Hubert Lawrence, Contributor
BY 1962, we already had track heroes Arthur Wint, George Rhoden, and Herb McKenley and cricket superstar George Headley, but George Kerr's double gold 50 years ago at the Central American and Caribbean Games started a new era.
By Independence, we had won nine medals - three of them of the gold variety - in four trips to the Olympic Games. Now, the total is 67, with 66 in athletics.
Courtney Walsh, who, in 2000 set a world record for the number of wickets taken in Test cricket, Jimmy Adams, and Chris Gayle have joined Robert Nunes and Franz Alexander as captains of the West Indies team. Jamaicans have also played key roles in West Indies triumphs. This year, Gayle, who has twice scored triple centuries in Test cricket, and Marlon Samuels, boosted the regional side to the World T20 title. Thirty years ago, Michael Holding and Jeff Dujon were mainstays in a dominant West Indies team that won 27 matches on the trot. The smooth-striding Holding befuddled Test batsmen to the tune of 249 wickets while the sure-handed 'Duj' racked up 267 dismissals from behind the stumps.
There were times in the last 50 years when Jamaica had heroes dominating different sports simultaneously. Donald Quarrie followed 1968 Olympic 100-metres silver medallist Lennox Miller into the ranks of the world's best sprinters in the early 1970s when batting stylist Lawrence Rowe was emerging. Quarrie arrived on the scene in 1970. He defeated Miller in the 100 metres at the Commonwealth Games and completed a sprint triple. On the women's side, Marilyn Neufville won the 400 metres, but en route, became the first Jamaican woman to set a world record. In 1971, Quarrie set the first of his own world records. He took 200-metre gold in the 1976 Olympics.
While Quarrie, Neufville, and Miller controlled the track, Lawrence Rowe was building on Headley's legacy. He scored 214 against New Zealand in his West Indies Test debut at Sabina Park in 1972, the first double-century by a player on debut and, then followed this up with a century in the second innings of the same match just two years later, the stylish Rowe bombed 302 against England in Barbados. It was the first Jamaican Test triple century. Later on, Walsh was scuttling out batsmen with his pace and guile during Ottey's years of consistent speed. Similarly, the Windies T20 win comes right after a super performance by our athletes at the London Olympics and victory by our footballers over the United States.
A look back at the statistics will show that no Jamaican woman won an Olympic medal until 1980 when history was made twice. Merlene Ottey emerged with third place in the 200 metres, and the first medal by a Jamaican woman at the Olympics. Since then, even though our men got a head start in winning Olympic medals, our total haul is split almost exactly 50-50 at the Olympics.
David Weller won Jamaica's first medal outside of athletics with a bronze in the kilo cycling event.
It is perhaps timely that Nicholas Walters, the Panama-based Jamaican, is close to a shot at the world featherweight title in this the 50th year of Independence. In 1984, Mike 'The Body Snatcher' McCallum became Jamaica's first boxing world champion. On October 19, McCallum outpointed Sean Mannion to win the WBA junior middleweight title. In the same year, Ottey took two bronze medals at the Los Angeles Olympics.
There was more boxing glory in 1986. Trevor Berbick, a Jamaican based in Canada, and Lloyd Honeygan, a Jamaica-born British fighter, both won world titles. Berbick beat American Pinklon Thomas for the WBC heavyweight title, and Honeyghan took the world welterweight title over American Donald Curry. Walters has big shoes to fill as McCallum eventually won world titles in three weight categories.
Despite Ottey's brilliance and longevity, it fell to Deon Hemmings to take a hugely important step. Sixteen years after Ottey's historic bronze in Moscow, Hemmings, in 1996, became the first Jamaican woman to win an Olympic gold medal. She did it in style, too, with Olympic 400-metre hurdles records in the semis and the final.
Since then, Veronica Campbell-Brown and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce have twice won Olympic gold medals in the 200 and 100, respectively, with Melaine Walker matching Hemmings with gold in the 400-metre hurdles in 2008.
Throw in the unmatched brilliance of Usain Bolt, the consistent world-class play of the Sunshine Girls in netball, and Jamaica's successful 1998 World Cup qualification campaign, and the history looks pretty good.
With Walsh gone and Ottey no longer competing for Jamaica after the 2000 Olympics where she won the last of a record total of nine Olympic medals, Jamaica needed a new hero. The new star appeared in Kingston at the World Junior Championships in the form a gangly, but talented, youngster called Usain Bolt, who won the 200 metres. Now, he is the finest sprinter who ever lived. A world record double at the 2008 Olympics was a preview for an even more incredible repeat at the 2009 World Championships. His London double cements his place in history.
Maintaining those standards and reaching for more will require effort. Since Weller's bronze in 1980, cycling has struggled to produce world-class athletes. Tellingly, the National Stadium velodrome is out of date. Despite producing three Olympic finalists - Andrew Phillips in 1984, Janelle Atkinson in 2000, and Alia Atkinson in London - Jamaica has essentially one Olympic-size pool, and it was built for the National Stadium complex 50 years ago.
Track and field appears to be thriving, but the synthetic track at the G.C. Foster College is in line for repairs. With regard to hockey, a synthetic surface was installed at the local hockey headquarters in the late 1990s. It, too, is in line for replacement.
Throughout these 50 years, Jamaica has been world-class at netball, but our top rivals have moved indoors to duplicate tournament conditions while we stumble around outdoors on the cracked hard surface of the Leila Robinson Courts.
It is not all gloom. Athletics made a change for the better with the formation of privately organised clubs. Pioneered by the MVP at the University of Technology (UTech) in 1998, this has led some of our best to come home, or stay home. Stephen Francis' MVP group has nurtured Fraser-Pryce, Walker, world champion hurdler Brigitte Foster-Hylton, world record breaker Asafa Powell, and Olympic gold and silver medallist Sherone Simpson. At the University of the West Indies, Glen Mills' Racers Track Club has Bolt, double-Olympic silver medallist Yohan Blake, and surprise Olympic third-placer Warren Weir.
collegiate sector expanding
Accordingly, the local collegiate sector is expanding to accommodate sportsmen, with the Mico University College joining UTech and the University of the West Indies as institutions offering scholarships. Hopefully, others will join in soon. Once they staff and equip their sports programmes, Jamaica will benefit.
Yet there is much to be done. A deep-seated public discomfort has perhaps led to the slow adoption of sports psychology, yet it seems so logical that the mental edge would help us in competition. While our superstars can now cover their own expenses, athlete support is a problem area for most. Many juggle training around school, family, and full-time jobs.
There is much discussion about marketing Jamaica as a sporting destination and turning sports into a business. That is good, but fundamental questions remain: Do we want to top the medal tables at the 2016 Olympics? Do we really want to win the World Netball Championships in 2015? Do we really want Olympic medals in swimming and cycling? Do we want to reach high levels in sports like baseball, basketball, table tennis, and volleyball?
The answers will influence policy and expenditure. Despite history made in the 800 metres by Wint, Kerr, and Kenia Sinclair, we are weak in distances beyond 400 metres, and even though Trecia Smith was World Champion in the triple jump in 2005, we are weak in the jumps. We can fix that, but it will take some effort.
Time and time again in the last 50 years, our sportsmen and women have given real meaning to the words 'Jamaica land we love'. From George Kerr to Usain Bolt, from Marilyn Neufville to Alia Atkinson, our athletes give us reason to wear the black, green, and gold with pride. Helping them to excel is a mission we cannot back away from.
Hubert Lawrence is a sports specialist and has been covering the area since 1987.