There is cause for much rejoicing at the performances of our athletes at the just concluded CARIFTA Games, staged in Basseterre, St Kitts.
Though traditional powerhouses Jamaica dominated the games on the track and field, Barbados had cause to celebrate the successes of those who gained 16 medals, as well as those who might not have medalled but gave of their all to bring glory to country and to themselves. Of course, special mention must be made of gold medallists Mary Fraser, Rivaldo Leacock, Mario Burke and Hayley Matthews.
These youngsters have all shown tremendous promise from the primary school stage, and their development to this level once again speaks positively of our domestic athletics programme and also provides an indicator as to the possibilities that exist. Indeed, some of these exceptional Barbadians are multitalented, with Matthews already acknowledged as one of the brightest prospects in regional women’s cricket, and Fraser, a highly promising amateur boxer. Indeed, Matthews might be faced with the enjoyable dilemma of deciding how far she wants to take her field athletics career, or whether cricket will be her primary sport.
Burke is a high-quality prospect whose 10.21 seconds in winning the 100 metres gold medal in St Kitts must be put into proper perspective. In the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, Sam Graddy of the United States clocked 10.19 to win the silver medal behind Carl Lewis, while Canada’s Ben Johnson stopped the clock at 10.22 to take the bronze medal. In athletics the clock doesn’t lie, and Burke will undoubtedly get even faster.
Leacock is a tremendous talent whose 51.34 seconds in the 400-metre hurdles at the Kim Collins Stadium speaks volumes for his steady improvement and incredible potential. His development at Lester Vaughan is testimony to the exceptional coaching ability of Alwyn Babb at the Cane Garden, St Thomas school. From all reports, Leacock is a hard worker and committed to his discipline.
In a word, Fraser is special. The part which her father has played in pushing her towards excellence is well known among those who follow the sport. The hours which he has spent putting her through a tough training regimen is bearing fruit, and he has been the first to acknowledge that “hard work doesn’t kill” athletes. He has publicly stressed that Fraser, who took a break of just over a year from athletics, can do much better than she showed in Basseterre. That is an ominous prediction for her fellow distance runners.
Of course, others like hurdler Stephen Griffith, sprinter Tristan Evelyn, distance runner Elizabeth Williams, Ramarco Thompson and Raheem Sargeant played their part in flying the Barbados Flag proudly in our neighbouring Caribbean island.
But where do we go from here?
These young men and women are not the first, nor will they be the last to impress on the domestic and regional stage. There have been many others who faded away after promising much. In many instances a lack of financial assistance, disenchantment, and other reasons, have served to stymie the progress of some of our promising athletes.
It must be somewhat distressing for those with the interest of athletics at heart that over the past 20 to 25 years, with the exception of Obadele Thompson, Ryan Brathwaite and Andrea Blackett, Barbados has not been a prominent name on the international athletics stage. The likes of Shane Brathwaite and Akela Jones are still in the embryonic stages of what should be promising careers.
It is now left to Government, and particularly corporate Barbados, to put some financial weight behind the best wishes, platitudes and picture opportunities that usually follow when our athletes achieve outside these shores. Scholarships are always greatly appreciated, but these are merely a starting point. Our athletes need considerably more financial assistance than what normally obtains when they access scholarships.
It must be appreciated that reaching the top rungs in international sports, inclusive of athletics, is a highly expensive undertaking. The need for the best training facilities, nutrition, equipment, competition exposure, and generally healthy day-to-day living, can run into several thousands of dollars on an annual basis while transitioning from the junior and senior levels to the international stage.
Too often our athletes have basically to go cap in hand to corporate Barbados for financial assistance, often to be met by cries from owners and managers of a drop in profit margins and decreasing revenues. We will not presume to know the financial strength of some of our companies or dictate how they should disburse their funds, but we note the annual sponsorship which worthy sports such as golf, polo, game-fishing, and others, receive from corporate Barbados. The Barbados Olympic Association does not have the financial depth to bear the burden alone of developing our athletes, and corporate entities must play their part.
There are significant rewards to be accrued by Barbadian companies when they attach their names and their products to our athletes. Of course, there has been the deliberate practice of some to avoid the nursery stage and only offer their assistance when the individual athlete has basically arrived at the cusp of international stardom. Local companies must commit to running the first leg of the race through to the anchor.
To the north, Jamaica continues to dominate regional athletics, and this has not been accidental. In addition to numerous scholarship opportunities, corporate Jamaica have been investing in their athletes. Additionally, the vibe in the island is such that athletes from First World nations are now travelling to Jamaica to exploit training opportunities there.
Hopefully, it is not lost on onlookers here in Barbados that our Akela Joneses, Mario Burkes, Mary Frasers and Rivaldo Leacocks have been leaving their Jamaican counterparts in their wake.
These are encouraging times. In his Odes, Horace spoke about “carpe diem”, and that philosophy should be our mantra. Congrats, Team Barbados!