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Richards - US star, faithful Jamaican

Published:Sunday | January 24, 2010 | 12:00 AM

Tony Becca, Contributor

The 49th Sportsman and Sportswoman Awards ceremony sponsored by the RJR Foundation was a lovely affair.

But for a few hiccups, including the late arrival of the top athletes, it was something to remember.

The décor at The Pegasus hotel, from the entrance to the Grand Jamaican Suite, was beautiful, the entertainment, provided by Freddie McGregor, his son Chino, and Elephant Man was great, and the presence of a house-full of guests, of past and present sportsmen and sportswomen, administrators, coaches, and supporters, made it one of the best since the inaugural event, sponsored by the Machado Sports Foundation, in 1961 when boxer Bunny Grant and table tennis prodigy Joy Foster were crowned the king and queen of Jamaica's sports.

With the patrons lingering around and rocking to the music long after the ceremony was over, the vibe was something special.

On top of that, everyone, it seemed, agreed with the selection of the king and queen. Usain Bolt was the obvious choice as the Sportsman of the Year, but not so Brigitte Foster-Hylton as the Sportswoman of the Year.

2009 was a good year

Last year, 2009, was such a wonderful one for Jamaica's women that Shelly-Ann Fraser and Melaine Walker were strong contenders for the Sportswoman of the Year award.

What made the evening so memorable, however, was the presentation of guest speaker Sanya Richards, the Jamaican-born American bronze medal winner in the women's 400 metres at the 2008 Olympic Games and the gold medal winner in the same event at last year's World Athletic Championships.

Not many people welcomed the Foundation's invitation to Richards as the guest speaker for the prestigious event for the simple reason that she runs for America, that she is a contemporary of the athletes being honoured, and that in terms of gold medals, she has not achieved more than any of the Jamaicans being honoured.

On top of that, there was talk of a boycott of the function by the athletes, it took many telephone calls to prevent the boycott, and maybe that was why so many of the athletes turned up late for the function.

Introduced, to a wonderful round of applause, by Foundation chairman, Chris Dehring, as a Jamaican whose parents, like so many Jamaicans, went to the US in search of a better life, as a young Jamaican who was better than young Americans and as one of the great people who, like Patrick Ewing of the New York Knicks and Devon White of the Toronto Blue Jays, Jamaica has given to the world, Sanya Richards, in a short and spicy but impressive speech, won the hearts of the people of her native land.

After saying how happy she was to have been invited home as the guest speaker, after saying how proud she was to have been invited by Grace Jackson, one of her heroes while she was at Vaz Preparatory School, and after congratulating all the athletes on their achievements and wishing them luck as far as the Sportsman and the Sportswoman of the Year awards were concerned, Richards went on to talk about the importance of hard work and discipline in the search for success.

And then, to a round of applause, she said, with a smile: "As I see all these amazing athletes, as I see Courtney Walsh, and my peers Usain, Asafa, Brigitte, Kerron, and hiding back there, Shelly-Ann, I know that I don't have to belabour the importance of hard work and discipline. We know that there are no short-cuts to success. We have seen over and over in our sports that short-cuts are short-lived."

She then spoke about a problem in her life, about her decision to run for America, and she said: "At age 16, I got an amazing opportunity. I was asked to join the US team to train for the World Juniors. In retrospect, it was the toughest decision of my career. I definitely believe it was the right decision for me, however, in life you have to make tough decisions even if it does not make everyone happy."

She then spoke about making the right choices and, again to a resounding applause, she said: "One of the greatest feelings as an athlete is knowing that in achieving your goals, you did it the right way. It is being able to look at yourself in the mirror and be proud of what you are able to accomplish."

And then she said, loud enough for all to hear: "I will always remember the motto at Vaz Preparatory School - honest labour bears a lovely face."

She then spoke about giving back, and after saying that giving back should not be a choice but a responsibility, she went on to talk about an "easy choice" she made when, some three years ago, she founded 'Fun for Kids', a movement to fight literacy in Jamaica through sports, a movement which now involves five schools, and a movement for which she recently collected US$100,000.

Make a change

"One person can make a change," she said. "Why should not that one person be you?" she asked the athletes.

In a grand finish, worthy of her glorious run to the tape in Berlin while wearing the colours of America, the daughter of Jamaica, the daughter of Archie Richards - a speedy outside left for Harbour View in their early days in top flight football, and the daughter of Sharon 'Fay' Richards (nee Robinson), a former member of Air Jamaica's netball team, said, in the presence of both her parents: "I have travelled the world and the sentiment towards Jamaica and its people is one of admiration and love."

Every man and woman in the house was standing and the applause was deafening by the time she finished with: "We have been very well appreciated for our unique talent and deep desires. We are a people of great grit and amazing prowess, and I now challenge you all to become not just the fastest people on the planet: I challenge you to be a beacon that shines brightly from the Caribbean Sea, to be leaders, and to be role models for the next generation."

Her accent was probably more American than Jamaican, but she was still Jamaican - as she confirmed, once again, when she said, emotionally and with a crack in her voice: "Let's continue to marvel the world and to show what greatness can come from such a small place."