Another Winter Games goes by and our struggles endure
Jamaica's Shanwayne Stephens, Ashley Watson, Rolando Reid and Matthew Wekpe compete in the four-man bobsleigh event at the Yanqing National Sliding Centre during the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games on Saturday. (Photo: AFP)

I learned many things from my grandfather for which I am grateful, and did not learn many things from him for which my grandmother was grateful. But let me not digress so soon.

My grandfather, Albert Joycelin Nelson, was a fine, polished, immaculately dressed gentleman. His grace, charm, chivalry, and impeccable manners would suggest royal lineage except that his hands betrayed him. He bore himself with all those characteristics but he was, at heart, a farmer, and the callouses left by hours with a digging fork and wielding hoe were worn by him as a badge of honor — kike a war wound. He was Jamaica's liaison officer for the first set of Jamaican farm workers who went to the United States. This was during the Second World War, WHICH WAR'S attendant risk of being sunk at sea carried with it the additional perils of being black in America.

As headmaster of Retirement School in St Elizabeth, he started a school feeding programme supplied in large part from produce grown by students on the school farm, which he also started. He went on to work with the 4H Club where he trained young farmers around the country before moving on to work as extension agricultural officer and heading the Rose Hall scheme in St Catherine — a student farmer settlement set up to model farms and teach farming.

I, too, farm, but not well, preferring of late to focus more on my orchids than my lettuce and tomatoes, disillusioned by the efficacy demonstrated by my daughter in growing vegetables hydroponically. No hands in the dirt! What's the world coming to?

I learned many things from my grandfather. Every time I stand when a woman enters the room or when shaking someone's hand, is because of his example. The polished shoes, easy manner, pocket watch, and fluent Spanish come directly from him. People who know my family will often say, 'You are your grandfather's grandchild' or 'You are your mother's son', referring more to characteristics than genetics. I also learned from my grandfather the idea of process. The first time I planted a Scotch bonnet seedling under his tutelage I got up early the following morning at his home on Flemington Drive in Havendale to see if the peppers were ready. They, of course, were not. I was to learn over the following many weeks that the work is in the tending and nurturing of the plant — caring for it, fertilising it — and that if you are attentive and apply knowledge, one day, with God's grace, you will have peppers. Everything I need to run at the core of a successful bobsleigh programme, I learned from my grandfather.

The state of bobsleigh

Jamaica qualified for a record three bobsleigh events at the just-concluded Beijing Games — in the monobob, two-man and four-man events. We were the last to qualify in each event and, as is well known, missed qualification in the two-woman event by one spot. Our results reflect that. We were 19th of 20 sleds in the monobob, 30th of 30 and 28th of 28 in the two-man and four-man, respectively. We would have hoped to have done better but every time I stop recognising the immensity of the qualification experience, I am reminded by other countries and other athletes. What we did was extremely difficult.

Using the marquis four-man event as an example, since competing in our first Olympic Games in 1988, except for a shared bronze medal for Great Britain in 1998, every country that has ever won a medal in the event either has a bobsleigh track or multiple tracks. The medal table is dominated by the Germans, followed closely by the Swiss.

In Beijing for the four-man event completed hours ago, of the seven teams that finished just ahead of Jamaica, five have tracks and five have previously hosted the Olympic Winter Games. For us this is really just information.

We have seen the power of braking barriers by Roger Bannister and Dick Fosbury in the past. There is a way to become consistently a top 10 country in the sport. Between here and there is work, struggle, and suffering. There is no other path, so we begin again.

Equipment

The sport is becoming increasingly expensive to the point of being prohibitively so. Germany spends more on sled research and design than the entire programme of many nations or even many nations combined, and the results from their investments are clear. Complete dominance — gold and silver in the two-woman; gold, silver and bronze in the two-man; gold and silver in the four-man. But no medals in the monobob. Now that's interesting.

Some years ago, in seeking to address the technology imbalance in the sport, the International Bobsleigh & Skeleton Federation (IBSF) introduced a standard sled for the monobob event — one sled design, one supplier. The bulk of the technology advantage component was removed, and what did we see in the monobob? Not a single German medal. No firm conclusion may be drawn, however, as this is anecdotal by observatio and we would need far more data points to draw any causal or correlational relationships. But, the results indicate that the null hypothesis that sled technology explains race outcomes warrants further study.

Be that as it may, the Germans are starting faster, taking far more runs, and developing far more young pilots than any other nation so let's not confuse ourselves. Those remain, in my view, the primary contributors to success that Jamaica can control and what Jamaica must focus on.

Athletes

I may be my grandfather's grandson or my mother's son but my brother, Dudley “Tal” Stokes, is, if you listen to many coaches at the track to this day, like unto the scion of some Greek god of bobsleigh. Tal remains the most successful black bobsleigh pilot in Olympic Winter Games history.

The Canadian coach spent two hours a few nights ago saying he would like to be able to recruit athletes with a tenth of Tal's focus, discipline and work ethic. According to the coach, Tal never saw a race he never thought he could win.

As we move into a nationwide recruiting programme in Jamaica through the late spring into the summer, we would very much like to find the same. The recruitment programme will be deep and broad, going into every corner of the island. World-class bobsleighers are here. Our duty is to find them and develop them. We have to do better at that.

Yet Tal's legacy is more profound than this. When we started bobsleigh the athletes were all white people; back then pilots were white, and a few brakemen were black. Now consider what I have lived to see in Beijing. The silver medalist in the monobob is black, the silver and bronze medalists in the 2-woman are black — one from Germany and the other from the United States. Canada and Switzerland both have black female bobsleigh pilots.

Beyond the greater societal and migratory changes impacting this, the idea of a successful black athlete in bobsleigh was groundbreaking.

In these times of the preeminent importance of diversity and gender equity, to the names of Roger Bannister in the mile and Dick Fosbury in the high jump must be added Dudley “Tal” Stokes in bobsleigh.

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