At 32 Alicia Fortune has a pragmatic outlook on her future as an athlete. As yet she is still unprepared to set herself a retirement date. She is, however, under no illusions that the sun may already be setting on a career which she is still far from ready to put behind her.
Generally regarded as Guyana’s best female sprinter and, as she puts it, “in the form of my life,” Alicia has grown tired of the status of “big fish” in a “small pond.” Her unrivalled success at local track meetings have become altogether forgettable experiences that amount to little compensation for what she concedes is a career in athletics that is still to bring her the recognition and success which she so earnestly seeks. She wants a taste of “the big time,” a chance to match her talents against the very best in the world. In truth, however, time is not on Alicia’s side.
Her career in athletics began at the age of nine, competing in obscure inter block middle and long distance races in Beterverwagting, the village in which she was born and graduating eventually to cross country races. Acting on the advice of her coach she eventually settled for being a sprinter.
Small and slight for the discipline she has chosen, Alicia’s lithe frame bares no hint of a sprinter’s power. Her talent, however, is matched by what is evidently an enormous appetite for the sport and a consummate eagerness to talk about her as yet unfulfilled ambitions.
Such time as she has left in athletics is littered with uncertainties, not about her ability to realize her exalted expectations, but about other obligations that compete for her time and attention.
Alicia is the mother of three children and a single parent and dividing her time between parenting and running has become a time management nightmare When we first met at a community meeting in Betterverwagting she confided in me that she was preoccupied with the choices that lie before her – chasing a dream, on the one hand and being the mother she wants to be, on the other. The problem, she says, lies in her refusal to regard these as conflicting obligations, the starkness of that reality notwithstanding.
Next year, the year in which she hopes to “make a statement” in the sport is the year in which 10 year-old twins sit the critical Grade Six primary school examination – and, she says, “I want to be near them to help them however I can.” Her dilemma has led her to a less than reliable series of calculations about the likelihood of “getting in at least a few months of training and competition” before focusing on her daughter’s examination. It is not the kind of dilemma that an athlete should have to face at the crossroads of a career.
When I volunteered the example of the legendary Jamaican sprinter Merlene Ottey who won an Olympic bronze medal at 40 Alcia rebuffed the comparison. Ottey, she pointed out, was already an accomplished athlete with years of exposure to international competition and, with access to the best facilities a sprinter could wish for.
My next planned question – about athletics facilities in Guyana – was jettisoned by my ill-advised reference to the Jamaican-born superstar. Alicia needed no prompting to talk about the underdevelopment of athletics in Guyana, particularly the fact that at a time when clubs and colleges in other parts of the world have cinder tracks, local athletes were still running on grass. She believes that the underdevelopment of athletics in Guyana has stymied the careers of generations of local athletes and that the pain of giving everything and getting little in return can only really be appreciated by those athletes who have “been there.”
If there is no resentment in her tone there is an unmistakable cynicism about a local track and field administration which, she says, has provided athletes with little more than broken promises. The athletics administration, she says, has done nothing to improve the conditions of local athletes and appears to care more about burnishing its own image than with improving conditions in the sport.
When I asked Alicia about the pressures of international competition she pauses, frowns and contemplates her response. The pressure, she says, derives not from the competition itself but from the weight of expectations left at home. She says that despite the lack of facilities in Guyana there is still an expectation that local athletes will do well abroad. Alicia says that while expectation makes her even more determined there are times when that determination is simply not enough.
“Every time I participate in an international track meeting I must adjust to running on a different kind of track.. It gives my rivals an advantage. It is more difficult with the shorter distances, middle and long distance runners have time to make the adjustment. With the sprints before you make the adjustment the race is over.”
When I remark about how well Jamaican sprinters have done at international level over the years Alicia responded with an expression that made me wish I had not raised the issue. Jamaican athletes, she curtly notified me, are exposed to the best in training conditions, diet, coaching and access to medical facilities. “They get paid to train.” By contrast, she informed me, Guyanese athletes simply “make out.”
Still. Alicia remains fiercely committed to the sport. She holds fast to a dream that lady luck will smile on her before she eventually decides to walk away from the track with something that she can cherish forever.