No Caribbean unity through sport

Many have pointed to the capacity of sport to facilitate unity among peoples of the world. Indeed, it is one of the principles of the founding fathers of the Olympic Movement that sport should engender harmony among peoples to the point where the world would eventually become united. The reality is that this has never happened and today we are as far away from achieving this as has been the case in the age of antiquity.
In the 1950s the Caribbean officially attempted the establishment of the West Indies Federation. The institution was seen as a mechanism to facilitate the unity of the region. Unfortunately, the leaders of the smaller islands of the Caribbean started Federation. Grenada’s TA Marryshow was from a small island. Jamaica read into the establishment of the Federation the hands of the smaller islands more generally and claimed via a national referendum that the union would have allowed these islands to prey on their economic fortunes thereby leading to the impoverishment of Jamaica. Nothing could be father from the truth. Jamaica and Jamaicans did not allow themselves the benefit of careful analysis of the reality that the Caribbean is made up of rocks that are far too populated and too short of valuable sustainable resources to sustain themselves individually and independently; that their overall, individual well being is inevitably intertwined with that of all of the others in the region unless an otherwise return to some variant of colonialism.
Sport involves competition. It is expected that for the most part this would mean friendly competition. But the very concept of competition lends itself to various interpretations, one of which suggests that we are often dealing with antagonists.
The objective of competition in sport is for someone to win. For many who have committed themselves to sport this translates into a profound desire to win and we can safely state that this really means, to win at all costs.
As early as the middle of the 19th century we have reports of hooliganism in English Football, a most crude aspect of this particular sport that continues unabated through to the contemporary period. Researchers have been convinced that in English Football hooliganism is a social tradition that has revealed itself to be particularly sustainable. There is a career structure in this sordid aspect of English society. Not surprisingly the English have been able to export this particular aspect of the sport throughout Europe and they have taken it with them wherever they have gone for the quadrennial Football World Cup.
On the field of play itself violence has been frequent. Schools, clubs and nations all seem to approach the sport as enemies even though in the recent past they commence playing following their entry onto the field to the musical strains of the FIFA Fair Play Anthem, the playing of their respective national anthems and the exchange of gifts by captains and the shaking of hands with and by everyone.
In the USA, Ice Hockey has ventured into a class of its own in respect of the crass display of violence that has come to characterise it. The level of violence in this sport has become commonplace and integral to the culture. It emerges as something of a surprise of an entire game concludes without the spillage of blood.
Perhaps the best characterisation of the state of sport is that which was used at the beginning of the movie starring James Caan, Rollerball. “In the future wars will no longer exist but there will be Rollerball”. The game of Rollerball featured the most gruesome display of violence in sport. The concept remains important to our argument in this Column – sport has in many ways become the new arena for the playing out of antagonisms between nations. This has filtered down to antagonisms between clubs, schools and individuals.
In almost every sport we have seen the use of different means by individual participants to gaining some advantage over their opponents. At times they have used performance-enhancing substances while on other occasions that have sought to introduce new and illicit improvements to their machines to facilitate greater speeds.
The example of fair play displayed by Jesse Owens and Lux Long at the Berlin Olympics of 1936 is particularly rare and stand as useful exceptions rather than the norm in the field of sport.
During the period of the Federation the Caribbean had one National Olympic Committee. Teams representing the region attended the 1959 pan American Games in Chicago, USA, and, one year later, the Olympic Games in Rome, Italy. This reality did not change anything and as soon as the countries of the region gained their independence from Britain in the early 1960s they each sought to establish their individual National Olympic Committees. This was the course of action by one country after another despite the continued existence of a single West Indies Cricket team in the sport at the international level. Clearly, the insularity that led to the demise of the Federation was far more important to each country than pursuance of the noble objective of unity.
West Indies Cricket
In the Caribbean the West Indies Cricket team has long been held as an example of sport as a vehicle for regional unity. Nothing could be father from the truth. One has only to reflect on the response of sport enthusiasts from the various counties of the region following the announcement of the newly selected team for any series engagement in order to understand and appreciate the insularity that characterises us as a people.
The failure of the Federation in the 1950s and 1960s remains significant. The continued existence of a West Indies Cricket team today may well have to do with the inability of any one of its constituents to fare well in the international arena of the sport beginning with the satisfaction of the requisite financial obligations.
Marlon Samuels’ literal turning of his back on world renowned batting star, Brian Lara, in the final match of the Cricket World Cup played by the West Indies team in 2007, epitomises the gross disparities of our region in the sports arena. It is an annoying piece of evidence that there is not a concept of oneness despite the fact that the West Indies Cricket Team has been in existence for more than a century.
Issues of who should be the President of the WICB, the captain of the team, the coach and the selectors all incur severe strain and bickering among the supporters of the sport across the region.
The likes of CLR James, Rex Nettleford, Michael Manley and Hillary Beckles have all extolled the virtues of the region’s playing of the sport to a level that allowed for us to speak in terms of ‘Liberation Cricket’. This was a reference to the region’s capacity to attach to our playing of the game in the international arena the aspirations of our people. Cricket was seen as literally liberating us from the cruel yoke of colonialism. Our successes in the Cricket arena allowed us to stand tall as a people, proud of where we have arrived knowing clearly from where we had come though the years.
Despite the boast of the liberating effects of Cricket we in the Caribbean have remained essentially ‘crabs in a barrel’ in so far as we are still characterised of a blighted insularity that often denies us the ability to see the good in each other; to see beyond national borders and to extol individualism.
Caribbean Games
In the 1970s CARICOM Heads established the CARICOM Sports Desk, not to give due recognition to the role of sport in regional integration but instead out of their anxiety to pay homage to Garfield Sobers of Barbados, the world’s most remarkable all-rounder in Cricket. Unashamedly they crafted an institution completed with job requirements for its leader that only Sobers could have filled. It all backfired. The Sports Desk collapsed and today sport is sequestered under the ambit of the COHSOD within the CARICOM.
When for several years the West Indies Cricket team faltered into the game’s doldrums CARICOM Heads established another blighted institution, ‘The Caricom Committee on Cricket’. Most noteworthy here is that the regional leaders did not focus on sport and regional unity but Cricket. This reflected their own failure to understand sport and the role that sport has played and continues to play in the lives of people. It may well be that they remain lost in the CLR James’ era and the importance of Cricket to us at that juncture.
In 1999 the CARICOM considered the establishment of Caribbean Games, a multisport event. The intention was based on the rise in status of the region’s athletes in the international arena and a desire to have the very best of them compete at home before their own people. The original Caribbean Games were scheduled for Trinidad and Tobago for 12 – 19 July 2009.
In the early preparatory phase for the inaugural Caribbean Games it was considered important to have the NOCs prevail on their respective governments and national sports associations to do all in their power to have the very best athletes in attendance. There were commitments all around until the final few months of the preparatory exercise.
The successes of the Caribbean track and field athletes at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 set the stage for a very attractive Caribbean Games. However, the organisers were unable to garner any genuine commitment from the NOCs with the so-called superstars of track and field athletics, apart from host, Trinidad and Tobago, namely Jamaica, Cuba and the Netherlands Antilles, that their very best athletes would compete at the Games.
At no time in the last months leading up to the commencement of the Caribbean Games did the concept of regional unity through sport ever emerge as an important feature, not even amongst the regional media.
To some it may well have been fortuitous that the inaugural Caribbean Games were cancelled following an outbreak of the swine flu in Trinidad and Tobago. The influenza outbreak may well have become the single most convenient scapegoat for what was going to be the first major regional multisport event for senior athletes to reflect the most recent evidence of the region’s incapacity to work together in its own best interest.
The failure of the inaugural Caribbean Games rests with the unfortunate legacy of the region itself – its unwillingness to perceive itself as one socio-economic, socio-political and socio-cultural space within which there exists vast potential for development through collective endeavour.
Once more the Caribbean region has capitulated to blighted insularity and sickening myopia