It may well come as a surprise to many Guyanese to know that Sports Tourism – international travel to participate in or view sport-related activities is reportedly worth an amount in excess of US$600 million a year, and has been growing at the rate of around 6 per cent annually over the past decade or so. Wealthy countries – notably in the Middle East ‒ have been only too willing to grant citizenship and lucrative financial rewards to talented athletes, notably from Africa and more recently from some Caribbean countries, in exchange for having those athletes compete ‘under their flags,’ so to speak. High profile participation in international athletics has long been bound up with countries’ foreign policies, not least their self-promotion on the international stage. There is, too, a seamier side to countries’ participation in international sport as illustrated in the sustained international brouhaha over what is widely believed to be the role played by governments in the doping of athletes and the corruption-related scandals associated chiefly though not exclusively with football.
Nonetheless, sport has redounded to the significant building of the images of many countries and when account is taken of what other developing countries have been able to accomplish through their investments in sports and sports tourism are concerned, Guyana has no really plausible excuse for significantly lagging behind even the rest of the region over many decades. Several – not one or two but several – of the world’s very best Caribbean athletes learnt and practised their disciplines right here in the region, venturing abroad only at that point when the need for significantly upgraded facilities, specialized coaching and better competition made travel necessary. By contrast, in Guyana’s case, after half a century of independence our legacy in terms of sports facilities comprise, in the main, the Providence Stadium and the National Track and Field Centre at Leonora. Both facilities, despite their relative newness, require significant upgrading to meet what one might call international standards.
Failure to create a culture of sport from the community and school level up, is one of the critical ways in which successive governments have let our youngsters down. The question that no government has decisively answered has to do with whether we are ready to turn the corner.
Last weekend’s second annual Aliann Pompey Invitational athletics meet at the National Track Centre may not have been a match in terms of its grandeur and galaxy of track stars for other international athletics events taking place elsewhere in the world, which benefited not only from a richer array of talent but from the significant financial returns associated with sports tourism. That notwithstanding, the novelty of hosting six-time St Lucian Olympian, Kim Collins and a sprinkling of talented Jamaican and American athletes at Leonora is more than worth mentioning in circumstances where Guyana is not even remotely recognized as part of the international athletics tourism circuit. The very fact that these athletes accepted invitations to participate in an athletics meet here is an accomplishment for the local athletics fraternity that should be acknowledged.
The Aliann Pompey event came on the heels of Guyana’s hosting for the first time ever of the South American Under-20 Championships. Teams from twelve other countries including Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Paraguay and Uruguay travelled to Guyana to participate in these Championships, their visit coming at a time when our foreign policy priorities include strengthening both bilateral and multilateral ties with countries in South America.
Meanwhile, days before the local and international athletes competed at Leonora, a little heard of seventeen-year-old Lindener named Daniel Williams made an encouraging mark on the international athletics tapestry, securing an altogether unexpected silver medal in the 400 metres at this year’s World Under-18 Athletics Championships in Nairobi. In the process, Daniel would have bested some of the best quarter milers in his age category in the world.
Taken together, these three events – Guyana’s hosting of the South American Games, the Aliann Pompey event and young Williams’ success in Kenya – collectively provide an uplifting interlude of illumination for local athletics on which we can build. That can only be accomplished, however, if government truly recognizes and embraces the cumulative significance of what, in fact, were three landmark events in the recent history of local athletics.
As it happens, all of this has to be seen against Guyana’s historic failure to emulate its Caribbean and South American neighbours by embracing sport both as an economic asset and as a broader developmental tool, and of the need to begin to do so without further prevarication. The question is whether government – working of course with the private sector and the various local sports fraternities – is ready to depart from its historical indifference to supporting the building of a culture of sport in Guyana.