We must do more to help our young athletes

Mr. Julian Edmonds, the Head Coach of Guyana’s CARIFTA Games team that brought away a record 10 medals (four gold, two silver and four bronze) from the recently concluded 48th staging of the event in the Cayman Islands is perfectly correct. When account is taken of the fact that the CARIFTA Games has become a ‘hatchery’ for world class athletes from several CARICOM countries, notably Jamaica, we have more than good reason to be immensely proud of the respective performances of our youngsters. There is another good reason why we must salute their accomplishments. That has to do with the fact that our historic refusal as a country to invest meaningfully in sports, be it track and field or otherwise, raises the likelihood that our athletes who went to the Games would probably have had to compete against much better-prepared opposition. To achieve in those circumstances they would have had to find ways of ‘bringing their A Game’ to the table. That, indeed, appears to have been the case in the Cayman Islands recently since, according to media reports, our athletes outdid their counterparts from Barbados, Grenada and Trinidad and Tobago, countries that continually best Guyana on the international stage. 

The question that arises of course has to do with whether or not our young athletes, through their performances, do not in fact make a sufficiently strong case for causing a far greater measure of official attention to be paid to ‘raising our game’ as far as investing in sport and by extension in our potential world class athletes, is concerned. Surely it must be the most frustrating thing for those of our athletes who continue to do well at home and in the region to be painfully aware of the fact that their talent and tenacity will only take them so far since further upward mobility depends on whether or not they can best opponents who are exposed to far superior coaching and training regimes than they are. The reality, of course, is that the better prepared athletes will continue to have the considerable advantage on the global stage. What this means, of course, is that the vast majority of our athletes who may well have world class potential will probably never be able to fulfill that potential (unless they find the training, coaching and other requisites outside of Guyana) and are therefore likely to have the deeply frustrating experience of failure to realize their true potential with that ‘what if’ question  popping up every so often inside their heads.

Whenever a discourse on athletics in the Caribbean reaches this juncture Jamaica, inevitably, is cited as the standout country, having reaped by far the richest dividends from its investment in athletics. That payback has not only manifested itself in the succession of world beaters (significantly, mostly women) who have ‘traveled’ from the school athletics system, through national and regional competition to World Championships and Olympics levels but also through the broader global attention that has accrued to Jamaica as a country. These days, athletics is not simply a matter of sport for Jamaica, it is a national resource that brings the country recognition, marketing for the goods and services that it provides and attendant income for its tourism product through visitor arrivals. Athletes like Usain Bolt are not just world class performers; from Jamaica’s perspective they are valuable resources worth millions in terms of the contribution that they have made to marketing Jamaica both inside and outside the region.

Two issues arise at this juncture. The first has to do with whether, over the years, the Jamaica example ought not to have encouraged Guyana to invest much more in a stronger athletics infrastructure. Whenever this issue arises the bureaucrats are quick to reach for their customary lack of resources excuse – as if we have not long become painfully aware of the fact that the scarce resources justification is a gigantic red herring given the manifest evidence that countries right here in the region that can hardly pretend to be much better off than us have managed to create some measure of infrastructure, however modest, for their athletes. The real reason for us having been left behind has to do with the fact that the frequently used phrase sport as a nation builder has been no more than one of those hot air clichés to which we have long been accustomed.

Frankly, there really is no good reason why, our material limitations notwithstanding, we appear condemned to turning out, every year, a schools’ athletics season that is noteworthy for its lack of structure and organization. Does that really have much to do with resources or is it simply a matter of being content with going through the motions since at the end of the day it really doesn’t matter that much anyway.

  The second issue has to do with whether, through the machinery of CARICOM, some of our promising athletes might not benefit from the higher level of coaching and other resources available elsewhere in the region. Would it not be altogether appropriate to seek regional support where it might be available to position our athletes to perform to their potential?

It took many decades to turn out what is still a less than adequate athletics facility at Leonora and frankly, the less said about the level of organization of our athletics events, the better. Not only are these sub-standard efforts when consideration is given to the issue of grooming athletes who might have loftier ambitions, but frankly, there exists no persuasive evidence of a structured and resource-backed coaching regime attended by a health and wellness infrastructure designed to ensure that our athletes are taken care of. There has never really been anything even close to an adequate level of official interest in putting these things in place.

Sometimes one gets to thinking that where sport is concerned much of what comes from the state is proffered at the level of tokenism. So that if, for example, an athlete (this has been the case mostly with our accomplished boxers) does exceptionally well on the international stage, he or she might merit an official welcome entourage at CJIA upon returning home along with a measure of media coverage and perhaps some other perk (like a modest state-funded reception) into the bargain.

There is, frankly, absolutely no good reason why, almost two decades into the twenty first century (and given all of the various state lands available) Guyana does not have at least two or three modern (even if less than lavish) sports facilities that embrace both performing areas, spectator accommodation, rest rooms, training areas, snackettes, injury treatment facilities et al. Of course there are other priorities that compete for what, admittedly, are scarce resources but is it not government which, over the years, has constantly made the sport-as-a-nation-builder argument?

Recognizing and honouring the successes of our athletes is an integral part of both celebrating their accomplishments and urging them to greater things and in that context there is certainly something to be said for the creation of Youth Awards programme (that should be afforded as much prominence as our substantive National Awards Programme) that allows high-achievers, in academia, athletics and other fields to enjoy a greater measure of national recognition. What we do to recognize the hard work of our athletes under what are mostly less than convivial circumstances to bring a measure of recognition to Guyana is patently not enough and it is high time that we set aside the excuses for not doing more. 

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