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The life of a trailblazer

Dr Cynthia Thompson, 'West Indian Thunderbolt'

BY CONNIE AITCHESON

Sunday, April 14, 2019

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WHEN family and friends of the late Dr Cynthia Thompson, OD, gathered for a prayer meeting at Lyndhurst Methodist Church in St Andrew, there was no mourning. Instead, the congregation sang hymns and recalled the fond memories of a woman many referred to as a legend, icon or just simply auntie.

Thompson passed away on March 8, International Women's Day, at the age of 96. She was the first Jamaican to make a 100-metre final at the 1948 Olympic Games in London and Jamaica's oldest Olympian.

Sentiments of her graciousness and strength were expressed by members of the sporting community. The Minister of Culture, Gender, Entertainment and Sport Olivia Grange said at the news of her passing, “This heroine of Jamaican sport and medicine has completed a remarkable journey and our country is so much better for her service.”

Mike Fennell, former president of the Jamaica Olympic Association for 40 years, said: “All the stories about the '48 Olympic Games tend to highlight Arthur Wint and Herb McKenley, but very little has been said about others who went on the team, like Dr Cynthia Thompson.

“In that time, back in 1948, putting it in context, very little was said about women and the performances of women. So you can imagine how outstanding she was to be a member of that team and do so well.”

This sentiment was shared by three-time Olympian, Vilma Charlton, who was a close friend and constant companion to Thompson, taking her to sporting events or simply to run errands. “She was a pioneer,” said Charlton. “She set the stage for all of us. She did a mammoth task, in terms of getting to the finals, even before the men did so.”

For two-time Olympian Neville Myton, just to know Thompson was a reward by itself. “Growing up as an athlete, you always heard the late Arthur Wint, Herb McKenley and George Rhoden speak very highly of her as a person. She was just this high-quality person.”

Thompson's upbringing contributed greatly to her success in life. Her father was a civil servant at the Jamaica Railway Corporation and her mother was a homemaker, who had attended Westwood High School. Thompson's parents taught her to “do the best with what you can,” said her niece, Anna-Marie Thompson. “Her success never went to her head.”

Pastor of Lyndhurst Methodist, Rev Stephen Mullings, said Thompson, who had been a member of the church from the 1960s, lived her life “by faith and not by sight”. In her later years it became difficult for her to hear but she still attended Sunday service.

After service, she'd tell me, “Rev, I never heard half of what went on today but praise God I'm here.”

That steadfastness certainly epitomises her athletic and professional career. After attending St Hugh's High School, Thompson one of six children for her parents began working at Benjamin's Manufacturing in downtown Kingston, eventually becoming a pharmacist. Her friend, Vinton Beckett, also a St Hugh's old girl, saw her run and convinced her to join the national track and field team.

When she joined the team, she was coached by the esteemed GC Foster. Thompson competed at the fifth Central American and Caribbean (CAC) Games in Barranquilla, Colombia in 1946 where she won the 100 metres in 12.1 seconds and finished second in the 50 metres in 6.5 seconds. At the same Games, Beckett, a high jumper, cleared 1.52 metres to capture second place, after fellow Jamaican Carmen Phipps won with 1.54 metres.

In 1947, JW Taffe, a sport journalist who used to train runners, invited Thompson to participate at the Easter Carnival meet in British Guiana. She competed against Americans and other Caribbean athletes and won the 100 yards race, equalling the world record in 10.8 seconds. Her prize was a farthing, a British coin, a gold ring and a lemonade set which she still had. She was ranked fourth in the world in the 100 and sixth in the 200 that year.

After the meet she earned the nickname “West Indian Thunderbolt”.

Whenever Thompson spoke of her Olympic experience, she often started the story by relaying her journey on the SS Cavina. In an interview with her in 2011, she expressed how this trip affected her performance at the 1948 Games.

“We took 14 days to get to England and everything I ate came up. The nurse gave me Oxo, an English seasoning like bouillon cubes. They used to give me that just to give me a little nourishment. I lost so much weight minus, minus, minus, because my normal weight was less than 100lbs, and I lost weight from that; you can imagine.”

She got new clothing, because the ones she travelled with were too big, but she could not regain her normal weight.

“If we had enough time I would have gotten back my weight, but we didn't. You know Olympics and weight loss just not compatible.”

At the Games, Thompson got to the semi-finals in the 200 metres. It was the first time women ran the race at the Olympics. She won Heat Two of Round One in an Olympic record of 25.7 seconds, which was broken in a later heat, but finished fourth in the semi-finals, and didn't advance to the finals.

Even though she shared the 100 yards world record going into the Olympics, her weight loss was too much to overcome. She advanced to the finals but finished in sixth place.

However, her finish was the first time a Jamaican had appeared in the 100m finals of an Olympics. Despite that accomplishment, she was discouraged.

“I let the people down and I was so disappointed,” she said in 2011. “I felt, 'what am I going to do when I go home?' you know. People are going to talk. When you get to the finals they give you a little certificate and it says 'Champion, Olympic Champion. So that was my Olympic experience.”

But that was not the end of her athletic career. She ran in the 1950 CAC Games and saved money from her work at Benjamin's to attended Roosevelt University in Chicago, where she paid her tuition. Soon she was offered a work-aid scholarship to attend Tennessee State University (TSU), home of the Tigerbelles, the premier female track-and-field team in America during the 1950s and 60s.

Thompson was coached by the famed Ed Temple and graduated in 1956. By then she had worked as an exercise assistant to a high school runner, Wilma Rudolph, who at the Rome Games in 1960 would become the first American woman to win three gold medals at the same Olympics.

Thompson left TSU and got a scholarship to Meharry Medical College in Nashville, where she studied paediatrics.

In 1962, she attended the independence celebrations at the National Stadium. Feeling homesick and wanting to contribute to Jamaica, she soon returned and started working at Bustamante Hospital for Children until she retired in 2000 and entered private practice.

Once back in Jamaica, Thompson was always present for sporting events. An avid follower of track and field and cricket, she served as a finish judge at track meets for several years.

“Over the years, we all got to know Dr Cynthia Thompson because she was always around,” said Fennell. “Many times she would come, and almost in a whisper, suggest things that you should consider doing to improve either the lot of the athletes or the event itself.

“You develop a respect for those people who give you solid advice, that don't have to be brash about it and don't have to have their headline in the paper all the time,” he continued. “She never sought any publicity. She did it out of a sincere desire to help.”

Dr Thompson's journey, and the larger experience of women in sport, has never been celebrated as their male counterparts, but their achievements are nevertheless as important. She, and so many other women, created history with their accomplishments in sports at a time when their mere participation was revolutionary.

“Whether or not people don't realise it, Jamaica however small and self-sufficient in many areas has been at the forefront of many social values, such as gender equality and recognising minority groups, longer than many other bigger countries,” says Fennell.

With the passing of this remarkable woman, we remember her accomplishment and her many contributions to Jamaican society.

“I hope all modern-day athletes had a chance to meet her in her life,” said Myton. “She was a legend — one of those people who live that we will always remember and say she was a blessed soul. She was just one great human being.”

Dr Cynthia Thompson's homegoing service was held yesterday at Lyndhurst Methodist Church in St Andrew.

— ctanyc@gmail.com


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