Orville Higgins | Sprinting prowess not enough
Maybe I am getting greedy. Maybe I am taking the sprint medals for granted at the Rio Olympics. Don’t get me wrong; I am happy and grateful for the exploits of Usain Bolt and Elaine Thompson and Omar McLeod, but for me, those medals were expected, which means the euphoria isn’t as strong as it should be.
I find myself staring at the television most days and wishing that we would also do well in events outside of the sprints. Why is it that a nation with such outstanding sprinters struggle to put together quality people for the longer distances? I don’t know about you, but I am disappointed that we couldn’t find one single solitary male who could make the Olympic qualifying time in the 800m. In the women’s equivalent, Kenia Sinclair and Natoya Goule have shown promise, but they are simply outclassed when they get to the global level.
Should we, as a nation, be happy with this? Is it enough that we are the sprint capital and should just concentrate on that without making an effort to make ourselves a more rounded track nation? I don’t think we should be resting on our laurels and be satisfied to be able to compete only in the short distances. There is no real reason why we shouldn’t be able to do better in the distance events.
The 800m record for men in Jamaica is 1.45.21. It is held by Seymour Newman. He did that in June 1977 – that’s approaching 40 years ago! Why should that be? The 1,500m record for men in Jamaica is held by Steve Green. He did it in August 1994 – that’s 22 years ago! At the 800 junior level, Neville Myton, who was running the comparative 880 yards in the 1960s, was doing times that are still outdoing our juniors now!
This is unacceptable if we claim we are serious about track and field. I’m not suggesting we do anything to cut back on sprinting success, but we can’t just be a one-trick pony. Something must be done, and I think the governing body, the JAAA, must see it as its responsibility.
At the moment, there is precious little that the JAAA does to develop Jamaica’s track and field. The reason Jamaica produces great athletes is because of Champs, which has nothing whatsoever to do with the JAAA. Sure, the JAAA may organise a few youth camps here and there, but essentially that’s it as far as developing athletes are concerned. The top athletes in Jamaica are invariably the products of a high school system and the JAAA, by and large, merely organises track meets and then selects the best of them. That surely has to change.
The local governing body must take a serious role in helping to create and encourage the talent it speaks so glowingly of when these athletes become global stars. Right now, our sprinters don’t do well because of the JAAA. They do well almost in spite of the JAAA.
One way in which the JAAA could start being really useful is to start a programme to help with our distance running. The sprints take care of themselves. Every year at Champs, there will be hundreds of boys and girls all over Jamaica essentially trying to be the next Bolt or Shelly or Veronica or Elaine.
The precious few that want to seriously take on the 800m or 1,500m will have little quality opposition. Our distance runners with any pretensions to quality, like Kemoy Campbell, really get my sympathy. When they come to Champs they are pretty much running against themselves, which, of course, doesn’t help them to improve, which is why when they get to the international stage, the pace is usually too hot.
The JAAA has got to take the lead in an attempt to address this imbalance. Those JAAA officials who jet off to watch these senior athletes at the global meets must start doing things to earn these trips. How they go about doing it is open for discussion. One way could be to offer some kind of special incentive for athletes who do close to world-rated times in, say, the 800m or 1,500m.
What those incentives are could be anything. Paying for their tuition or completely financing their entire training and medical needs is just one suggestion. At this stage, I would be happy with any attempt by the powers that be to kick-start a fresh approach to distance running. Right now, the JAAA is benefiting from our athletes far more than our athletes are benefiting from the JAAA.
- Orville Higgins is a sportscaster and talk-show host at KLAS ESPN Sports FM. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.