We'll miss 'ole time' ChampsSunday, May 02, 2021
I admire the tenacity displayed by my friend Keith Wellington, president of the Inter-secondary Schools Sports Association (ISSA), as he kept the athletes on their marks while he was pursuing the possibility of staging Champs this year. At all times during the negotiations Wellington and his team maintained a balanced approach as they tried to convince the Government that the championships could be staged within the confines of strictest health and safety protocols, including perhaps a scaling down to Classes One and Two events to accommodate athletes seeking scholarships for tertiary education, and, of course, no spectators.
The meet will be the first held since 2019 as last year's staging was cancelled by ISSA just a day after the first officially recognised case in the island.
ISSA is now moving forward to plan what they know will have to be a safe and successful meet. No doubt, this will be a different kind of Champs, but obviously the organisers are raring to go with the resumption welcomed by ISSA and the schools.
The meet will be also welcomed by the public, as even if we are not allowed inside, television coverage will reach far and wide, and Jamaicans will once again be getting a close-up assessment of what the future holds for our young athletes.
Champs is big. It is a major item on our sports calendar, and a mega attraction for coaches, scouts, sports associations, and colleges overseas. There is nothing quite like Jamaica's high schools' athletics championships.
Competitions started in 1910 as a one-day event for half a dozen 'elite' secondary schools (secondary education in those days was for the elite and the privileged). It blossomed out into a weekend event; then four days, until the influx and inclusion of all schools across Jamaica it branched off into a girls' championships separate from boys, and now reigns as a one-week spectacular each year at the National Stadium.
The original six schools were Potsdam (now Munro College), St George's College, Jamaica College, the Wolmer's School, New College, and Mandeville Middle Grade School.
The first Boys' Champs was run at Sabina Park on June 29, 1910. There is evidence of a Girls' Athletics Championships as early as 1914, in Kingston, but after re-emerging under different organisations in the 1940s, 1957, then 1961, the girls' event had an unbroken run under its own steam as Girls' Champs.
Only sixteen schools have ever won a boys' or girls' championship, with Kingston College (1962–1975) having the longest boys' winning streak and Vere Technical winning the girls' division the most times in a row (1979–1993). Excelsior High School and St Jago High are the only schools to have ever won both boys' and girls' divisions at Champs in the same year. The ladylike St Hilda's Diocesan High School from St Ann was the first school to win the girls' edition.
The girls' and boys' championships are the biggest track and field event involving high school students anywhere in the world. These events are planned around high school students and often attract college coaches and scouts from around the world. Many of these students receive college scholarships (outside of the country) on the track during the meet.
Although the original high school competition developed world-class talent, such as Olympic stars Arthur Wint and Herb McKenley, Champs, as we know it, was virtually unknown to mainstream international media until the emergence of a disproportionate number of world-class sprinters from Jamaica in the Olympic Games and International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) World Championships in Athletics.
Prior to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, American athletes had traditionally dominated the sprint events. It was at that meet in China, however, that the United States, with a population some 116 times the size of Jamaica, was beaten by Usain Bolt in the 100, 200 and 4 x 400 races, while Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and Veronica Campbell Brown ran away with the female 100m and 200m sprint contests, respectively.
Sufficient to say, Jamaica has since established ourselves as the team to watch and American college coaches, in particular, are very aware of the richness of our school athletics pool, and they travel annually to the National Stadium each year to scout for junior college and National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA)-level talent.
But not only the coaches abroad. We, in Jamaica, will miss the fun and excitement of a full-scale Champs this year, but consider the frustration and bawling of the Diaspora, who used to have such a good time in Jamaica at Champs and, importantly, spend so much money in the hotels, on transportation, vendors, ticket, school and athlete support, and scholarship offers, restaurants, and trips back home to their communities. Champs fever is felt not only in Kingston but all over the island, as the games draw focused attention from Negril to Morant Point.
Coming in from overseas, the Diaspora and international sports media swarm the hotels and guest houses and literally occupy Kingston. I had some fun passing by the Jamaica Pegasus hotel, which seemed to be overrun with Jamaicans coming from abroad to cheer on their old schools. Green was the predominant colour in the hotel lobby, and every so often I would tease with a “Calabar not saying nutten this year” only to have the supporters descend on me with a good natured, “Gweh, bwoy, a country school yuh come from!” The banter continued into the parking lot as they loaded into cars and buses for the stadium, green and purple mouthing each other and harking back to old-time encounters.
The invasion of the Diaspora is significant, not simply for the excitement and reunions and the bonding of the old school ties, but for the reminder that Jamaicans abroad love their Jamaica and enjoy the opportunities to come home and involve themselves in anything intrinsic to our traditions, celebrations, moments, and potential for development. I genuinely enjoyed the camaraderie, joshing, and the immediate rapport developed with those Jamaicans who had come back for their brief interlude at home.
You can always detect a longing to come back home, even when some of my family and friends tend to over-criticise what's happening to Jamaica. Like me, you have probably got the calls, “Hey, what's happening down there?” And I usually answer, especially nowadays with all the unfortunate shootings, “Hey, what's happening up there?”
Many Jamaicans share the same hope that they can come home to their native land. It is a hope that inspires them through the cold of winter, the cultural and racial bigotry sometimes experienced, the long hours working three jobs a day, and the absence of family and loved ones. They hope that, one day, they will come home to a more peaceful country, to build, to retire, to enjoy Champs, and to be buried in the family plot. They whisper in their hearts, sometimes grudgingly, oftentimes joyfully, “Next year in Jamaica.”
Lance Neita is a public relations professional and writer. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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