed and made available for athletics and cycling in the early 1970s.
Like Trinidad and Tobago, all of the top athletes seek out athletic s scholarships in the USA.
There is no shortage of facilities and equipment available to Barbadian athletes.
Puerto Rico has taken a very long time to win its first World Championships medal. In the Caribbean this country has more synthetic tracks per head of population than any other yet there are so many sports played and so many distractions competing for the interest of the youths that athletics is really a low order priority.
In the recent past however, the Ministry of Education has taken on board the Kids Athletics Programme of the IAAF and there are over 164 Primary Schools in which it has been introduced and fully functional.
The universities in Puerto Rico had once awarded scholarships to the athletes of the Caribbean and our own Carl Ollivierre, Sonia Israel and Garth Saunders have been beneficiaries. Unfortunately in the recent past these scholarships have gone the way of the latinos so much so that the annual University Championships feature these overseas athletes well ahead of the Puerto Ricans.
Still, there are the extensive facilities available at every turn and once the coaches do their part this country would move on ahead in the future.
St Kitts and Nevis
St Kitts and Nevis has produced Kim Collins. He won the Commonwealth gold medal in 2002 and earned world championships medals in 2001 and 2003. In the latter year he won the gold.
Collins’ success emerged from a government commitment to provide the athletics body there with $1m ECD in 1995. Since then there has been no turning back.
The government recent constructed the only fully equipped national stadium wholly devoted to track and field athletics in the entire English-speaking Caribbean.
St Kitts and Nevis has been producing athletes at a record pace that is unbelievable. With a population of just over 40,000 there seems no shortage of talented athletes joining the sport.
The government is also assisting with the payment for schooling of some of the nation’s young athlete sin the USA.
Grenada and St Lucia have also had national stadiums constructed for track and field athletics in tandem with football.
There can be no progress without appropriate facilities. Adequate facilities enable our athletes to lift their performances since they are training and competing on comparable surfaces.
Government support is critical to the advancement of the sport of athletics everywhere.
Sport is critical to the development of our youths and helps build the image of the country abroad.
St Vincent and the Grenadines lags behind largely because of the absence of adequate facilities undercut by a lack of genuine commitment to sport and its many benefits to us as a people.
We can continue to preach all we want about the Caribbean civilisation and its Vincentian components but the absence of any genuine commitment to sport gives the lie to it all.