James Gilkes: A lost opportunity

The Olympic Games heat up today with the start of the track and field programme. The hottest event in Beijing is expected to be the men’s 100 metres final tomorrow – which has arguably displaced the 1500m as the blue riband event of the Games – and the much hyped and eagerly anticipated clash of Usain Bolt and Asafa Powell of Jamaica, and Tyson Gay of the USA.

Then the 200m will begin on Monday. These two races and the men’s 4x100m relay – with the Jamaican sprinters as favourites and Trinidad and Tobago’s Darrel Brown, Marc Burns and Richard Thompson not to be discounted – could signal a Caribbean medal rush harking back to the glorious, golden summer of 1976 in Montreal, when Hasely Crawford of Trinidad and Tobago won the 100m and Don Quarrie of Jamaica won the 200. For good measure, the legendary Jamaican also won silver in the 100.

No Caricom male athlete has stood at the top of the podium in the Olympics since. Montreal is a distant memory, and indeed Bolt and Powell were not even born in 1976. Still, they are aware of the legacy and the expectations of the region, which is counting on them, nay, willing them, to deliver.

We should not forget the women’s events either, where the Jamaicans in particular are expected to win precious metal. But even as we look forward to scorching performances over the next week, let us rewind to 1976 and the fate of Guyana’s own sprint king, James Gilkes.

From 1975 to 1980, the US-based Gilkes, whose talent for speed was nurtured at Fisk University and the University of Southern California, was highly regarded as a genuine world class sprinter in both the 100m and the 200m. Throughout his career, however, the tall, gangling Guyanese was considered more of a half-lap specialist.
Most notably, in 1975, Gilkes was the Pan American Games gold medallist in the 200m in Mexico City. Guyanese of a certain vintage will probably recall the news being belted out from the radio in those pre-television days, by popular sports journalist BL Crombie, who joyously exhorted a waiting nation to “go tell it on the mountains…”

Gilkes then won the silver medal in the 200m, behind Alan Wells of Scotland, at the 1978 Commonwealth Games in Edmonton, Canada. In the same year, he achieved his highest world ranking in the 200 of number 3, with a personal best of 20.14 seconds, in Ingelheim, Germany. In 1979, at the Pan American Games in Puerto Rico, he won silver again in the 200, won by the great Cuban, Silvio Leonard.

During this period, at the peak of his sprinting powers, he was also a regular on the very competitive European athletics Grand Prix circuit, enhancing his personal reputation as an athlete and putting Guyana on the sporting map in a way matched only by Roy Fredericks, Lance Gibbs, Alvin Kallicharran, Rohan Kanhai and Clive Lloyd in cricket.

There was one major disappointment however in Gilkes’s storied career. In 1976, he was selected to represent Guyana at the Games of the 21st Olympiad in Montreal. He was at the time ranked sixth in the world at 200m and ninth at 100m, and was generally thought to be a real contender for a medal in his favoured 200m. Sadly, he never got a chance to compete.

These were the Olympics of the African boycott, triggered by a rugby tour of apartheid South Africa by New Zealand. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) refused to ban New Zealand and some 25 African countries withdrew from the Games in protest. Guyana, which had positioned itself in the vanguard of Caribbean support for the anti-apartheid struggle and the movement for sanctions against the racist regime in South Africa, also joined the boycott in solidarity with the African stance. Gilkes appealed to the IOC President, Lord Killanin, to allow him to race as an individual, under the Olympic flag, but permission was denied. For many, the refusal of the IOC to countenance Gilkes’s participation was in contravention of the Olympic spirit and itself a political act, notwithstanding the protestations that politics had no place in sport.

No other Caribbean country, not even Cuba, sat out. They all put the promise of Olympic glory and national sporting prestige before international politics. It was a bitter blow to Gilkes and his Olympic aspirations, especially given the subsequent success of Crawford and Quarrie. Four years later, at the Moscow Games, Gilkes, now aged 28 and well past his best, won his first two qualifying rounds of the 100m, both in times that would have earned him a bronze medal in the final. But tiring in the semi-finals, he could not match his earlier speed and missed an appearance in the final by one-hundredth of a second. He also went out of the 200m in the semis.

Brendan de Caires, in his stimulating article on CLR James in the Guyana Review (‘Free Individual: A Book Review,’ May 28, 2008), borrows from Carl von Clausewitz, the military strategist, in evoking Viv Richards’s inspirational, belligerent batting as “the continuation of politics by other means.” When Richards batted he was making a statement on behalf of his people and his region.

In the case of the boycott of the Montreal Games, the phrase is also applicable though not in the same sense. Guyana was making a statement, by not participating, on behalf of the oppressed people of South Africa. Unfortunately for James Gilkes and the other sacrificial lambs on Guyana’s Olympic team, they were what would be considered in today’s language to have been collateral damage in the context of Guyana’s principled foreign policy in the fight against apartheid.

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