Sport-Salvaging sport

When compared with what has been accomplished in much of the rest of the Caribbean there is no doubt that the development of sport in Guyana has failed to match that of other countries which  are, neither economically or in any other respect, better positioned to create a strong national sport infrastructure. This Guyana Review article posits some reasons for the underdevelopment of sport in Guyana

“Sport,” Guyana’s Culture, Youth and Sport Minister Dr Frank Anthony was quoted in the media recently as saying, “is serious business, It’s a big industry.”  The truism in Dr Anthony’s statement does little to disguise the fact that it is time-worn.  Of course sport is both “serious business” and “big industry.” What we as a nation, have done to ‘cash in’ on the benefits that sport offers and, better still, what we propose to do in the period ahead is really the issue that we seriously ought to be seeking to get our collective mind around at this time.

Minister of Culture, Youth and Sport Dr. Frank Anthony
Minister of Culture, Youth and Sport Dr. Frank Anthony

 The accomplishments of various other Caribbean Community (CARICOM) territories on the global stage in various international sports, notably in the disciplines of football and athletics, raise altogether valid questions regarding  Guyana’s  underachievement in the world of sport.

Michael Parris’ lone bronze medal at the 1980 Moscow Olympics remains, after more than a quarter of a century, everything that we have to show for our participation at the very highest level of international sport – outside, of course,  of our accomplishments  in cricket.

 If the national discourse on our lack of any real accomplishment in sport has remained mostly muted over the years, the decibel level on this issue has risen significantly since the appearance of Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago in two successive football World Cup Finals  and the stunning achievements of Jamaica in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.  What some of our sister CARICOM states have done is to actualize those sentiments expressed by Dr. Anthony. 

We, by contrast, have  been left way behind by our regional counterparts and, whatever the excuses, there is really no good reason for this state of affairs.
What is more is that there really has been no serious effort made to carefully analyse this deficiency with a view  to taking remedial measures. As has been the practice with so many other issues of national import we, those who administer sport at the various levels including the level of the state, have favoured the option of simply ignoring the issue or else, proferring weak and time–worn excuses for our failure.

School sports
School sports

Not least among the truths that we continually evade is the fact that we have had almost half a century and much opportunity to weave sport into the tapestry of the national development matrix; and we manifestly have not done so.  The sooner we put an end to the pattern of evasion and excuses and begin to face the reality of our abysmal and costly failure, the sooner we can begin the process of taking corrective measures.

What we have failed to do principally, is to properly locate sport within the broader framework of the country’s development. That fundamental failing  has had a sort of domino effect on the rest of what we do with sport. The first consequential flaw has been our inability to create  and, more importantly,  implement  a  national  policy to give effective expression to sport as a nation-builder including its role – as Dr. Anthony  clearly implies – as an economic asset.
The National Sports Commission appears to have no profound and overarching vision of where it is taking sport or where sport ought to be taking the nation. This is not some vacuous criticism; it is, quite simply, a statement of fact and the evidence is to be found everywhere, in the absence of a strong centralized  structure to govern the countrywide development of sport.

Guyana National Stadium, Providence East Bank Demerara
Guyana National Stadium, Providence East Bank Demerara

Over time, we have failed to match the incremental efforts of countries that are really no more developed than we are to create, gradually, brick by brick, a solid national sports infrastructure.

The real difference between our approach and that of say a Jamaica or a Trinidad and Tobago is that, by and large, while those countries long ago embraced sport as an important piece of their national development puzzle we, on the whole, have adopted a kind of sport for sport sake posture. Why else – after more than forty years of independence – we can point to no single piece of sports infrastructure outside of the recently built National Stadium that can measure up to international standards; and even in the case of the National Stadium one can argue that its erection had more to do with saving face – since it would have been difficult for Guyana’s international image to live down the country’s failure to host matches in the 2007 Cricket World Cup than with improving our national sports infrastructure. Put differently, but for Cricket World Cup 2007 we almost certainly would not have had a National Stadium at Providence. 

No one of course, wants to deny the fact that the National Stadium is a considerable accomplishment and that the decision to invest in it was an altogether worthwhile one. The fact is, however, that our relationship with Caribbean cricket and with international cricket as a whole placed us in a position where we simply had to create a suitable World Cup venue. It was not so much about sport as it was about our international image.

Our  underachievement in sport has been profound and all embracing. In this day and age, in the twenty first century, Guyana, a country that won its first and only Olympics medal more than a quarter of a century ago,  boasts no modern athletics track, no Olympic size swimming pool, no boxing gymnasium of international standard, no football ground worth its salt. These are some of the infrastructural requisites by which a country’s commitment to developing sport is measured and nothing, frankly, can excuse these deficiencies. They are simply reflections of a failure to accord sport its rightful place in the national order of things.  

It has been as much a political failure as a developmental one since, in essence our politicians  have never appeared to have  understood the significance of sport as a nation-builder, We have had plenty of opportunity to learn from elsewhere; from Cuba, for example. We could have learnt much from Cuba, a Caribbean territory with which we have had strong and beneficial ties for several decades. Cuba provides a unique and powerful example of a country which, in the face of considerable international isolation, used sport with much success as an extension of its foreign policy. That success was centred primarily around the global dominance of its boxers, an accomplishment that made a telling point to the international community about the broader excellence of Cuba’s development policies.  While our bilateral ties with Cuba have brought in the way of benefit –   particularly in the field of medicine – sports ties have been minimal and in this regard we have accomplished little from our ties with Cuba.   

Neighbouring Brazil and China also come to mind. These two are also countries with significant international reputations as far as sports development is concerned  and it has to be said that decades of close and – in several other areas – gainful bilateral ties have not translated into any really meaningful assistance in the field of sport. Whether this has been a failure of our diplomatic effort or simply a decision to seek bilateral assistance from those countries in areas considered more critical to the national development effort is hard to say. What can be said, however, is that the paucity of our sports ties with countries like Cuba, China and Brazil amount to clear examples of failure to take advantage of possible opportunities to enhance the standard of national sport.

We, our politicians, that is, have subscribed to the notion of sport for sport sake, neglecting in the process to detect those global trends that have seen countries successfully embrace sport as an integral part of both their substantive foreign policies and their foreign economic policies including the marketing of what they have had  to offer to the rest of the world.  It is to this issue that Dr. Anthony’s recent utterance speaks.

The omission has left us standing still, not even trying to play catch up,  but simply standing on the sidelines, a spectator in a game in which we really ought to be actively involved.

We are watching other countries, including countries in our region, reap the benefits of investments in sport  which we too have had every opportunity to make.
There is a hollow ring to the time-worn excuse  that we have never really been able to afford to invest in a national sports infrastructure, that is, facilities that can  create a greater appetite  for sport while providing opportunities for producing world class talent. Those who still proffer these excuses must be reminded that  we have had more than enough time to incrementally develop a national sports infrastructure in much the same way that other Caribbean countries have done.  That may well have been a far more worthwhile investment  than some of the pipe dreams that we have chased over the years. Even today   if ways can be found to staunch the outward flow of public funds through corrupt practices, those  resources can help to make a  start in the  creation of  a substantial national sport infrastructure.  

Nor, for that matter, does it appear that we have taken any real account of the social role that sport can play in providing worthwhile options for the thousands of some young  people in communities across our country for whom lack of opportunity to become involved in any worthwhile activity have steered them in the direction of idleness and, arguably, in the direction of crime.   The examples of others ought surely to have taught us that you stand a far greater chance of creating and sustaining socially stable communities if those communities can be provided with facilities that allow their young people to become invovled in sport.

Whatever sports ‘policies’  may have been articulated by successive political administrations over the years, these have never really   been actualized, not, for that matter, have any really serious effort been made to actualize them.  More to the point, perhaps, is the fact that sport has never really been accorded its rightful place on the scale of national priorities  and that is because we have never really regarded  sport as anything else but a vehicle for taking up leisure time.

Against this backdrop there is overwhelming evidence that as a potential nation-builder sport has traditionally been pushed to the sideline. More evidence of this is to be found in the fact that over the years no real effort has been made to develop a trained and competent human resource pool – administrators, coaches, sports medicine experts, facility development personnel et al – who can give advice and direction in pursuit of  the creation of a holistic national sports development regime. In fact, the development of sport in Guyana sometimes appears to have been left to people  who are mostly underqualified and, in some instances, undercommitted. 

Several of the bodies representing  some of the major sports are so  burdened by incompetent and self-centred bureaucrats that they have no space to grow in the right direction,  Sometimes, far too frequently, these sports bodies and their ‘bosses’ appear to be altogether at odds with themselves and with the sportsmen and women whose interests they are there to serve. Worse, there are cases in which seeming preoccupation with the perks and privileges of holding office afford the ‘bosses’ little time to develop the respective sports.  Many of the major sports bodies in Guyana sometimes appear  either to be mired in the kinds of protracted internal controversies that have led, inevitably, to the conclusion that sport  has been set upon by a band of personalities whose primary concern, it appears, is not so much with developing sport as with shining a perpetual light on themselves.

This much is evidenced in the ongoing and altogether  counterproductive power struggles     within so many of the various sports bodies and what would appear to be the preoccupation of the leaders of those organizations with little more than holding on to power.

The irony of this is that even a cursory examination of the accomplishments of many of these sports ‘bosses’ suggest that their adeptness in the skills of securing and maintaining power are hardly matched by their managerial acumen and, more to the point, by their accomplishments for the sports  they represent.  These sports supremos  are really no more than self-serving opportunists who continue to  blight and retard the sports they run and whom, for as long as they are around, will continue to strangle the real development of sport. 

State-run national sports bodies like the National Sports Commission and its predecessors  have really fared no better. They too have, over time, failed in their responsibility to develop and actualize a national sports policy that embraces, in practice,  the concept of sport as a nation-builder.

These bodies have been unable to provide multi-level sport and recreation infrastructure, or to  create adequate opportunities for country-wide participation in sport at all levels and foster a culture of sport out of which our world champions can emerge. Much of the reason for this is that there does not appear to be a great deal of holistic contemplation of sport at a deep conceptual level.

Among the clearest indicators of this failure has been the conspicuous absence of a sports infrastructure as part of the regional system  and the protracted failure by those concerned to raise the level of the  annual school athletics season above much more than a recreational interlude for the nation’s children. It honestly defies belief that after all these years annual school sports and the national schools’ athletics championships often resemble a mixture of bacchanal and fiasco.

Sorry  little has been done to develop sport at the school and community levels when, globally, these are the most likely pools from which the best athletes can emerge.
Much of  the  problem  lies in the fact that the balance of power in sport in Guyana has always been located in the sports ‘bosses,’ at both the state and the association levels while the real drivers of sport, the athletes themselves  and, where these exist, their  clubs,  have little if any clout in the development of the sports.

Some bodies, like those representing  football and athletics, for example, are really  laws onto themselves   since they appear to function outside the confines of any state  accountability. Those who govern these sports appear far more powerful and influential than those who play them.    

It should be made clear that this is by no means an argument for ceding authority over the  various  sports associations and federations to a state-run sports institution since the track records of the state-run sports organisations are by no means anything to write home about. The point is that when we survey the extent of the damage that has been done to some sports in Guyana on account of a combination of autocratic rule and overwhelming incompetence, we cannot fail to recognize that something simply must be done to eradicate these vices since they continue to stifle the growth of the sports that they ‘control.’

The development of a national sports policy, a matter with which the Minister of Sport now appears preoccupied –  has to begin with the altering of that balance of power to give sportsmen and women a far greater say in the development of their respective  sports. Such a policy must place limits on the authority of both the National Sports Commissionl as well as the bosses of the respective Associations and cede far more authority to those who actually participate in the sport either as athletes, or as trained and competent sports officials and administrators.

 Additionally, a national  sports policy, if it is to serve any real purpose, must also embrace what is perhaps best described as a realistic and attainable mission statement, a clear and concise articulation of the role of sport in the development of both the individual and the  nation. But that is not all.

What must follow the promulgation of such a policy is a demonstrable commitment to accompanying that policy, on paper, with the requisite will and resources to make a meaningful  investment   in the  actualization of that policy. It would really make no sense whatsoever to have a sports policy on paper if we have not yet begun to focused attention to the acquisition of the tools with which to physically implement that policy?

   That, unquestionably, is the responsibility of the state and anything short of that would simply be a complete waste of time; and since, over the years, there has been no shortage of political expression of intent that has come to nought, the point is entirely worth making.  

We need to begin now and in earnest since we are literally light years behind much of the rest of the world.

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