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Peter Espeut | A more balanced national identity

Published:Friday | August 19, 2016 | 8:00 AM

I am in two minds as to whether it is a good thing that so much of our national identity is wrapped up in our athletic prowess. I have the same issue when the quality of a school is judged more by its performance at the annual Boys and Girls' Athletic Championships rather than by its ranking when CSEC and CAPE results are published.

The preponderance of athletes of African origin in the finals of the athletic events plays into the hands of racists who argue that genetics is the source of the athletic superiority of black people, just as (they argue) genetics is at the root of white supremacy in intellectual pursuits.

Writing in The New York Times last Sunday, eminent Jamaican sociologist, Professor Orlando Patterson of Harvard University, UWI and Kingston College, asked: "How do Jamaicans do it? It's not because of genetics, as some claim. A vast majority of Jamaicans' ancestors are from West Africa, which has relatively few outstanding sprinters. Nor can genetics explain why Jamaicans outperform other blacks in the Americas, especially in Brazil, which has 36 times as many of them."

Patterson puts Jamaica's global domination in the sprints down to two things: Champs and our excellent record in sanitation and public health.

In 1904, Alfred Noel Crosswell, headmaster of the Kingston High School at Clovelly Park (the present site of Kingston College), organised the Inter-Secondary Schools' Handicap Championships, the precursor of Boys' Champs. Five other schools participated (Wolmer's, Jamaica College, St George's College, Potsdam (later renamed Munro College), and the Mandeville Middle Grade School (now known as Manchester High School). Jamaica College won the first championships.

Since then, Boys and Girls' Champs, as Patterson explains, "is one part of a broader framework track and field is huge at every educational level, with periodic regional meets drawing athletes of all ages from the most remote rural areas". And he asserts: "Jamaica is perhaps the only country in the world where a track and field meet is the premier sporting event."

The other half of Patterson's explanation for Jamaica's global athletic prowess is that we had "an abundance of very healthy children and young people the result not of Jamaica's mountainous terrain, as some have claimed, but of the extraordinary success of a public-health campaign partly spearheaded in the 1920s by specialists from the Rockefeller Foundation. It emphasised hygiene, clean water and faecal and mosquito control... . The old mantras, 'healthy bodies, healthy minds' and 'cleanliness is next to godliness' took hold in our communities and primary schools, whose teachers were recruited in the public-health campaign. Running, as the cheapest sport, was the natural beneficiary of this movement".

 

PLAY AN IMPORTANT ROLE

 

In other words, it's not that we are born that way. Jamaicans are socialised - from quite a young age - to participate and to excel in track and field events.

What Patterson does not adequately explain is why we have focused on sprint events rather than the longer distances, field events, or other sports like swimming and gymnastics. Clearly, the explanation must be that without heroes in other events, like Dr Arthur Wint and Herb McKenley, for young Jamaicans to emulate, and without specialist coaches in the longer distances and other sports of the calibre of G.C. Foster, Stephen Francis, and Glen Mills, very few young Jamaicans will choose those disciplines.

Jamaica will always do well in sprint events on the world scene, but our total medal count will always be low compared to other countries that provide opportunities for their citizens to excel in a much broader range of disciplines. This is where, in my view, the Jamaican Government and the Jamaica Administrative Athletics Association (JAAA) can play an important role.

I don't know how much credit the Government and the JAAA can legitimately claim for the present strength of Jamaica's athletics brand. Credit, it seems to me, goes to the individual athletes, their personal coaches, their school athletics prog-rammes (not funded by the Government), and ISSA, which organises Champs.

The Government and the JAAA should hire and place expert coaches of non-traditional disciplines in Jamaican schools, and work towards training Jamaicans to coach these sports and games. There is no reason why disciplines like rowing (using the harbours around Jamaica), archery, and fencing, etc., cannot be introduced. The sports infrastructure of the country needs to be improved, not necessarily only at schools, but also in communities.

This must go along with an improvement in educational infrastructure so that Jamaicans can also excel at academics. Then the positive elements of our national identity can have both an athletic and an academic base.

- Peter Espeut is a sociologist and rural development scientist. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.