Tue | Nov 19, 2019

Pan-Am scheduling blues

Published:Thursday | November 3, 2011 | 12:00 AM
Lerone Clarke

There was a time when the Pan-American Games really were an Olympic dress rehearsal for our best track and field athletes. Then, as now, the Pan-Am Games came in the year before the Olympics. It was a real chance to

test one's prowess in Olympic conditions a year in advance.

In track and field, that changed substantially in 1983, a Pan-Am Games year, when the IAAF launched its World Championships. Both provided Olympic conditions and competition with rounds, but the new event pitted the world's best against each other and not just the best from the Americas.

The World Championships became the pre-Olympic event athletes targeted. Encouraged by the success of the Worlds in 1983, 1987 and 1991, the IAAF increased the frequency to every two years. Soon after that, athletes in the top eight at the Worlds were winning prize money.

Like the Olympics, the Pan-Am Games never did offer prize money.

To make matters worse, these Games sometimes got the short end of the scheduling stick. The 1995 Games were held in March, and this year's renewal just ended last week in October. Our best athletes targeted the World Championships, ended their 2011 seasons soon after in mid-September. By the time the Pan-Am Games began, some had started preparations for the London Olympics.

Fans who wanted to see our best in Guadalajara grudgingly accept this reality. It isn't the athletes' fault that the World Championships have overtaken the Pan-Am Games. It's just the way things are.

Given all that, the 2011 Pan-Am Games team didn't do badly. Lerone Clarke's 100m gold was followed by four silver medals. In six of the 16 Pan-Am Games, Jamaica have won less than five medals. In eight Pan-Ams, our athletes have come home with no gold medals.

The Jamaica medal haul would almost certainly have been better if the Games were in August. When Cali, Columbia, staged the Games in August 1971, Jamaica won 11 medals, with a 200m world record by Donald Quarrie stealing the show. The take was four gold, three silver and four bronze medals.

Jamaica won four gold, two silver and five bronze medals in the Dominican Republic in August 2003.

Critically important

The Games crossed into August in 1959, when George Kerr won the 400, in 1967, 1987, 1991 and 1999. In those years, Jamaica won six, three, seven, seven and eight medals, respectively.

In 1975, when the Games were last held in October, Andrea Bruce won all of our medals. They numbered two in total and both were bronze.

Like the Commonwealth Games, the Pan-Am Games remain critically important for our athletes in other sports. Alia Atkinson and Charles Pyne got medals and vital competition in Olympic conditions in swimming and badminton. The experience will be invaluable to them if they can qualify for London.

Alia is treading in famous footsteps. Her namesake Janelle Atkinson used medals at the 1998 Commonwealth and 1999 Pan-Am Games as stepping stones to fourth place at the 2000 Olympics in the 400m freestyle.

Track and field is different. The scheduling of the World Championships and the Pan-Am Games often forces athletes to choose between them.

Jamaicans aren't the only ones making that choice. World Champion Kirani James of Grenada missed the Pan-Ams. So did the eight American World Champions from Daegu. Like Veronica Campbell-Brown, Yohan Blake and Usain Bolt, they had all won gold in Daegu.

It's probably hard to get mid-summer dates for the Pan-Am Games. Perhaps the next best date for Pan-Am and Commonwealth athletics is mid-March, right after the indoor season, when some of the world's best are in shape.

That worked for Jamaica in 2006 when the Commonwealth Games were staged in the Australian city of Melbourne. Jamaica won eight gold medals in track and field.

Don't cheer too loudly, though, when next the Pan-Am Games are in March. Jamaica has just five medals total from the three Pan-Am Games held in March.

By the way, the 2015 Pan-Am Games are set for July in Toronto.

Hubert Lawrence has covered athletics since 1987.