Fri | Oct 20, 2017

Humanising athletes

Published:Wednesday | September 9, 2015 | 12:00 AM

Last year, Usain Bolt was forced to sit out the track and field season because of niggling injuries. Justin Gatlin used the opportunity to shine and dominate the 100m sprint. He finished the season with the Diamond League title and the world fastest times of the year.

Justin Gatlin entered the 2015 season vibrantly and with his usual competitive spirit. He had managed to secure spectacular times and maintain his dominance in the 100m sprint.

Gatlin ran some impressive times in the 200 metres prior to the World Championships, which was enough to confirm to track fans and sport critics that he was definitely the man to beat this summer. Many had written off Bolt as a strong competitor as his injury plagued him.

However, the tables turned on August 23, as Usain Bolt ended all speculation with a blistering finish to secure his third 100 metres title and his ninth World Championships win.

Indeed, Bolt, Gatlin and many of the athletes have all brought different experiences to track and field. Many of these experiences could be embraced and used as lessons in humanising our athletes. No doubt, Bolt's overconfidence and reference to himself as "a true champ" in an interview is a great lesson to start with. Moments after Bolt's win, my inspired five-year-old nephew looked at his mother and reminded her that he "could run fast, too". The following day, a caller on a local Jamaican talk show echoed similar sentiments and stated that Bolt made him feel like a "winner."

Justin Gatlin, despite two doping bans, returned to the sport humbler and respectful of his competitors. This behaviour is in contrast to the cocky athlete who spat on the track to intimidate a younger Bolt years ago.

Gatlin's display of sportsmanship after the 100m and 200m races further highlighted how much he had grown from the arrogant showboating American athlete. Gatlin's admirable transformation is a positive reminder of the fact that the leopard can change its spots. Unfortunately, Gatlin's current behaviour has been overshadowed by his past doping bans and the occasional 'running up his mouth', as Jamaicans would say.

 

ASAFA'S STRUGGLES

 

Then there is Asafa Powell, who continues to struggle to overcome what seems to be a psychological challenge to reach the podium at major championship events. In spite of his challenges and the harsh criticism he receives from track followers, Powell's commitment to represent Jamaica is admirable. How many of us have the courage to deal with years of lost opportunity to be the greatest sprinter of all time, or to withstand the constant backlash of failing to medal in major races?

Veronica Campbell-Brown and Sherone Simpson have had challenging racing seasons for the past few years. Both young women were suspended for banned substances and were forced to miss the 2013-2014 track and field season and the IAAF World Championships in 2013. Speculation around the athletes' fitness and ability to compete at their age was also a concern.

Campbell-Brown and Simpson rose to the occasion as they unwaveringly came back and earned medals for major track and field meets held this year. Simpson gracefully captured gold in the 100 metres sprint in the Pan American Games held in Toronto, Canada, gaining her personal best this year with a time of 10.95 seconds.

What came as an even bigger surprise to many was Campbell-Brown's bronze medal in the 200m at the World Championship, breaking the 22-second barrier for the first time since 2010. She also ran a very impressive first leg for the Jamaican 4X100 relay team, which led to a gold-medal performance and World Championship record meet time.

Indeed, these athletes have shown us in many ways the challenges and disappointments we face as human beings. In a significant way, their various experiences are also instructive in how we might grow and deal with the problems we encounter.

Yet, as spectators, we tend to forget the very human side of athletes and we show little or no empathy for their limitations and vulnerabilities.

Ironically, as we instill good sportsmanship into our youngsters, we normally only walk away with the satisfaction of what it feels like to be a champion, but we have failed to learn the lessons of what it takes to make a champ.

- Dr Lisa Tomlinson is a lecturer in literatures in English and Caribbean studies, Kingston. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and lisa_tomlinson@edu.yorku.ca.