Peter Espeut | High schools as sports academies
Schools in the habit of importing athletes will face increasing local competition for buying track stars - and increasing costs - and will be forced to turn elsewhere. Too many dogs and not enough bones are here in Jamaica!
After poaching all the talent from all-age schools and newly upgraded high schools, and with many empty spaces left on the track team, why not look overseas?
Better still: Jamaica is a sprint factory, but we are weak over the middle and longer distances. Why not import East Africans - students from Ethiopia and Somalia, Kenya and Tanzania - who are notoriously stronger over longer distances. Or source high-school students from North Africa - from countries like Morocco and Algeria - famous for their middle- and long-distance runners.
And if it is shot-putters and discus throwers we want, why not recruit some burly Ukrainians, Samoans or Estonians?
This is clearly the direction high-school sports in Jamaica is headed. Gone are the days when the quality of a school's athletics programme was judged by how they took the bauxite sent by the Common Entrance Examination, or GSAT, and refined it into alumina - and maybe even aluminium.
The policy today is to let the bauxite remain bauxite, and to buy the alumina and the aluminium from outside. What a dereliction of duty!
Jamaican high schools have become athletics clubs, fighting with each other with fistfuls of dollars and truckloads of household appliances to buy talented boys and girls to enhance their chances of winning Boys and Girls' Champs.
My grandfather must be turning in his grave. When, in 1904, he personally organised the first Inter-Secondary Schools' Handicap Championships (the precursor of Boys' Champs) to promote high-school athletics competition, I am sure he never foresaw that it would become a semi-professional affair, with high schools becoming sports academies.
To enhance their athletics programme, more and more high schools are laying down all-weather synthetic running tracks of international standard; and slowly , these sports academies (in all but name) are building boarding facilities to accommodate students from far away.
How is the Jamaican Ministry of Education responding to all of this? Aren't these foreign track students taking classroom spaces intended for Jamaicans? Are we comfortable with scarce tax dollars being spent to accommodate foreign students in our high schools?
When schools were wholly private institutions (before the days of 'grant-in-aid' from the Government), school administrations could admit anyone who could pay the (usually high) tuition fees. But with school fees banned, and auxiliary fees forbidden, what is the moral and legal justification for recruiting foreign student-athletes into Jamaican schools funded by the tax dollars of poor Jamaicans?
And what is the moral and legal justification for buying alumina and aluminium rather than refining the bauxite sent through the placement examinations? The mission of every Jamaican high school should be to develop the full potential - academic, athletic, and artistic - of all the young people placed under their care, not to encourage specialist athletic and academic students, neglecting others who may have latent talents.
Some of the times being run by young Jamaican high-school athletes are incredible. Are our students being given supplements to enhance their performance? (How do I say this delicately?) Are some of our (rural and urban) high schools put at a disadvantage by the training methods used by these sports academies posing as high schools?
I believe that the time has come for Jamaican high-school athletes to be required to submit to drug testing of the highest international standards. If we are going to allow international-standard, all-weather synthetic tracks in high schools, and international recruiting of schoolboy and schoolgirl athletes, we must have international-standard drug testing.
The present sports academy system will continue to grow and deepen unless the Ministry of Education steps in and puts a stop to it. It is our unequal - and iniquitous - education system, which holds back some and pushes forward others, that is a major inhibitor of sustained economic growth in this land.
No one should be forced to become a track star to get a good high-school education; and rural schools should not be required to bribe any exceptional athletic talent they may have fostered to stay in the school.
- Peter Espeut is a sociologist and rural-development scientist. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.