Sun | Aug 20, 2017

Orville Higgins | The $82m question: Is it worth it?

Published:Friday | October 14, 2016 | 10:00 AM

The Jamaican Government has come up with an $82-million package to reward our Olympians. Already, there is a lot of discussion about it. Eighty-two million dollars is a lot, and for a cash-strapped country with all the social ills that we have, one can understand when some will argue that this money could be much better spent.

There are communities in Jamaica without electricity, without running water, without proper roads. There are hospitals in Jamaica lacking key equipment. There are police stations in Jamaica where the vehicles are severely inadequate. As we were painfully reminded a few weeks ago, there is a severe shortage of ambulances in Jamaica.

There are schools in Jamaica that need upgrading. I could list to infinity the number of areas where an

$82-million injection could be viewed as providing greater good to Jamaica than giving money to athletes and holding a trifecta of events celebrating their achievements.

Not only are there severe infrastructural improvements needed that $82 million could go a far way in addressing, but it could also be argued that there are other members of the labour force who deserve this kind of financial injection far more than our Olympians.

I can think of several teachers and nurses and policemen who would be quietly grumbling that Government would be spending $82 million to honour and reward Olympians, while they struggle to get a marginal pay increase.

Those civil servants have a point. A lot of those who are going to be compensated by the Government are already earning a decent living. Usain Bolt, for instance, will be earning $2.6 million from this deal. If you should put that in Bolt's account directly, chances are he may hardly notice. People like Shelly-Ann and Elaine Thompson could always use the money they are getting, I'm sure, but it's going to be hard to prove that they 'deserve' Government's financial help more than a nurse or doctor who works a 48-hour shift to save lives on a paltry salary.

 

FAVOURING ONE GROUP

 

The Government is running the risk of being a little soft on these Olympians. Remember, it was only a few months ago that they announced a $60,000-a-month package for those preparing for the Rio Olympics. It was a gesture that the athletes welcomed, but other people who are involved in other sports must have been wondering why athletes were getting direct financial assistance from Government while they were not.

I know for a fact that there are high-quality performers in other sports who felt that it was unfair for track and field athletes to be benefiting in this way while they were not. As I said at the time, the Government has to be careful that it does not appear to be favouring one group above the next.

The argument has been made that the Government has to treat athletes better because they are our best performers as a sporting group and they do more than any other sporting discipline to put Jamaica on the map. That may well be the case, but it can lead to other sports disciplines feeling unduly left out.

The trick here is that while track and field may well be our best sport, it doesn't necessarily mean that all athletes are better at their sport than others in theirs. I would argue, for example, that Romelda Aiken is a far better netballer than several of the athletes are in track and field. Yet others are compensated and given money to benefit their training, while someone like a Romelda is not.

As a sports broadcaster, I can, of course, understand the other side. Sport brings a kind of feel-good vibe to the country that is incalculable. During the Olympics, there is a oneness with Jamaicans, a kind of patriotic fervour and spirit that is crucial to any nation.

Our Olympic stars also bring recognition to us from all over the world that we otherwise couldn't pay for in advertising dollars. I remember reading once that during the 1998 World Cup qualifiers on the days when Jamaica played at 'The Office', the crime rate tended to be lower. How much is that worth in dollars and cents to the footballers at the time? When thousands of jubilant Jamaicans (especially those that gather in Half-Way Tree to watch our athletes perform) forget their problems for a while, how much is that worth in dollars and cents? How much are the athletes worth merely to create that feeling of camaraderie and friendliness among Jamaicans, if nothing else, even if only for two weeks? There are good arguments on both sides.

The Government may well be saying, damned if we do, damned if we don't.

- Orville Higgins is a sportscaster and talk-show host at KLAS ESPN Sports FM. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.