Are Jamaican female track and field athletes given the respect they have earned?

Are Jamaican female track and field athletes given the respect they have earned?

Clare Forrester

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

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At least two significant media sources have recently been critical of Jamaica's female track and field stars for underproducing and for a lack of form. However, such criticisms are neither realistic nor fair. In the first place, it appears that our expectations of the women on the Jamaican track team are based on two main premises, one being that the women have been consistently producing medals over the last three-plus decades, and the second, the exemplary performances by our women at both the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and the Berlin World Championships the following year.

We may need to tone down our expectations significantly when faced with the cold glare of reality. The reality is that the Beijing Olympics took place four years ago, and Berlin a year less than that. Over that period the whole status of world athletics, and especially on the female side, has changed. Undoubtedly, Carmelita Jeter has become the fastest woman in the world.

We notice that the Jamaicans are not complaining about Jeter's loss of form in 2012. As could have been predicted, several unheralded or unknown American sprinters are now stating their case for medals at the London Games. Others from several other countries like Trinidad and Tobago and the Ivory Coast have also stepped up their performance. In the meantime, our stars have got no younger and several have been suffering from career-threatening injuries as well as labouring under the weight of expectations of the Jamaican public.

Popular TVJ commentator Oral Tracey was one of those who noted how poorly Shericka Williams has been running in 2012 compared to when she won a silver medal in Beijing. But the reality is that when Shericka won her silver medal, she surprised virtually everybody, with the possible exception of herself and the MVP coaching staff, by overperforming.

Melaine Walker, Jamaica's "warrior princess", has done more than enough for Jamaica in the 400-metre hurdles where she has been a world-class performer at the highest level since 2004. I do not think anyone has the right to criticise Ms Walker, especially since our national championships are yet to come and she has proved repeatedly that she is a big-race performer. In fact, in 2009 everybody was predicting that Melaine would have seen the backs of the spikes worn by the US champion Lashinda Demus in Berlin. Walker had hardly won a race in 2009 leading up to the Championships. But when the big moment came she not only won, but she nearly established a world record, which she may have done had she been pushed harder by Demus who was left struggling and off balance as Walker crossed the line in triumph.

Then there is the other big-moment lady, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, who was suspended for six months in 2010 because of an unfortunate drug incident. Shelly-Ann has since been struggling through injuries to regain peak form. Although unlike the situation pre-Berlin, when she was favoured to win the gold medal, she is not expected to win if Jeter's earlier 2012 form holds. But I suspect that Shelly relishes the "underdog" role and even more significantly, she appears to be peaking bang on target. We would not be surprised if she again wows an Olympic audience in successfully defending her title.

The point is that all the races that have gone so far are mere warm-ups for the Olympics, and it is still early days. The first true indication of form will come at the Jamaica National Championships when we will see the shape and size of the Jamaica team. But for now, it is far too early to be writing off our proven champions, the Jamaican women of track and field. They have shown repeatedly that they can be depended on.

Why is nobody complaining about Veronica Campbell Brown (VCB)? Is it because she is in very good form? In fact, the predicted encounter between the US 200-metre mega star sprinter Allyson Felix and VCB over the 200 metres promises to be a thing of beauty. I am assuming that Felix has learnt her lesson and will not be doubling in any of the individual events, although her form over the hundred metres this year has been an eye-opener. But we still have to bear in mind that as in the case of Jamaica, the US trials are still to come when many a star has failed to shine and so confirm a spot on that team.

We should note that our budding long-jumper, Chanice Porter, is doing very well so far this year and could crash the party just as Chelsea Hammond threatened to do in Beijing. The fact is that despite the negative predictions, our women will probably do very well at the Olympics, although it may be tempting fate to expect a performance exceeding or even similar to the Beijing or Berlin level (our women won eight of the 11 medals in Beijing).

Jamaican fans tend to get carried away by the awesomeness of Usain Bolt, Yohan Blake, and to some extent by the potential of Asafa Powell. But in reality it is the women who repeatedly bring home the vast majority of the medals. This has been the case since the emergence of Merlene Ottey at the 1980 Moscow Olympics.

I recall VCB asserting at a press conference in Beijing that recognition of performances was harder to come by for the women than the men. This comment was no doubt due to the existence of some unfairly established drug-induced world records, especially in the 100 to 400-metre distances that have stood the test of time and seem unlikely to be broken for many more years. A close study shows that most of the next best times, at least over the 100 to 200 metres, have been achieved by Jamaican women.

It may be useful to recall that since 1980, including the Moscow Olympics, Jamaica's team has won a total of 45 Olympic medals, 30 by women compared to 15 by the men. In addition, the country has minted a total of 89 World Championship medals, 58 of which are owned by women. In total, the men have won 46 global medals while the women have won 88. Further, five women have so far won World Championship gold medals in comparison to three men: Cameron, Bolt and Blake.

I would think that, bearing in mind the magnitude and quality of their performance over time, our women have earned maximum respect nationally as well as globally.

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