In a matter of hours, the city of London will be under unprecedented scrutiny with the start of the Summer Olympics. Athletes from every corner of the globe have already converged on the ancient city with the hope of making their mark on the international athletics stage.
Ahead of them has been wave after wave of media practitioners, ready to record every aspect of the game — good or bad. According to one media report, in one recent 24-hour period more persons passed through Heathrow and Gatwick airports than the entire population of Barbados.
And in the midst of it all, the tiny island of Jamaica [when compared with others at the games] is perhaps attracting more attention that any other participating country. Much of it has to do with sprint phenomenon Usain Bolt, who ever since the last Olympics in Beijing, has not left the public spotlight. In many respects this is the Bolt Olympics and many people who are in London are there to see him run.
The publicity and tourism potential he has brought to Jamaica can’t be matched by any campaign devised by the best tourism marketers. But truth be told, while Bolt might be the star, as a result of hard work, planning and the investment of financial resources, Jamaica’s benefits are derived from Team Jamaica. That island has a cadre of athletes at the Games that would make any country envious.
So what has happened to Barbados? While we don’t seek to diminish the achievements of those who will represent us in London over the next two weeks, we can’t pretend it is not a fact that we have no Bolts in our team — and as far as we can see none in the wings waiting for their opportunity.
For sure we have some talented young Barbadians, supported by a number of under appreciated coaches and athletics administrators, but the environment within which they work is clearly not conducive to Usain Bolts. We know the first reaction will be to point at our politicians and the poor shape of the long outdated National Stadium, but our failures run much deeper.
What we need is a national policy and approach that suggest we value athletics and its potential. Even if we have never produced a Usain Bolt, the number of young Barbadians who have obtained athletics scholarships over the last three decades ought to have by now made us all acutely aware of how much more we could have achieved.
But yet physical education teachers are still second class citizens in many of our secondary schools, while at the primary school level the “games teacher” is often seen as nothing more than a necessary break from the real purpose of school.
Too often sweaty boys are frowned upon, while girls are not to be soiled by rigorous physical activity. The raw talents we so often see during primary school athletics meets, it would appear, do not get the necessary nourishment after Common Entrance.
While much attention has been paid to our eating and exercise routines as a counter to the epidemic of chronic non-communicable diseases, we can’t identify any structured link between the promotion of healthy eating and the development of future Olympians. In a sentence, we have a national disconnect between our athletics/athletes and the development goals we set for our country.
Clearly we cannot take the Jamaica model and plant it here, but anyone who follows what occurs at the school level with athletics in Jamaica and what takes place in Barbados can only remark — chalk and cheese. And it is not for want of knowledgeable, dedicated people because the Esther Maynards, Kathy Harper-Halls, Anthony Lovells, Jerston Clarkes and the likes have invested more than reasonable Barbadians could ask.
What we need now is a genuine national plan with goals and instruments of measurement. We need a dedicated athletics facility that is inviting to both spectators and athletes. We need sustained programmes that challenge those who are identified as having significant potential. We need to forge links with other regional bodies to promote exchanges outside of the established regional meets. We need an environment that promotes sporting entrepreneurs with events like the Barbados Relay Fair.
Above all, we need to give athletics a fair shake in our schools. We need strategically placed, rubberised tracks at some of our schools to promote zonal competition at a much higher level. And our physical education teachers must be treated as valued professionals.
Five years ought to be enough time for us to send a clear signal in Brazil that little Barbados is coming for the world.