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A podium finish not achieved overnight

Patrick Robinson

Sunday, November 05, 2017

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It was the system that took us to the pinnacle of global athletics, and it is the system that will ensure that we will always be a dominant force in track and field athletics.The system to which I refer is described in Jamaican Athletics: A Model for 2012 and the World as follows:

“Jamaica's success in track and field is not fortuitous; it is the result of a system of athletic instruction, management and administration that has been in place, tried and tested for about 100 years, and is now well established.”

Like everything else, the system is not perfect. It can be improved, and we have over the years done just that. We should always be on the lookout to make changes in the best interest of the system.

To do well, Jamaica does not have to gain nine to 13 medals in the Olympics and the World Championships. To gain the number and quality of medals that we have in the past 10 years is to do extraordinarily well. In terms of our size and resources, Jamaica does well in these championships if it gains four to eight medals, with a sprinkling of gold among them. In the period between 2008 and the present, as big and wealthy a country as the United Kingdom has only outperformed us on a single occasion — the 2017 London World Championships. Indeed, on many occasions in that period it was only the USA, USSR/Russia, and Kenya that were ahead of us; and on three occasions we were second on the medal table.

Yet, I understand the view of those who feel that, as tempting as it may be, we should not allow our size to be used as a measure of our achievements at the global level in any field, whether it be athletics or any other sport, trade, investment, music, science and technology, or any other area of national endeavour.

The world of today is not very patient with those who plead size as an explanation of their weakness, inefficiency, non-competitiveness, or other failings. When the World Trade Organization had to consider the legality of the banana trade preferences enjoyed by small Caribbean states, the size of our countries did not prevent that body from ruling against us. Every Jamaican child should be taught that the true meaning of the saying “Wi little but wi tallawah” is that, as a country and a people, we are not defined by our size, but by the indomitable strength and spirit inherited from our once-enslaved ancestors.

Although I am well aware of the saying “nearly never kill bird”, I ask those who decry Jamaica's performance in the 2017 London World Championships to consider that, with a little better luck, a little better health, a little better execution, and a little better English weather, we could have won another five or six medals.

In about April of this year, I had picked a team of Javon Francis, Nathon Allen, Demish Gaye, and Akeem Bloomfield to be capable of running the 4x400m relay in about 2:58 minutes. In August, it was a time that would have won gold in London. Alas, Francis and Bloomfield were absent due to injury. But then these athletes are all young and will serve Jamaica well in the future. In fact, that team can be expected to challenge the national record of 2:56.75 minutes in another year or two. Additionally, Jamaica has other strong 400m runners in Fitzroy Dunkley and Stephen Gayle, not to mention the national record holder Rusheen McDonald, who will want to show that his sub 44 secs time was not a fluke.

Over the next few years Jamaica can recover the global dominance in the 400m it enjoyed from about 1947 to 1952 with Arthur Wint, Herb Mckenley, George Rhoden, and Les Laing. In London, Jamaica did not get through the heats, having entered a team without the athletes who came fifth and sixth in the 400m flat. 'Wi salt!' But imagine our delight, pride and the sense of compensation that the 4x400m relay was won by our brothers from Trinidad and Tobago.

At the London World Championships Danielle Williams hit the first hurdle in the 110m hurdles and was out. She won a medal, as would have Ronald Levy would have done on the basis of his form at that time. He also hit the first hurdle in his race.

Elaine Thompson had several bouts of vomiting prior to the 100m final. Anyone who has thrown up can testify to the debilitating effect that vomiting has on the body. It is a tribute to Elaine, the gracious loser, that she did not seek to attribute her loss to that unfortunate episode. Her time in the semi-final, when she was in imperious form, would easily have won the final. She is only 25 years old. Time is on her side.

Anneisha McLaughlin-Whilby pulled up not long after she started the first leg of the 4x 400m relay — a certain medal lost. 'Wi salt fi true.'

And 'The Big Man', Usain Bolt, also pulled up on the anchor leg of the 4x100m relay — another medal slipped from our hands. He lost the 100m but won the gold for the nobility of his post-race conduct. Bolt's long and touching embrace of the non-hero, Justin Gatlin, gave us a glimpse of the kind of Jamaican of whom we can all be proud. What a fantastic job Mr and Mrs Bolt, two humble people from rural Jamaica, did in rearing their son to be the kind of person he is. In light of the many challenges facing our youth today, the ministries of education, youth and culture should consider requesting them to share their secret of parental guidance with the country.

It would not have escaped the attention of the keen observer that about 99 per cent of those who have represented Jamaica in track and field athletics are from working-class backgrounds. In fact, in the last 10 years, our glory years, there have not been more than two or three individuals from a middle-class background who have represented Jamaica in track and field — nor, as far as I am aware, has anyone who attended a private as distinct from a primary school. The plain fact is that the vast majority of our athletes are working-class children who attended primary school prior to attending secondary-level schools. There is a lesson in this simple statistic for sports like tennis and swimming: If we are to be competitive at the international level in these sports, we must find a way to democratise them to deepen the pool from which participants are drawn. Can you imagine how many more Alia Atkinsons Jamaica would have produced if primary school children and more secondary school children had access to swimming facilities and supported by qualified coaches?

Coach training

When one looks at the landscape of track and field athletics in Jamaica there is no cause for the concern that many seem to have at this time. Talent abounds and coaching gets better and better at both the junior and senior levels. Little-known schools from lesser-known places, like Spot Valley and Petersfield, continue to produce stars at Champs. They do so because there is a G C Foster College-trained coach at the school. One of the late Neville “Teddy” McCook's goals when he was President of the Jamaica Athletics Administrative Association was that every school should have a qualified coach. G C Foster College of Physical Education and Sport has ensured that this aspiration is well on its way to being a reality, thereby resulting in Jamaica being better placed than many First-World countries in respect of coaching for the age group 7-18.

Maurice Wilson, himself a G C Foster College alumnus, must be congratulated for establishing Sprintec Track Club. It had several athletes on the Jamaica team in London, including Ristananna Tracey, bronze medallist in the 400 hurdles, and Demish Gaye, finalist in the 400m. Michael Clarke, Calabar High School's coach, another G C Foster alumnus, is the only coach in the modern era to have coached three different schools to victory at Champs. The great man himself, G C Foster, coached four schools to victory at Champs. Michael Dyke, who has coached Edwin Allen High School to several Champs victories, is also another old boy of G C Foster College. Jamaica will never be able to repay Fidel Castro's Cuba for the gift of the G C Foster College.

Fertile field

Rumours of the demise of Jamaica's track and field athletics are greatly exaggerated. There is talent aplenty. At 15 years old, Kevona Davis ran 22.97 secs in the 200m and 11.24 secs for the 100m. At 12 years old, Brianna Lyston, a prodigious talent, quite incredibly ran 23.72 secs for the 200m, the first girl in the world under 13 to run sub-24 secs for that distance. Seventeen-year-old De'Jour Russell has already run 13:32 secs in the 110m hurdles. All interested parties must do everything in their power to ensure that Kevona, Brianna, and De'Jour transition through Champs to the senior level and represent Jamaica with distinction.

Next year, 2018, could be the breakout year for Julian Forte, who was the only athlete to run sub-10 secs in the 100m heats in London. Odean Skeen has also broken 10 secs. Jamaica still has the second-fastest man in the world. Despite injuries over two athletic seasons, Yohan Blake, who is relatively young, is expected to return to winning ways.

Arguably, in the weight events of discus and shot put, we have made greater advances than in the sprints, where we have always been dominant. In 1957 the Champs record for discus was 114 ft. The national record, if there was one, would not have been much better. Today, Fedrick Dacres' national record is 68.8 metres, just short of twice the distance of the Champs record in 1957. In London, Dacres was fourth in discus. Sixty years ago, the standard in the shot put was as low as it was in the discus. But in London it was only very late in the competition in that event that the bronze medal was cruelly snatched from Danniel Thomas-Dodd. This is progress in what is indubitably a genuine Jamaican product — track and field athletics. Would that our national development could reflect that kind of growth. Greater emphasis should be placed in schools on the javelin throw — a more difficult event to master than the discus or the shot put.

An area of concern must be the number of stars at Champs who do not transition to the senior level. Conversely, a number of athletes who were not stars at Champs have gone on to be top performers at the global level, eg Asafa Powell and Elaine Thompson. As Champs is integral to the success of the system, this phenomenon must be thoroughly investigated, using the most up-to-date scientific tools and corrective measures applied.

In all of this, athletes must remember that no matter what they accomplish on or off the track, representing Jamaica should be their proudest moment — a privilege not measurable in monetary terms.

Bonus:

A special prize for the answer to this question: The greatest record in track and field athletics is held by a Jamaican who is not Usain Bolt. Who is the Jamaican? What is the record? Why is it the greatest record in track and field athletics?

Patrick Robinson is a Jamaican living in the Hague, Netherlands.

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