Hubert Lawrence | An Army of Gold
We were all so track drunk from the extended 2019 athletics season that the 7th World Military Games didn’t register a blip on the sports radar. The winners in Wuhan, China, late last month included Salwa Eid Naser of Bahrain, 400-metre world champion in Doha, Russian hurdles ace Sergey Shubenkov and Brazil’s Pan-Am shot put victor Darlan Romani. It wasn’t until I saw a Youtube video of China playing Greece in the Games table tennis competition that a eureka thought hit the target.
Days after a Gleaner interview cited Julian Robinson, coach of world discus silver medallist Fedrick Dacres, fretting about how a lack of financial support was threatening Jamaica’s throws movement, world number two Fan Zhendong led China into battle against a Greek team anchored by former world top 10 player Kalinikos Kreanga. Like Eid Naser, Shubenkov and Romani, Fan and backhand topspin king Kreanga are soldiers, sort of. As the Chinese and the Greeks slugged it out, a possible solution for Jamaica became clear.
ARMED SPORTING DIVISION
Instead of leaving unsponsored athletes to fend for themselves when they leave college, Jamaica could have them enlist in sporting divisions of the armed forces. It’s nothing new. In many other countries, athletes are supported that way. Often, they do token service but spend most of their time training and competing.
Robinson was lamenting the loss to Jamaica of 2016 discus Olympians Kellion Knibb and Tarasue Barnett, and wishing there was support forthcoming to prevent the same fate snaring 2018 NCAA Champion Shadae Lawrence when she graduates from Colorado State University next month.
The good news is that Barnett is back in training and will seek to make her second Olympic team next year.
Our armed forces have facilitated sports in the past. Roxbert Martin, the 1996 Olympic 400-metre finalist and 4x400 bronze medallist, was a policeman. The JDF has always been a friend of sport, with programmes in track, football, cricket and table tennis. However, an expanded programme is needed to keep elite prospects going beyond their years in college.
These prospects could be on the payroll while training elsewhere. Alternately, the JDF has a gym and playfield at Up Park Camp and that could be a training ground for others who need a way station between college scholarships and professional contracts.
This expanded armed forces sports programme wouldn’t only help young Olympic hopefuls. It could also extend the careers of world-class veterans in areas when Jamaica isn’t blessed with quality. For example, Kreanga was a World Championship semi-finalist in 2003, but the support the 47 year-old receives from the army and his other sponsors has kept him at the table as an inspiration to 19 year-old Ioannis Sgouropoulos, the European Junior champion.
FILLING DISCUS GAP
It’s win-win-win. Small countries don’t generate armies of world beaters, and every means necessary should be taken to make all the good prospects reach their full potential. The premature loss of Knibb, who was the national women’s discus record holder before Lawrence, and others like her, creates a gap Jamaica won’t easily fill. For that reason, it’s plain good sense to look at the dozens of countries who ‘employ’ athletes to their armed forces.
A dub version of that blueprint will keep more of Jamaica’s Olympic prospects going and increase the nation’s chance of reaching new heights. In disciplines where expertise comes with experience, like the field events, such a programme could be worth its weight in gold.
Hubert Lawrence is a sports analyst and commentator.