Matthews versus Ventura - 50 years ago
Tony Becca - ON THE BOUNDARY
The year 2009 was a blessed one for sports in Jamaica, and although it cannot and will not challenge 2009 and 2008, simply because of the exploits of the country's athletes, because of the glorious and magnificent deeds of Usain Bolt and company in Berlin at the World Championships in Athletics and, before that, in Beijing at the Olympic Games, 2010 promises to be one to remember.
Unlike years gone by when, in terms of participation, achievement, and the interest of the people, cricket was the sport of sport in this country, there are many, many forms of sports in this country these days.
In fact, there are so many sports today and the achievements have been so many, so regular, and so outstanding that Jamaica can easily be best described as the country of sports.
The country's footballers failed to qualify for the World Cup, and that was a disappointment.
Remembering again the performance of the track and field athletes as well as that of the netballers, last year was great. Remembering the performance of other sports in regional competitions, including cricket, last year was good. And as the country welcomes 2010, it is with a glorious expectation of more and greater success.
This is the year of the Commonwealth Games and as the fans remember champions past, gold medal winners of years gone by like Keith Gardner, Ernle Haisley, Paul Foreman, George Kerr, Don Quarrie, and Marilyn Neufville, they do so with the anticipation not only of a harvest of medals, and gold medals at that, but also of many one-two finishes.
For me, however, apart from World Cup football in South Africa, the event of 2010 will be Boys and Girls' Championships.
Started in 1910 with six schools - champions Wolmer's, Jamaica College, St George's College, Potsdam (now Munro College), New College, and Mandeville Middle Grade School - in a one-day competition and missing only 1944, Boys' Champs, bulging with 103 schools, plus 106 girls schools, in a four-day contest last year, will be celebrating its 100th anniversary in March, and my hope is that it will be a wonderful, exciting and memorable occasion.
I loved Champs, I loved going to Race Course (now National Heroes Park) for the field events, sometimes to Jamaica College, and then to Sabina Park for the real thing.
Down to the finish
Along with my friends, particularly so on the Saturday, and especially so in the late afternoon when it was coming down to the finish, I also loved to hear the sound of the 'Straw' - "strawberry, shortcake, huckleberry pie, v-i-c-t-o-r-y, are we in it, yes I guess, Wolmer's, Wolmer's, yes, yes, yes."
In 1956, Wolmer's won Champs, and in 1958 when Calabar won with 46 points, Wolmer's, beaten by a mere point and a half, were really in it until the last event.
That was the year when Dennis Johnson, the beloved 'DJ' of Calabar, winner of the 100 yards over Geddes Campbell of Kingston College and the man who later set a new world record in the 100 yards dash, won the 200 after coming around the curve in the lead and waving to the fans, to the 'enemies', in the KC stand.
From the days of boys like Norman Manley - the one who, in winning the 100, 200, and 440 yards, the long jump, the high jump, and the hurdles in 1912, won six events for Jamaica College in one day, Arthur Wint of Excelsior, Herb McKenley of Calabar, Leroy 'Coco' Brown of Wolmer's, Douglas Manley - the son of Norman Manley, the Jamaica College sprinter who erased his father's record in the 100 yards with 10 seconds flat in 1941, and Lindy Delapenha of Munro through Leroy Keane of Calabar, Cecil Sproul of JC, Rupert Hoilette and Hugh Manhertz of KC, and down to others like Yohan Blake and Dexter Lee of recent times, Champs has produced some great schoolboy athletes, some memorable rivalries, and some exciting clashes.
To me and the boys, and girls, of my time, however, there was only one rivalry. It was a rivalry that, 50 years on, we still remember, and it was one that we will continue to remember as long as we live.
That rivalry was between Tony Matthews of Wolmer's and Mabricio Ventura of KC.
Matthews was one year older than Ventura, and the rivalry started in 1956 with both athletes in Class Two and ended in 1959 with both athletes in Class One.
I remember, as if it was yesterday, the Wolmer's Sports Day in 1956, and that KC's Sports Day was held on the same day, that Matthews won the 100 yards at Heroes Circle, that later on, the 100 was run at KC, that the word flashed from North Street up to Wolmer's that Ventura had clocked a fantastic time, something like 10.3, and that the Wolmer's boys were alarmed and worried.
I also remember that G. C. Foster, who later went to train KC boys, was sports master at Wolmer's, and when he heard of Ventura's time, he called Matthews, he put his arm around the young man's shoulder, and he said in a quiet voice: "Don't worry about that, son. A clock has never won a race, certainly not that I can recall."
At Champs, Matthews clocked a respectable 10.5 and won the race. Ventura finished second - as he did in the 200 yards which Matthews, winner of the long jump, also won.
The following year, in 1957 and with Matthews one year older and running in Class One, Ventura won the Class-Two 100.
Two years later, in 1959, in the year after the Johnson/Campbell classic in which Ventura had finished third and Matthews fourth, they were back at it again, and with Matthews in his last year, with Ventura destined not to return in 1960, it was their last time at Champs.
It was a showdown to remember, Matthews was strapped like a race-horse, there was a deadly silence as they went to their marks at the northern end of Sabina Park, and in a flash, a few seconds after the gun went off, they were at the tape.
Who was it? Was it Matthews, or was it Ventura?
It was so close that we Wolmerians, seeing, as we believed we did see, Matthews hit the tape first, burst forth with a "strawberry ...".
It was so close that many fans, right around the ground, believed that Matthews had won, and it was so close that hardly anyone believed that Ventura had won the showdown until his victory was announced on the public-address system.
In fact, it was so close that some of the money wagered on the race in the preceding weeks changed hands within seconds of the finish, only to be hastily recovered in a mad rush following the announcement.
Up to a few days ago, over the holidays, a few of us old boys remembered 'Matthews versus Ventura' - races that took place 50 years and more ago.
Over the years, the girls have produced their stars, and they will never ever be forgotten.
This year, however, the toast is to the boys, to all of them, including Bolt and Asafa Powell, the former, world-record holder in the 100 and 200 metres, and the latter, one of the world's fastest men. The other who never won at Champs but one who was once the world's fastest man, and especially so to those who, after Champs, after Sabina Park on the Saturday, win or lose, used to gather at Dairy Products, along Half-Way Tree Road above Cross Roads, for the celebration.