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Reflections on Boys' Champs - Part 3 (1955-1962)

Published:Sunday | March 21, 2010 | 3:00 AM
Dennis Johnson as he is now.

Arnold Bertram, Contributor


The last seven years of Champs at Sabina Park also marked a critical stage in Jamaica's march to nationhood. In January 1955, three months before Champs, the nationalist party (PNP) came to power. In August 1962, three months after Champs, Jamaica celebrated political Independence.


The most outstanding athlete in the history of Champs, Norman Manley, was the new chief minister, and Rudolph Burke, another of the all-time greats, was a member of the Senate. Two other parliamentarians, Donald Sangster and Ken Hill, had also successfully competed at Champs. Other outstanding athletes like Edgerton Richardson and Harvey DaCosta occupied the most senior posts in the administration of government, while others like Laurence Lindo were selected for Jamaica's most critical diplomatic postings.

Despite its weaknesses, the imperial project of educating and nurturing an elite certainly produced many of the nationalists around whom the validity of Jamaica's claim to independence was based.

It was also a period of increasing access to secondary education for both boys and girls. Of the 15 participating schools in 1955, eight were co-educational, relegating boys' schools to a minority for the first time. By 1962, eleven additional schools entered Champs. All were co-educational. In 1957, Girls' Champs was revived, only to be discontinued after a year. In 1961, Girls' Champs finally became a permanent feature on the athletics calendar.

During the 1961 Champs, in a brief but moving ceremony, Sam Brown was recognised for his 50-year contribution to Champs. At 74 years of age, he still enjoyed a game of tennis and kicked a football as hard as any of his students at Jamaica College (JC).

Another interesting feature of this period was the demise of Munro as a force in schoolboy athletics. Between 1943 and 1948, they won the title four times, placed second in 1949 and fourth in 1950. Then in 1951, for the first time, another rural school, Cornwall, finished ahead of them. They did not compete in 1952 and it was their star athlete, David Lindo, who partially restored their pride by gaining 17 of their 25 points in 1953, and 16 of their 18 points in 1954. Since then, Cornwall has taken over Munro's traditional role as the leading rural school at Boys' Champs.

The indomitable 'Foggy' Burrowes

After winning Champs in 1954, 'Foggy' Burrowes and Kingston College (KC) seemed all set to consolidate their dominance of schoolboy athletics. He prepared his athletes for competition with the sole objective of winning. As far as he was concerned, the gold medal was the only satisfying reward for long hours of training. However, despite his commitment to KC's hegemony, 'Foggy' never missed an opportunity to help any athlete from any school achieve his best.

In 1961, three weeks before Champs, he saw Cosmond Vaughn of Manning's looking short of form, running 53.3 seconds. He took him aside and encouraged him to concentrate on speed work. Vaughn came to Champs and defeated KC's Dwight Anderson in the 440 yards.

Unfortunately, as preparations began for 1955, 'Foggy' suffered a major personal calamity. At 26 years of age, he contracted polio in October 1954. However, not even this debilitating experience could keep his indomitable personality down for long. Within six months he was back on track, with a calliper on one leg and a walking stick in one hand. He returned to find an even more formidable opponent installed at Calabar, in the person of Herb McKenley. Although he did not resume as sports master, he certainly retained the roles of planner, motivator and strategist.

Herb McKenley restores Calabar's pride of place

Calabar, after dominating Champs during the 1930s, had only one win in the 1940s. Herb McKenley immediately set about to restore the school's pride of place and by 1955 took a major step by coaching Calabar to victory. The Green and Black Express dominated Class One, as between Greenland, Keane and Seaton, Calabar gained first and second places in the 100, 220 and 440 yards, with Keane taking the 120 yards hurdles and the 880 yards by himself.

In 1956, McKenley found himself without Roy Greenland, who had left school before his final year in Class One. In Greenland's absence, his successor, Leroy Keane, made a superhuman effort, winning the 440, the hurdles and the discus, placing second in the triple jump and third in the 880 yards to gain 14 points for his school. In one last effort to snatch victory, he opted to run the mile but was unable to complete the race.

He still summoned the energy to run a blazing anchor leg in the medley relay, but Calabar finished five points behind title winners Wolmer's. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that Keane should have gone to the Olympics that year. Immediately after Champs, he ran 48.8 in the 440 yards and would have been a leading contender for the 400m hurdles had he focused on that event.

The omnipresent G.C. Foster

The man who guided Wolmer's to victory was none other than G.C. Foster, who was then 71 years of age. His most outstanding performer was Class Two champion Tony Matthews, who jumped 22' 8.5" to break the existing record by 14". He shared the spotlight with Cecil Sproul (JC), who had victories in the 100 and 220 yards and a record-breaking leap in the long jump.

Still smarting from the defeats of 1955 and 1956, 'Foggy' prepared even more carefully to meet his rivals at Champs in 1957. His reinforcements for 'battle' included recruiting his mentor, G.C. Foster, as well as Calabar's former sports master, Noel White, to take up duties at KC.

That year, luck was not on Herb's side, as on the Friday night the car carrying the cream of his Class One athletes overturned. His star sprinter, Dennis Johnson, sustained a broken hand. He had already qualified for the final of the 100, 220 and 440 yards and was confident in his ability to win all three. The following morning, with his hand in a plaster and with a standing start, Johnson came fourth in the 100 and third in the 220 yards. It was an amazing display of courage. Thirty-five years before, George Bowen (STGC) also ran with a broken hand at Champs and, despite the handicap, won the 100 and came second in the 220 yards.

Lloyd Goodleigh (Calabar) won in the 440 and 880 yards. The St Jago team, coached by Ted Lamont, shared honours with Calabar in Class One, as Sutcliffe won the 100 yards and the 120 yards hurdles and Winston Peake won the mile.

The hero of the meet was KC's Class Two athlete, Mabricio Ventura, who secured the cup for KC by gaining an unprecedented 18 points. He broke the records in the 100 and 200 yards, won the 440 yards, gained second place in the long jump and 120-yard hurdles and anchored the victorious Class Two sprint relay. Paul Foreman (STGC) jumped 6' 1.5" to break Pat McGlashan Sr's 20-year-old record by .5". Pat McGlashan Jr restored the family pride by reclaiming the Class Two high jump record, while his cousin, Rheima Holding, won the Class One high jump title at Girls' Champs. It was a good year for the 'jumping McGlashan clan'.

Come 1958, there was no stopping Herb and the Green and Black Express, which again swept Class One. That year, Dennis Johnson broke the 100 yards record, won the 220 by some 10 yards, while his team captain, Lloyd Goodleigh, retained his 440 and 880 yards titles and anchored the victorious medley relay team.

Dennis Johnson and Mabricio Ventura

Long before Champs, the most heated discussions were focused on the anticipated clash between Dennis Johnson and Mabricio Ventura, both of whom carried the hopes and aspirations of their respective schools in the Class One sprints. Ventura was a prodigy in Class Three, and his feats in Class Two convinced his schoolmates that he was invincible against any opposition. Dennis Johnson, on the other hand, had been a virtual unknown until his second year in Class One.

The clash came on the Friday afternoon of Champs in the semi-final of the 220 yards. Johnson, running in Lane 2, quickly closed the stagger on Ventura in Lane 5, and on reaching the KC stand raised his hand in a whipping gesture, caught Ventura again and won comfortably. Neither Ventura nor KC recovered. Johnson went on to break the 100 yards record and to win the 220 comfortably the following day, with Ventura coming third in both events.

The following year, both were awarded track scholarships to the United States. Ventura never ran again and Johnson went on to become Jamaica's first world record holder of the 100 yards. Calabar was still celebrating the following Monday morning, when Headmaster Murray White summoned Johnson to his office and reprimanded him sternly for the gesture which he describes as a "gross violation of sportsmanship".

JC's moment of renewal

In the first 18 years of Champs, JC won the cup 10 times and did not win again until 1940. Twelve years later, in 1952, the cup returned to Hope Road. After a seven-year stretch, the Clinton Woodstock-coached JC boys gained their 13th lien on the Champs cup. There were no sprinters in Class One, but in the field events, Richard Thelwell, the Class One champion, with victories in the long jump and two second places in the hurdles and triple jump, along with Neil George, the winner of the discus, accounted for 15 points between them. It was in Class Two that JC sealed their victory as C. Morgan won the 220 and 440 yards, R. McNeil the hurdles and Patrick Robinson the discus.

XLCR comes in from the cold

Excelsior entered Champs in 1952 for the first time and scored one point. In 1956, they won their first event, the Class Two 440 yards, courtesy of C. Dixon. Then, in 1958, they scored eight points to come in ninth place. They did not win any events, but in Class Two Norman Mitchell and Earl Belcher served notice.

In 1959, they blossomed, scoring points in every Class One track event. Norman Mitchell and C. Knibb came third and fourth in the 100 yards, with Knibb second in the 220 yards. O. Hornett won the Class One 220 yards, came second in the 440 and then joined with N. Mitchell and C. Knibb to win the Class One sprint relay. Earl Belcher won the 880 yards and the mile.

The following year, XLCR delivered on their promise and took home the cup. Mitchell and Knibb were first and second in both the 100 and 220 yards, while Belcher again scored the double in the 880 yards and the mile. Mitchell's sensational final leg on the outside lane in the Class One 4x110 relay confirmed his ranking with the best.

Herb leaves Calabar in style

In 1961, Herb coached Calabar for the last time before taking a 12-year break, and the boys gave him an appropriate farewell. Norman Marsh, the team captain, led from the front with victories in the shot put and the discus gained at the expense of the defending champion, Errol Ennis (KC).

In Class Two, C. Matthews and W. Reid were first and third in the 100 yards; D. Clarke and W. Reid second and fourth in the 220 yards and all three carried the baton to victory in the sprint relay. The event which Calabarians remember, though, is the medley relay, when the diminutive Arthur Grey, after winning the 440 yards, ran an inspired 220 leg to give his school victory and the cup.

Recollections of 1962

It was an awesome display of Purple Power. KC, thanks to another 'Foggy' Burrowes innovation, had replaced the single coach with a faculty of coaches. The era of specialised coaching had begun.

It was a year when the 440 yards dominated. In Class One, Dwight Anderson (KC), Dennis Anderson (Happy Grove) and Cosmond Vaughn (Manning's) became the first three schoolboys to run under 50 seconds. In Class Two, Errol Huie (STGC) coached by Herb McKenley lowered the record from 52.4 to 50.7 seconds.

After the Class One 120 yards hurdles, which Lyndie Headley won in 14.5 seconds to lower Norman Manley's record of 14.6 set in 1912, Ray Harvey sat on the ground, a picture of dejection. Although it was his first year in Class One, he had come to win and to emulate his father, C.P. Harvey, who had won the event in 1935. In the finals, he got off to a bad start and was never able to pass Coley of Cornwall, who hurdled with his right hand going across. He was proud of his teammate and friend, Headley, but felt he had not been able to give of his best.

It was G.C. Foster's last Champs when, at 77 years old, he again coached the winning school. The photograph of champions KC shows him sitting appropriately beside Lennox Miller, the future Olympic silver medallist.

An assessment

By 1962, the old boys of each competing school living with the nostalgia of their glory days had made Champs an end in itself. The sentiment expressed in The Wolmerian of December 1916, that "no endeavour is in vain; its reward is in the doing", was no longer the guiding philosophy of Champs. Winning was becoming everything.

On the positive side, Champs, on the basis of performance and organisation, had been established as the premier schoolboy meet in the world. It had also built up a level of volunteerism that remains unmatched in any other field of endeavour. With the merging of Boys and Girls' Champs in 2004, the final hurdle has been cleared for the realisation of the fullest potential of the social activity which provides Jamaicans with the greatest outpouring of national pride.

On the negative side, Champs has yet to become a gateway through which the enormous talent displayed each year goes on to find a niche in the global sports economy of which track and field is now an integral part. The present reality is that by age 19 the athletic careers of some 90 per cent of Jamaica's schoolboy athletes, because of injury or just plain exhaustion, come to an end.

As a consequence, KC, during their monopoly of the cup (1962-1975), produced only one individual Olympic medallist - Miller 1968 - and the intensification of the rivalry between KC and Calabar which still dominates Champs has not produced even one individual Olympic medallist. The fact is that some 90 per cent of Olympic medallists are adults who achieve this distinction between 20 to 28 years of age.

The arrival of Usain Bolt

In 1994, Herb Elliot, the Olympic gold medallist who was never defeated in the 1500m or the mile, when asked for his opinion on future possibilities for record breaking in track and field, responded, "I think we are only on the border of understanding the interface between mind, spirit and body. I believe there is a quantum leap somewhere in the equation that we have yet to discover. There are all sorts of things that are possible."

It was at Champs in 2003 that the first signs of the quantum leap into the future were observed. That year, Usain Bolt, who at 16 years of age was already the World Junior champion for the 200m, electrified Champs with a record-breaking 45.35 seconds in the 400m. Within five years he would take his place with Garfield Sobers, Pele, Michael Jackson and Tiger Woods, all supreme practitioners in their respective performing arts - cricket, football, entertainment and golf. Like them, he is a genius, "one who carries to an extreme definitive the characteristics of the unit of civilisation to which they belong and the special act or function which they express or practise".

In a society where 75 per cent of the young men between 15 and 24 are either victims or perpetrators of 75 per cent of the violent crime, we cannot afford to ignore the importance of an activity which rewards discipline, hard work and a healthy lifestyle. Our young men urgently need ideals, symbols and examples to rouse their spirits to a realisation of the potential and latent powers within themselves. It is athletics which provided Bolt with the opportunity to make the giant leap from a rural community in Trelawny to the pinnacle of international fame and to provide an example worthy of emulation.

Arnold Bertram is the author of a forthcoming publication, 'Jamaica on the Track - The Making of a Superpower in Track and Field Athletics'. Comments may be sent to columns@gleanerjm.com or redev.atb@gmail.com.