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Need for a single Caribbean sports academy

Sir Ronald Sanders

Sunday, August 12, 2012    

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ON the basis of the size of populations and medals won, the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada would be ranked in first place in the 2012 Olympic Games in London with another Caribbean island, Jamaica, in second place — though with a larger number of medals. Officially, Jamaica is ranked at 18 and Grenada at 42.

At the time of writing at the end of Day 13 of the 16-day Olympic Games, the United States is officially ranked number one with China in second place. But the medal haul of the US and China is drawn from populations of 312 million and 1.3 billion respectively, while Grenada’s medal — a gold for Kirani James in the 400 metres — comes from a population of a mere 110,000 and Jamaica’s outstanding nine medals (three gold, three silvers and three bronze) from a population of 2.8 million.

Using medals per head of population as a measurement, the US would be number 36 and China number 60. When Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is added to this analysis, Grenada and Jamaica perform even better. The United States and China are rated by the International Monetary Fund at first and second respectively as the two largest economies in the world, while Grenada and Jamaica are ranked at 172 and 113 of 182 nations.

As I write, there are three more days to go and more medals will be won by several countries, including the two leaders, the US and China, but also by Jamaica.

In track and field, Caribbean athletes have shown that they are among the world’s best. This is cause for much pride by the people of these two English-speaking Caribbean countries and their partner countries in the Commonwealth Caribbean whose total population is just about five million people.

The phenomenal Usain Bolt, who has spectacularly won two gold medals in the 100 and 200- metre events, and Yohan Blake, who took silver, behind him, are as much heroes of their neighbouring English-speaking Caribbean countries as they are of their native Jamaica. So too are Warren Weir, who gave Jamaica a clean sweep in the 200 metres by taking the bronze, and Hansle Parchment, who won bronze in the 110- metre hurdles.

The Jamaican women, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce (gold and silver in the 100 metres and 200 metres respectively) and Veronica Campbell Brown (bronze in the 100 metres) are also special heroines upholding the prowess of Caribbean womanhood and taking on the best of the United States.

It should be noted that, of the English-speaking Caribbean countries, Trinidad and Tobago also won a bronze medal through Gordon Lalonde who was third in the men’s 400metre event. Other Caribbean athletes, such as Antigua’s Daniel Bailey and Barbados’ Ryan Brathwaite, creditably made it to the finals and semi-finals.

But beyond the marvellous performances by these athletes is a reality that, apart from Jamaica, the development of athletes in the English-speaking Caribbean countries is woefully poor. Neither governments nor the private sector in the region are contributing to the development of sports in the quantities that they should. Yet, everyone basks in the superb accomplishment of Caribbean athletes who triumph largely because of their natural talent and dedication.

Caribbean countries have been lucky to have unearthed persons with natural talent, but that talent alone will not sustain them in the future against competition from athletes from other countries whose governments and private sector are investing heavily in them precisely because they want glorious results at the Olympics and other international games.

For any athlete, while a substantial part of his or her capacity resides in natural talent, they will fail if they are denied financial support, good coaching and tireless training.

This has been the basis for China’s success. Once identified, that country’s athletes are taken out of their homes and away from their families to spend years in rigorous training and coaching camps. This is the extreme position. No country has to go as far as separating sports persons from their homes and family for the inordinate length of time that China does, but all countries that want their athletes to do well because of the pride it brings to their people and the joy of seeing them win, have to invest in the facilities they need to become world champions.

Jamaica in the English-speaking Caribbean has invested more than any other country in the development of its track and field athletics, and it is reaping the benefit. In the case of Kirani James of Grenada, it should be recalled that he is a student at the University of Alabama in the US, where he has benefited from the skills of a remarkable coach, Harvey Glance, and facilities that are far superior to anything in the region.

Even as the London 2012 Olympic events were in full swing, with the host country achieving a record collection of medals, leading sports persons warned the British Government not to cut spending for sport. They cautioned that any cuts would have dire consequences for the performance of British sports persons in the 2016 Olympic Games in Brazil.

It is significant that since London was awarded the Olympic Games seven years ago, the national lottery contributed US$390 million to support elite athletes. Little wonder that with a population of 59 million people — a third of the size of the US population and a fraction of China’s numbers — Britain is third in the medal winners.

The people of the English-speaking Caribbean have every reason to be proud of their athletes and of the impact they are making on the world, but this pride will not be sustained unless governments and the private sectors invest in the facilities these gifted athletes need.

To guarantee the development of future champions, how about a single sports academy manned by outstanding coaches, located in Jamaica and funded by all the governments and private sectors of the Caribbean Community, for the region’s elite athletes?

Ronald Sanders is a consultant and former Caribbean diplomat Responses and previous commentaries: www.sirronaldsanders.com

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