The Track versus National Stadium debate – Part II

In the first part of this Column first carried in The News dated Friday 1 June, we began by taking the long historical look at the need for a stadium and had reached a stage where the new government, accessing power in early 2001, began to give the impression that they understood the needs of track and field athletes and footballers around the country.
We begin this week’s Column with the promise of the ULP administration to right that historical wrong.
Election promise
Following the declaration of the date for the general elections of 2001 the then Opposition ULP began its campaign to take hold of the reins of government.
In its commitment to winning the youth vote that was so critical to success at the polls the ULP produced a Youth Manifesto, aimed directly at the nation’s young people.
The cover of the ULP’s Youth Manifesto featured the nation’s foremost distance running athlete, Pamenos Ballantyne, who had already made himself a familiar personality on the political platforms of the party in the campaign.
The use of the image of Pamenos Ballantyne was apparently intended to signal the ULP’s promise to place emphasis on sport if it won the general elections.
Ballantyne had been disgruntled about the seeming lack of appreciation by the NDP government for his achievements. According to him, he did not have a job and the government officials failed to turn up at the airport to greet him on his return to the country after successive and record-breaking performances within the Caribbean.
He therefore vociferously proclaimed from one political platform to another, Time for them to go!
The Youth Manifesto also featured a long-held dream of the nation’s footballers and track and field athletes, coaches and administrators – the promise of a national stadium for track and field athletics and football.
It must have occurred to the leadership of the ULP at the time that the promise of a national stadium would certainly have resonated amongst the youths of the country so steeped in the two aforementioned sports. It certainly did.
Across the country the youth population warmed to the news and the promise. They began to have visions of matching strides with their Caribbean and global counterparts on what would be a level playing field. In the process, however, they forgot that dreams often take time before becoming reality.
National Stadium Committee
The second important feature of 2001 was the establishment of a National Stadium Committee by the government and more particularly, the Prime Minister and Minister of Finance.
In the beginning Prime Minister Gonsalves brought on board the leadership of the two main sports involved – athletics and football – Messrs Keith Joseph and St Clair Leacock respectively. Garth Saunders was appointed Chairman and several other individuals were included on the body.
In naming Joseph and Leacock to the Committee the Prime Minister indicated that he was prepared to have the leadership and local representatives of the respective international sports federations advising him on the requirements of a national stadium while allowing for the specific nuances of the Vincentian context.
From the very beginning it was clear that the Prime Minister was the minister responsible for the national stadium. It was never in doubt that the Minister of Sport and the Ministry would, in this particularly important capital project, fall under the ambit of the Prime Minister.
Of course, later on, the politics of the day led to what appears to have been a change of heart and the president of Team Athletics St Vincent and the Grenadines was summarily removed from the National Stadium Committee. The president immediately publicly challenged the explanation that came form the Prime Minister for being not only inaccurate but also untrue. That remains the case to this day.
Libyan assistance
The third feature was the news following the OECS leaders’ visit to Libya, something that had been planned since under the previous regime.
On his return from Libya the Prime Minister announced that the sum of $1,5m US had been allocated to the national stadium project in St Vincent and the Grenadines. This was considered the first instalment from Libya on this project.
For some strange reason at the time the Prime Minister announced to the National Stadium Committee that this first instalment was taking the project one-quarter of the way in realising the stadium. Of course this was a clear indication that he had been misled into believing that the national stadium would cost some $12m ECD. He was deflated when told that the first instalment may barely cover the architect’s brief on the project if at all.
The government therefore included in the budget for the next several years that Libyan funding would be the option for covering the cost of constructing the national stadium.
International experts’ visit
The fourth feature of 2001 was the visit of experts in the field of track and field athletics made possible by Team Athletics St Vincent and the Grenadines.
Amadeo Francis, then a Vice President of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), headed the team of experts. Others in the team were Nicolo Bagni of the internationally renowned track manufacturer, MONDO, and Benn Fields of the internationally recognised track and field equipment manufacturer, UCS.
TASVG”s initiative fast-tracked the discourse on the national stadium as a ceremony was held at the Diamond Estate to bring to the attention of the Vincentian public the commencement of work in earnest on the national stadium as well as allow the visiting experts to see what was happening and give their advice and support. Francis spoke on behalf of the IAAF and the other members of the team. The Prime Minister spoke on behalf of the government.
Clearing of the squatters
In anticipation of the arrival of the team of experts invited to the country by TASVG the government undertook the bold initiative of removing the individuals who were squatting in the area designated best suited to the construction of the national stadium.
It was a most welcome announcement at the ceremony at the Diamond Estate in the presence of the team of experts and representatives invited for the occasion, that the initiative had already been undertaken to have the land for the national stadium cleared of the squatters, an indication of the determination of the government to realise the project.
Who appoints could also dis-appoint
MONDO’s Visit
Eleven years after the first invitation Team Athletics St Vincent and the Grenadines put all behind them and again invited a representative of MONDO to visit St Vincent and the Grenadines re the development of a synthetic track.
TASVG and the National Olympic Committee partnered with MONDO to make the visit possible.
In preparing the programme for the visit TASVG was very clear. At the centre was a commitment to visit two venues – the stadium site at Diamond and the Sion Hill Playing Field. The intention was always to facilitate an examination of the two options on the table as far as TASVG was concerned – a synthetic training surface that could be quickly constructed and serve the immediate needs of the sport’s development strategy, on the one hand, and the more long-term national stadium project.
It was not a fait acompli.
That some seem to think that it was already a done deal and to suggest that TASVG had somehow hijacked the government is to fly in the face of the truth and to deliberately engage in misinformation and downright dishonesty.
Mr Michael Tovar of MONDO paid his official visit here at the request of TASVG supported by the NOC.
During that visit the pros and cons of both Diamond and Sion Hill were examined as the officials went to both venues.
The challenge
The challenge that remains subsequent to the visit is the crux of the debate that must be engaged in by the authorities and all interested persons.
At the core is the issue of the determination of what is possible at this juncture and with what level of commitment of resources.
The immediate need of the sport of athletics is a facility that can be quickly constructed in order to allow for the athletes and coaches to prepare themselves for local, regional and international competition without being hampered by cricket, a sport that now seems to be played all through the year.
The population access to the track is a priority and hence the reason that they are usually located where there is population concentration and easy access. This translates into optimal usage of those already in the sport as well as it becomes a major attraction to others who, seeing the facility and its use by others, take an interest in participating in the sport.
The foundation work for a track does not really change whether it is going to be a facility to be used for training and competition or a high level national stadium. This means that there is a basic cost that has to be met regardless.
There is a view being expressed that if there is to be a financial outlay on a track that it should be at the national stadium which can be constructed in phases over time. This seems to be the official view of the current Minister of Sport and his team, a stance not necessarily agreed to by some who participate din the MONDO visit.
The athletes and coaches need a facility now. The experience of athletics in 2011/12 cannot be in the best interest of the sport. Arnos Vale #1 and #2 are for cricket and therefore the sport receives priority once cricket is in the air. Athletes and coaches from both football and athletics are often made to feel that they are disturbing and hindering the development of the sport because they use the fields.
Our athletes could not be adequately prepared for their local, regional and international competitions between 1 November 2011 and 20 March 2012. This was part of the problem with the preparation of the Thomas Saunders Secondary School team to the annual Penn Relays. Their performance can at best be considered admirable under the circumstances.
The unevenness of the St Vincent Grammar School Playing Field often leaves many athletes in need of physiotherapy and chiropractic care, a situation that bodes no good for their development.
The time has come for the debate to be brought to a head and a decision taken.
In the year of the London Olympics we are still brooding over what we should do.
The decision has to be less political and more objectively realistic as well as creatively developmental.
We are already too late!