Failure to invest in sport

The entire Guyanese track and field team and particularly those who medalled at the recently concluded South American Under-Twenty Athletics Meet at the National Track and Field Centre at Leonora deserves the fulsome congratulations of the nation. This applies as well to our recent Carifta Games athletics meet. An opinion piece in the Thursday June 8 issue of this newspaper said that it took more than half a century for Guyana to treble what used to be a total tally of eight medals – three gold, one silver and four bronze in the event – in the South American Games, though even that unflattering fact does not take the shine off of the performances of this current group of young athletes who performed at Leonora.

What that statistic tells us, however, is that the intervening years have been marked by considerable underachievement, compared with several other Caricom countries which, these days, compete and routinely excel at the  international level. The phenomenal Usain Bolt’s name lights up the tapestry of international athletics like the proverbial Vega. One would have only had to consider the global attention which our Caricom sister country attracted last weekend during Mr Bolt’s spectacular swan song athletics appearance in his native land to appreciate the priceless marketing ‘kickback’ that a country can realize through committed investment in sport. What Usain Bolt’s illustrious career has accomplished for Jamaica is to etch its name in the memory of just about every country across the world and to place its name on that elite list of athletics standouts from which it can never be removed.

Guyana is not the only country in the world in which tragic shortsightedness has led to the view that sport and politics are not natural allies, that their respective objectives differ. Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth. South Africa remains the most glaring example of the use of sport as a political tool with which to help heal a deeply wounded nation, the post-apartheid inclusion of blacks in that country’s international cricket team sending one of the earliest, most boisterous signals to the rest of the world that apartheid was in its death throes. One might add, of course, that the foregoing notwithstanding, it remains, for good reasons, prudent for sport to operate outside the realm of political control.

Recall too that the era of the Cold War saw the Olympic Games being used openly by the United States and the Soviet Union as a stage on which to parade their political testosterone and to compete for the attention of the rest of the world. In those days, the respective medal counts of the USA and the USSR came to be seen as a barometer by which to help measure the global influence and dominance of the two superpowers, as much as did the achievements of the individual athletes.

In Guyana, we have marked time in our understanding of the role of sport. As a consequence we have overlooked (ignored may be a more appropriate word) the importance of the development of our athletics and of sport as a whole. In effect, our abysmal failure to understand the role that sport can play in the development of a country can be attributed in large measure to our failure to look not too far beyond our borders where there continues to be lavish evidence to that effect.

To make this point one need look no further than the abysmal failure of successive political administrations to create a strong infrastructure for the development of sport at the school and youth level by investing meaningfully in the human and material requisites associated with nurturing sport at the grass roots level. However much, for example, government may frown on this assertion, the fact of the matter is that what we achieve in terms of meaningful track and field accomplishments from our Annual Inter Schools Athletics Championships is simply not worth the time that the participating children spend out of the classroom. What this event continues to do is to underscore the state’s preparedness to go through the motions, there being little if any concern of the nexus (or lack thereof) between the event itself and the returns for either the participants or the country as a whole.

Any response to this assertion that suggests that as far as seeking to develop a worthwhile culture of sport in Guyana is concerned we need to creep before we walk, overlooks the fact that we have been creeping for far too many years while other countries close by that are not light years ahead of us in terms of being able to afford the investment, have long burst into an energetic gallop. Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago are good examples. But then they have invested in the nurturing of athletics talent as a matter of state policy. We have not. They understand the significance of creating a strong culture of athletics from the ground up, embracing in the process, investment in facilities, coaching and administration from the school and community level.  We have not.

Our own ceaseless rhetoric about sport being a ‘nation-builder,’ notwithstanding, we have simply missed the bus. After fifty-one years of independence the Providence Stadium and the Leonora Athletics facility remain the only two sports arenas of note across the 83,000 square miles of our country. Even so, in the case of Leonora, it cannot, in its present state, attract a truly high class international athletics meet.

Paradoxically, there is no shortage of acre upon acre of spaces euphemistically termed playgrounds where sports events are held that lack even the most fundamental facilities to qualify them to be so termed; and yet, year in, year out, these facilities – which, presumably, are expected to bring out the best in our athletes – have not been favoured with even modest remedial attention by government.

Nowhere has the indifference of the state to the growth and development of sport been more evident than in its refusal to properly invest in ensuring the national teams (in various events) are properly funded to participate in overseas events. We have, for years, witnessed the repetitive and ridiculous spectacle of our local sportsmen and women reduced to going around, cap in hand, raising monies to participate in international events; nor it seems, do we even trouble ourselves to contemplate the nexus between the underperformance of our sportsmen and women at the very highest levels and the state’s lack of investment in those resources that might have helped make them more competitive.

Accordingly, it is hardly by accident that such recognition as Guyana has secured in the arena of athletics has largely been the result of the achievements of our overseas-based athletes, whose superior performances have been directly linked to the facilities that are available to them. No less significant is the fact that government has been involved minimally, if at all, in providing either infrastructure or funding for those sports in which home-grown athletes have realized success abroad. Those successes have been due mainly to the support of private clubs, parents and the private sector.

For as long as there remains an unwritten official policy that treats sports, for the most part, as the domain of intellectual underachievers; for as long as the state refuses to acknowledge sport as a critical sector/resource in which it is more than worthwhile to make meaningful investment; for as long as we refuse to acknowledge the role of sport as a nation-builder, we will continue to measure our accomplishments against modest benchmarks and patronize our under-resourced athletes with hollow-sounding congratulatory pronouncements which, in the wider scheme of things, means little. Belated platitudes will never be able to drown out the hollowness of the rhetoric.