The Politics of Sport – the next frontier

It has often been said that the politics of sport is more vicious than national politics.

Here in St Vincent and the Grenadines we have witnessed the systematic politicising of sport in a variety of ways but many have opted to still their tongues, perhaps too fearful of the seeming dangers of speaking out.
In this Column we attempt to sift through the clutter to reveal what we see as sport being the next frontier of political divisiveness in St Vincent and the Grenadines if only because the youths are an ever-increasing proportion of the Vincentian electorate and so their votes are important to garner victory at the pending polls.

Government & Sport

Let us be very clear that it is the responsibility of a government to look after the development of its people by adopting policies, programmes and practices that would facilitate this. Sport is an important feature of the development process.
All too often we tend to confuse economic growth with development. This is not always the case and all around us we can readily find outstanding examples of nations that have experienced significant economic growth but development has been stymied. Unless the benefits of economic growth are not used to facilitate the improvement in the quality of life of the peoples of a country through health, education, housing and employment, genuine development would not take place.
Here in St Vincent and the Grenadines we have a national sport policy. This is supposed to serve as a guide for locating sport as one of the nation’s pillars of development. However, the policy is subject to the whims and fancies of the government of the day. The result is that the policy remains a paper document and little else. One is never certain what aspects are being enforced and when.
Successive governments have undertaken the challenges associated with the provision of sport facilities. In the 1980s, the then government passed an Act of Parliament establishing the National Sports Council (NSC), giving the institution responsibility to develop and maintain sports facilities across the nation, with the sole exception of the Victoria Park, which was left in the hands of the Kingstown Town Board.
The aforementioned Act also allowed for the establishment of a National Sports Assembly, the bringing together of all national sports associations, to serve in an advisory capacity to the NSC. This has never worked, for a variety of reasons.
By and large, the NSC, established as a statutory body, has over the years been found to be composed of party political nominees with a distinctive cricket bias. There are those who would insist that much of this is still the case today.
Over the years the NSC has remained more of a political entity rather than an institution that understands and operates in the broader national collective interest. They do not yet have an understanding of the tremendous potential of sport to the education, health and economic developmental thrust of the country. It is for this reason that the NSC has never transformed itself into an entity that promotes professionalism in sport in St Vincent and the Grenadines.
Under-funded, the NSC remains in a sort of limbo, with a heavy reliance on the political will rather than engaging in academic and professional development of departments and staff to transform itself into a major national development agency contributing significant revenues to the national treasury.
Not surprisingly therefore the NSC is an institution reacting to the political dictates rather than being a source of innovation and inspiration and creative programming. Its primary mandate is now gradually being overtaken by the National Lotteries Authority (NLA), an institution whose declared mandate is the promotion of sport and culture.
For some time, the NSC convened a meeting erroneously referred to as, “The National Tripartite Meeting”. It was eventually agreed that the number of entities involved did not permit the meeting to be so named. Now, the Tripartite Meeting is comprised of the NSC, the NLA and the Department of Sport in the Ministry of Tourism, Sport and Culture. Discussions at this newly created institution do not yet filter to the Vincentian public and the several national sports associations.
The NSC, like the rest of St Vincent and the Grenadines, has witnessed the incursion of the NLA into its mandate. In what can only be construed as politicking, the NLA has gotten involved in the establishment, upgrading and maintenance of an increasing number of sport facilities around the country. The NSC is not always involved in determining what facilities are to be upgraded by the NLA. It appears that, for the most part, such decisions are made at the political level.
When the announcement was made that the NLA was taking a loan of $6.5m from the National Insurance Services (NIS), the national sport fraternity was in a state of shock since there was no involvement of these national governing bodies for sport in the determination of what facilities were in what state/condition and what were their primary needs.
Who made the decisions?
One can only hazard a guess that the politicians did, under the ambit of the NLA.
The NLA has never been developed as an institution for the development, upgrade and maintenance of sports facilities until recently. The first facility placed under the NLA was the Victoria Park, removed from the hands of the Kingstown Town Board.
The NLA was responsible for the playing fields at Park Hill and South Rivers.
It is the NLA that has been responsible for the playing field at Cumberland and Penniston, on the Leeward side of the island.
One is not at all certain that the NSC plays a role in determining where and when sport facilities are to be established or upgraded and to what levels.
We are not aware of any accountability statement on the expenditure of the $6.5m that the NLA borrowed from the NIS nor the repayment schedule involved.

Political machinations

The determination of which sporting organisations receive approval for funding of their projects from the NLA often appears decidedly political.
Indeed there is something of a charade when it is insisted that the requests for assistance must go through the NSC for approval before being sent to the NLA. However, when one wants to know from the NSC the status of the application one is told to check with the NLA. This is all something of a travesty that cannot be considered acceptable.
Last week we heard the announcement of two cricket matches scheduled to coincide with the opening of two playing fields on the leeward side of St Vincent. This prompted speculation in different quarters of the country.
The announcement of the opening of the Cumberland Playing Field came as something of a surprise since some are of the view that this very facility was an integral component of the political campaign strategy of the ruling party in the general elections of 2015. It mattered not that it took a little while longer than the Argyle International Airport to complete, the completion and celebrated opening appeared to have been in sync with the party’s attempt to unseat the NDP’s candidate in the area.
Many also felt that it took an unduly long time after the opening in 2015 for sporting organisations to gain access to the same facility and wondered what was the reasoning behind such action.
It is not always possible to get a straight response from the NSC officials regarding several of the sport facilities that have either been constructed by or upgraded by the NLA. Often time sit seems that the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing in this regard. 
It must therefore be seen as an important step that a truly tripartite sport body has been established bringing the three government institutions together.
The Parliamentary representative for North Leeward has expressed his own concern with the decision to invite some big names in regional cricket to be part of last week’s cricket matches on the leeward side. He expressed the hope that some of the cricketers would not allow themselves to become pawns in a political game being played by the ruling regime in St Vincent and the Grenadines.
Some may recall, however, that in 2001, at least one of the country’s leading athletes was a familiar sight on the ULP’s political platforms. At the time this Columnist insisted that it was inappropriate for a national athlete to align himself publicly with one political party since he was a representative of the entire nation and would have done well steering clear of petty, tribal politics.
The activities of the ruling regime leave many questioning its commitment to physical activity and sport in St Vincent and the Grenadines. There is no real dialogue between national sports associations and the government agencies involved in sport, for the most part.
Meetings that have been held in the past under the misnomer of a “tripartite meeting” have essentially been opportunities for the government representatives to lord it over the national sport bodies, letting the latter know what is supposed to be the official ‘line of march’ in sport from the former’s perspective.

The next political frontier

There is every reason to believe that sport is already the next political frontier in St Vincent and the Grenadines.
The race for governance is on and national politics has begun to heat up.
The youth vote is important as the ruling regime senses a loss of interest in what they have on offer to today’s young Vincentian.
Interest in sport has not been one of the strengths of the current government in St Vincent and the Grenadines. It took too long for the hardcourt to be constructed at Gomea to facilitate the second new court surface that the Volleyball Association received from its continental body, NORCECA. A visionary would have also constructed a Beach Volleyball facility adjacent to the newly developed hard court at the same venue so that the area could easily become a major national volleyball centre. There is ample space to have done so.
We can expect more emphasis being place don sport in the coming months as the ruling regime focuses on general elections, regardless of the court’s decision relative to the Opposition’s petitions.
Our politicians continue to underplay the importance of sport to national development. Despite the progress made by the Bahamas, Jamaica, Barbados and St Kitts and Nevis in the promotion of their countries as sport tourism destinations, we at home continue to see sport as sheer frivolity and the youths who engage in it as mere votes to be garnered to aid in accessing governance.
Our national sport associations need to insist on a definitive role in the thrust for genuine national development rather than the narrow partisan political benefits that only a few can achieve.
Our sportspeople must stand tall and demand that they be seen as Vincentians who are ready and willing to contribute to the nation-building process as full participants not tokens.
If sport is to become the next political frontier in St Vincent and the Grenadines the sportspeople must ensure that it is in the collective best interest of the entire populace and not only the purview of a politically partisan few.