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The beginning of organised athletics in Jamaica (Part III)

Published:Sunday | February 28, 2010 | 12:00 AM
George Rhoden (centre) running at the Marlie Racetrack in Old Harbour in 1948, when athletes from all over Jamaica would race in meets organised by Mr Marsh. Rhoden went on to set a world record for 400m in 1952.

Arnold Bertram, Contributor

AFTER HIS trailblazing exploits in the post-1908 Olympic athletic meets in Britain, G.C. Foster never ran on the international circuit again. On his return to Jamaica, his athletic career competed with other demands for his time

In addition to full-time employment, he resumed Senior Cup cricket with Kensington, went on to make his debut for Jamaica in 1909 and defended his 100-yard title in the Jamaica Open Championships until 1915.

However, despite the attraction of G.C. in the adult meets, organised athletics in Jamaica became increasingly more focused on inter-school competitions.

The Inter-Secondary Schools Handicap Championships

The first of these competitions to emerge was the Inter-Secondary Schools Handicap Championships in 1904. This was largely the initiative of Abraham Noel Crosswell, a past student of York Castle High School, who was then principal of New College, a private school he founded in 1901. Crosswell achieved this landmark in Jamaican athletics with the support of the headmasters of five other high schools - Wolmer's, Jamaica College (JC), St George's College, Potsdam (renamed Munro), and Mandeville Middle Grade School - and in the process maintained the pioneering role of his
alma mater
in the development of organised athletics in Jamaica.

While the flat races were run in classes determined by age, the jumpers - both long and high - were divided according to height, with 5'2'' separating Class I from Class II.

At the third championships in 1906, Samuel Wesley 'Sam' Brown made his appearance. He had been an outstanding sportsman and scholar at both York Castle High School and JC before his appointment as an assistant master at Wolmer's. For the next 60 years, he would play a seminal role in the development of schoolboy athletics.

Between 1904 and 1909, six of these championships were held, with Jamaica College winning the first five and Wolmer's the last in 1909. That year, in the face of mounting dissatisfaction over the criteria used to determine the handicaps, these championships were abandoned.

The Birth of Boys' Champs

On June 29, 1910 at 12.30 p.m., the headmasters of the six schools organised the first Inter-Schools Championship Sports at Sabina Park in Kingston. The organisers of Boys' Champs, as the meet came to be known, divided the competitors into three classes - Over-16, Under-16 and Under-13 for the running events. For the jumps, the criteria used in the Handicap Championships to separate Class One from Class Two were maintained. There were also five open events - the 880 yards, 120 yards hurdles, pole vault, throwing the cricket ball and the standing high jump.

"The track measured 352 yards and lanes were only used for the 100 yards. ... There was no take-off board for the long jump ... neither a foam landing for the high jump, you land on solid 'dutty' ... a straw mattress was provided for the pole vaulters."

Jamaica College, with N.W. Manley, J.M. Hall and M.O. Marsh, was invincible in Class One and the open events, but gained only one-fifth of a point from their Class Two and Class Three athletes. Wolmer's, with the more balanced team, won the cup with 35 points to JC's 30.4.

Assessing the Performances

Judging from the results, it is clear that Boys' Champs was a world-class meet from the very beginning. The most outstanding performance was by J.M. 'Fire' Hall of JC in the Class One 100 yards. His winning time of 10.2 seconds, which converts to 11.1 for the 100 metres, shows that he could have held his own in the Olympic finals of 1912. The 100m that year was won by Ralph Craig in 10.8 seconds, with the next four runners all timed at 10.9. O.J. Lescene of St George's cleared the bar at 9'6" in the pole vault to confirm his international class among his peers.

Norman Manley's only victory was in the 120-yard hurdles, but he gained 11 points from five events to finish Class One champion. The foundation of this impressive performance was not a gift from the gods. It was the product of his extensive physical conditioning in his early years.

"I grew up as a bush man. ... I would go out in the morning with the workers ... and get home late at night after 12 to 14 hours on the constant move. The result was that I was tough as hell and developed a stamina that I have never seen surpassed."

The Beginning of the Marsh Dynasty

Another outstanding performer was another JC boy, M.O. Marsh, who defeated Manley in both the 440 and 880 yards, while his brother, O.V. Marsh, was third in the pole vault and throwing the cricket ball. These performances started a family dynasty in schoolboy athletics which has not been overshadowed to this day.

A cousin, A.C. Marsh, also of JC, won the Class Two 440 yards in 1913 and the Class One 100, 220 and 440 yards in 1917 and 1918. His younger brother, Edward Carlyle, won the Class One high jump for three successive years, beginning in 1920; the 120-yard hurdles in 1920 and 1922; and the long jump and the cricket ball throw in 1921 and 1922. In those three years he also established records in the high jump and long jump.

Robert Marsh (St George's) came third in the Class Two 440 yards in 1956, and in 1961 Norman Anthony 'Tony' Marsh led Calabar to victory at Champs, winning the discus and shot put with record throws. In 1984, Tony's son, Dane (Munro), came third in the Class Two shot put and his younger brother, Rory, between 1992 and 1997 competing for Munro registered four wins, five second places and one third place at Champs.

Nurturing of an Elite

Boys' Champs was conceived as integral to the cultural orientation of the elite. The three schools - JC, Wolmer's and Potsdam - which dominated the meet from its inception, were elite high schools modelled along the lines of mid-Victorian English public schools. Their primary role was to prepare an elite for the exercise of effective leadership in a British colony. Of the three schools, JC had the largest enrolment, with 71 boys.

The headmasters of these three schools, the Venerable Archdeacon William Simms, MA (JC), AE 'Wagga' Harrison, MA (Munro) and William 'Pros' Cowper (Wolmer's), were all educated in the British classical tradition and steeped in Anglo-Christian values. The fourth school, St George's College, was a Catholic institution, to which the Very Rev Father O'Hare of Boston, Massachusetts, was appointed headmaster in 1908. While not grounded in the English public-school tradition, O'Hare certainly shared the values and ideals of his colleagues.

This fraternity of headmasters received invaluable assistance from two junior masters. One was 'Sam' Brown, and the other R.M. Murray, who also attended both York Castle High School and Jamaica College. He won the Rhodes Scholarship in 1904 and on his return from Oxford joined the staff of Jamaica College. All came under the towering influence of Bishop of Jamaica Enos Nuttall, who chaired the Schools' Commission from 1881-1916.

As educators, they embraced organised sports as a critical component of the wider educational process. The impetus to develop a "healthy mind in a healthy body" and to emulate the "manliness of Christ" derived from contemporary Christian teaching. It was to further these objectives that they introduced the Sunlight Cup for cricket, the Perkins Challenge Shield for shooting and the Olivier Shield and Manning Cup for football during the first decade of the 20th century.

Winning was not Everything

In the minds of these educators, however, sports was never intended to supersede the fundamental objectives of academic excellence and the inculcation of Christian values. For them, winning was not everything. In the 1916 Champs, after JC dethroned Wolmer's, the editor of
he Wolmerian
consoled his fellow students with a verse from Longfellow:

"No endeavour is in vain, its reward is in the doing.

And the rapture of pursuing is the prize the vanquished gain."

Between 1930 and 1933, Calabar, with the coaching assistance of G.C. Foster, won Champs for four consecutive years. By 1934, the headmaster, Ernest Price, thought that Calabar had had its fair share of winning and G.C. was encouraged to make his coaching talents available to another school. That same year, Arthur Wint, the Class Three champion in 1932 and 1933, despite his eligibility to again compete in Class Three in 1934, was not selected to represent the school. In the headmaster's view, another athlete should be given the opportunity to win.

The Process of Democratisation

In 1938, the Jamaica College Manning Cup team defeated another school 12-0 in the football competition. The headmaster, William Cowper, punished the team for "an unsportsmanlike act".

Given the elitist framework in which Champs was conceived, the process by which it became increasingly democratised mirrored closely the wider struggle for political democracy and equality of opportunity. Neither of the two private schools which participated in the first Boys' Champs survived for long. The Mandeville Middle Grade School competed for only one year, and the New College was closed in 1917.

In 1925, St John's College, a prestigious private school, applied to enter Champs and was refused on the basis that "it would be inadvisable to admit schools not under the supervision of the Schools' Commission, lest there should be a rush of applications from private schools".

In 1943, the Technical School (later Kingston Technical) had its application refused, and was still not admitted in 1952, although in the Olympics held that year, a past student, George Rhoden, defeated both Arthur Wint and Herb McKenley to give Jamaica gold medal in the 400 metres. Up to 1944, the year in which Jamaica was granted Universal Adult Suffrage, only Calabar (1913), Beckford and Smith (1927), Cornwall (1928) and Kingston College (1929) had been added to the original four schools.

Between the granting of Universal Adult Suffrage in 1944 and the achievement of political independence in 1962, Happy Grove was admitted in 1947, Manning's and Titchfield in 1948, Excelsior in 1952 and Kingston Technical in 1957. Since Independence, the floodgates have been opened.

In 1953, the organisers experimented with amalgamation by admitting four girls' schools - Excelsior, Happy Grove, Cathedral and Ardenne - to compete in six events during Boys' Champs. In 2004, amalgamation became a reality, and this year more than 190 schools will again compete for their respective trophies in a single Inter-Schools Athletic Championships. Champs has certainly travelled a long and interesting road over the last 100 years.

Arnold Bertram is the author of a forthcoming publication 'Jamaica on the Track - The Making of a Super Power in Track and Field Athletics'. Comments may be sent to