Editorial | Cynthia Thompson – beyond her generation
We understand why Olivia Grange, the sports minister, characterised last week’s passing of Cynthia Thompson, at 96, as the end of an era.
We, however, see Dr Thompson in terms of neither end nor beginning, but part of a continuum, symbolised today in teenage female athletes such as Tia Clayton, Kevona Davis, and Briana Williams.
In between, they are bridged by the likes of Una Morrison, Merlene Ottey, Juliet Cuthbert-Flynn, Veronica Campbell-Brown, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, and Elaine Thompson.
Where Ms Grange is absolutely unimpeachable is in her declaration that Dr Thompson was a heroine of Jamaican sports and medicine and that Jamaica is much better for her life and service.
Conventional wisdom traces Jamaica’s rise, or at least the recognition of its prowess, in global athletics to the 1948 Olympic Games in London and the heroics of Arthur Wint and Herb McKenley, and, to lesser extent, George Rhoden and Les Laing. And that, substantially, is true, but not the whole story.
There is a gender element to the narrative, which, if not told, paints an incomplete picture of the route to Jamaica’s ascendancy in track and field athletics.
Four of Jamaica’s 13 athletes in London in ‘48, including Dr Thompson, were women, all of whom, though not winning medals, performed creditably. For instance, Vinton Beckett was fourth in the high jump, and Kathleen Russell was sixth in the long jump.
While she didn’t win a medal, Dr Thompson’s portion of the story, though, has a special resonance. She was a sprinter, running the 100- and 200-metre races. She travelled to London by boat and was seasick for most of the two-week journey. Dehydrated and having lost weight, she arrived in London hardly competition fit.
She, nonetheless, pulled herself together, and with Herculean effort, reached the final of the 100 metres, placing sixth. She was eliminated in the semi-final of the 200 metres, but for a brief period, was the Olympic record holder for the distance when she ran 26.6 seconds in the heats.
As Dr Warren Blake, president of the Jamaica Athletics Administrative Association (JAAA), observed, she may have left London without a medal, “but she helped to lay the foundation” for the strength of Jamaica’s athletics.
CONTINUUM AND INTERRELATIONSHIPS
A highly intelligent woman, Dr Thompson’s capacities were not only in track and field. Helped, no doubt, by the tenacity that caused her to persevere in London, she went on to become a successful, and respected, paediatrician, who practised well into old age.
Dr Thompson understood that however well she performed, and whatever her achievements, the stage and its limelight couldn’t, and shouldn’t, be only hers or athletes of her generation. Indeed, she celebrated those who came after her. For, as she said on the eve of the 2016 Olympics in Rio, then in her 94th year, “I am thankful that I have lived to see the new era of all these champions that we are creating”.
The notion of continuum and interrelationships, rather than mere succession.
In this context, it is to be lamented that a writer to this newspaper could, in the wake of Dr Thompson’s death, say, “I am almost 70 years of age and never heard of this lady”. Lamentable, but not surprising. This absence of knowledge is likely to be far more acute among the young.
There is in this a project for Ms Grange, in her roles as minister for sports as well as gender affairs, for the JAAA, and for the Jamaica Olympic Association. Dr Thompson and those before her transcend their generations. Their stories, when known, make us better.