Kudos, Bajan olympians

GUESTXCOLUMNMany wrote scathing comments on social media. Some castigated our athletes for what they perceived as a lack of grit and determination. Some called for a scaling down of the team and even tougher qualifying marks. A few went as far as to call it a “waste of tax payers’ hard earned money”.

However, when the facts are sought and the results are published, it has to be said that Barbados’ Olympic team to Rio defied all odds. The fact that a team was present at all was a showcase of the very grit and determination which some, clearly oblivious to the facts, requested of our representatives.

While some nations with much larger populations and economies have yet to win an Olympic medal of any hue, Barbados, an island with a population which equates to the enrollment of some of this world’s universities, can boast of capturing an Olympic medal in the games’ most prestigious event- the 100 metres.

Bangladesh, with 160 million people, has never won an Olympic medal. Even worse, the country, known for cricket, has only ever had a few legitimate Olympic qualifying athletes. The entire team which ventured to Rio donning the blue, yellow and black, earned their places there by meeting the standards set by the International Olympic Committee.

Barbados’ rules, as set by the Amateur Athletics Association of Barbados, precludes athletes who do not run the qualifying standards within the year of competition from participating in the games. The IOC’s rules, on the other hand, allow for entry if any athlete achieves the standards within the period of eligibility.

Barbados’ rules have excluded many elite athletes in the past. For example, Shakeera Reece was excluded from Barbados’ squad for a previous Olympics, just months after winning a medal at the CAC Games in the 100 and breaking this island’s national record with an Olympic qualifying time of 11.2 seconds.

Two of this island’s more accomplished athletes, Shane Brathwaite and Greggmar Swift, were excluded from the team to Rio despite having performed much better than the standards set by the IOC, within the period of qualification. Making matters worse, Swift was a gold medalist at the most recent World University Games in Korea, and was a finalist at the 2015 Pan Am Games.

Brathwaite, a former World Youth Champion, was a medalist at virtually every major meet representing Barbados during the period of eligibility. He won a medal at the Pan Am Games only last year. The lime and salt in the eyes of these two athletes is the fact that in Rio, many athletes advanced to the semi-final rounds, with times much slower than Swift and Brathwaite have put in for years.

Kierre Beckles ran for the first time at an Olympic Games in Rio, despite having met the standards for participation in the 2012 London Olympic Games. She was not allowed to participate in London, yet expectations were high for her in Rio. My belief is that had she been allowed to participate in London, that experience would have prepared her for Rio, erasing the nervousness of a first appearance at the Olympics.

To those on social media who made it clear that the Olympics is the forum for personal best performances, I say this. Some of you have been nervous at job interviews. Some have been nervous in school pageants. Some have been nervous at their weddings. Can you imagine your mental state stepping to the line before thousands in a stadium with a physical infrastructure beyond anything you have ever seen before, with thousands in the stands and billions watching on television worldwide at the world’s biggest event? Nothing can prepare you mentally for the Olympics better than a previous Olympics.

Having mentioned infrastructure, let’s delve even deeper into this specific point. Grenada won one gold and one silver medal from two Olympic Games- 2012 and 2016. Grenada has a sparkling national stadium. The Bahamas has won many Olympic medals and is home to one of the most beautiful and modern stadiums in this hemisphere. Jamaica dominates track, and has several international standard stadiums which allow their athletes to train and compete against visiting athletes from season to season.

Trinidad too has several international athletics stadiums, and has won medals commensurate to that country’s investment in its athletes. By comparison, Barbados’ national stadium is, respectfully, a dump. A venue condemned which cannot allow patrons to venture into its crumbling stands. This is not an indictment on Barbados’ Government, however. We all need to find ways to assist, in whatever way we can, to contribute to any effort geared towards the construction of Barbados’ new National Stadium. A stadium is a symbol of a country’s development and Barbados deserves better.

Kudos and bravo to those companies which stepped up to the plate, sponsoring this country’s athletes at various points ranging from the primary school level to the Olympic level. Much more of this needs to be done. Kudos to those dozens who attended Barbados’ Nationals this year, and whose $10 bills assisted our island’s team in their preparations for Rio. Perhaps a telethon can be done once per year, to allow Barbadians to contribute, if even one dollar, to the effort.

To those on social media criticizing our athletes in the worst way possible, how dare you? Did you not notice how Barbados’ best athletics talent since Obadele Thompson – Akela Jones – had to take time out of her training to sell t-shirts to assist her to prepare for Rio? That session should have lasted no more than five minutes, as it was heavily advertised. Someone should have been waiting at the door on the day, from any one of Barbados’ multi-million dollar companies, with a cheque to purchase every shirt- instantly.

Akela’s lifetime journey is a powerful inspiration to Barbados’ youth and is priceless. She should never have to ask for sponsorship. The support needed should be provided, based on opportunity within any company’s marketing budget.

We need a stadium to give athletes the opportunity not only to train and run, but also to perform in the presence of large audiences, and to compete against incoming world class talent before thousands of Barbadians. This would assist greatly in the athletes’ mental preparation for global events. The roar of support from your fellow countrymen and women and the urge to surpass personal best performances for friends and family to witness ‘live’ often propels athletes to deliver personal best times. You see, athletics is not only physical, there is also a very significant psychological component that is essential.

There is a need for patronage at domestic athletics meets. Therefore, there is a commensurate need for intense advertising campaigns for the said events on the part of organizers. We as Barbadians need to attend athletics meets by the thousands to show our support. This will yield tangible results which can be used to finance our athletes. I hope, and truly believe, that there is a short-term plan in place for a scholarship programme for athletes, right here at the University of the West Indies. The time is right to launch this, on the return of our team from Rio.

With the stated odds stacked against them, Barbados’ team to Rio deserves a heroes’ welcome on their return with gifts, love and applause. This will signal our support for these athletes, who will most likely all be competing at the 2020 games, and begin our journey with them, with a clean slate, as they prepare to win medals for this country in Tokyo.

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