You know it’s athletics season when the yellow and pink poui trees begin to adorn the landscape with their breathtaking beauty. Well, it is that time now, and the beautifully conditioned bodies and the effervescent spirits of Jamaica's young athletes on display are as stunning as those poui trees in full bloom.
Since track and field is my favourite sport, I took time off last weekend to watch the Boys’ and Girls’ Championships at the National Stadium. It was a delight, and congratulations are in order for the organisers and sponsors of what has become a very popular and prestigious event on the national calendar.
If anybody thinks that Usain Bolt represents the pinnacle of Jamaica's track and field potential, they should take a closer look at the harvest of young athletes who were gathered in one place last week. While there is no denying the incredible genius and phenomenal talent of Bolt, it is clear to me that there is much, much more to come out of Jamaica. Not only did we see the best of the second and third-tier athletic dynasty on display, we heard their voices speaking about their personal goals and ambitions, and it was truly refreshing. After last weekend, there is no doubt in my mind that Jamaica's track and field future is very bright indeed.
The Inter-Secondary Schools Sports Association (ISSA), the organisers of Boys’ and Girls’ Champs, deserves tons of accolades. The progress that the organisation has made over the years is nothing short of remarkable. Every year the championship gets better and better, both in terms of the organisational quality, as well as the professional and technical development.
The Boys’ and Girls’ Champs, now heralded as the largest track meet of its kind in the world, is rivalling what we see in First-World countries at the higher college and professional levels. In addition to the amazing display of talent, the steady expansion and deepening of the repertoire of events and specialisations, including the pole vault, javelin, heptathlon, and other track and field events considered unattainable years ago, are now standard, and it was a pleasure to watch the quality and keenness of the competition.
There is no doubt that Boys’ and Girls’ Champs is now a highly marketable commodity.
I would expect that in a short time from now this hugely acclaimed athletics meet will be carried live to every part of the world, spreading and capturing the aura and intrigue surrounding “brand Jamaica” and the athletic genius that much of the world has become enamoured with.
It is said that death is the great equaliser, but in Jamaica track and field can be described as the next greatest equaliser. It certainly is just about the only thing that is not broken in the country, and the Boys’ and Girls’ Champs is a testament to that fact. While access to proper nutrition, transportation, and some other related costs undoubtedly play a significant role in athletic training, the main criterion is individual talent and skill, and so despite the socio-economic backgrounds of many of our young athletes, they have excelled in remarkable ways.
If Jamaica's track and field programme was tied to class privilege, like other things in the society, that is, access to jobs, higher education, etc, the country would be sitting at the bottom of the totem pole. Jamaica has risen to the top of world athletics, because the poorest child, from the poorest home and the poorest community, whether urban or rural, can get the opportunity to display their natural Godgiven abilities without the encumbrances of race or class.
It wasn't always like this. I remember speaking and writing publicly in the 1980s about the glaring disparity between children from the elite, traditional high schools, and “those others”, who would converge at the stadium for the championships, running barefooted, and devoid of proper attire and proper nutrition.
Largely due to the dedication and commitment of our local coaches, schools, and some key individuals, we have come a long way since then in addressing and “equalising” the situation. Today, the picture looks strikingly different. Schools from all over the country are now represented, some whose names most Jamaicans have never heard of before. I was pleased to see schools like Green Pond and Papine High copping medals, and it was gratifying to witness the fierce competition being offered by little known schools at a meet formerly dominated by brand name schools.
It warms my heart to know that parents from the poorest homes can watch their children perform on television. It is even more heart-warming to hear of the many scholarships being awarded to our high school students who would otherwise not get the opportunity to pursue higher education and their athletic careers abroad.
Of course, if we had to choose, we would want our athletes to remain in Jamaica and we hope that in the future we will be able to accommodate them here at home. In the meantime, we wish them well, and as the Class 1 gold medal hurdler from Kingston College, Stefan Fennel, stated after his impressive victory, and news of a scholarship to the University of Arkansas: “ I will miss my fans, my friends and my family, but I will be doing bigger things for Jamaica.”
As our athletes get ready for the big one – the London Olympics only a few months away, I say, “Run Jamaica, run.” What a fitting tribute this is in the year of our Jubilee!