The Caribbean at the 2012 Olympic games

Kwame Laurence looks at the Caribbean athletes heading for the London Olympic Games, identifies the ones to watch, and weighs their chances of success

21-year-old Trinidad and Tobago cyclist Njisane Phillip will make his Olympic debut in London. Photograph by Anthony HarrisAll eyes will be on Usain Bolt in the hopes that he will repeat his amazing performance  from the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Photograph by www.sporting-heroes.netAndrew Lewis will be sailing for Trinidad and Tobago in London. Photograph by  © OneditionGrenadian sprinter Kirani James. Photograph by www.sporting-heroes.netGuillermo Martinez throws javelin for Cuba. Photograph by Chell HillJamaican Olympic hopeful Asafa Powell. Photograph by the Gleaner Company Ltd 2008Jamaican Olympic hopeful Melaine Walker. Photograph by © the Gleaner Company Ltd 2011Jamaican Olympic hopeful Veronica Campbell-Brown. Photograph by © the Gleaner Company Ltd 2011Jehue Gordon may well bring home a medal for Trinidad and Tobago. Photograph by Anthony HarrisYohan Blake is the current 100m world champion and one person who could take Usain Bolt’s Olympic crown. Photograph by © The Gleaner Company Ltd 2011

The last edition of the Summer Olympics, Beijing 2008, was a good one for the Caribbean, especially for the Jamaicans. It was the year when the world marvelled at a young man from Trelawny, Jamaica, and his gold run in the men’s 100 metres dash, setting a world record of 9.69 seconds. The 100 metres is the blue-ribbon event of the Olympics, so that performance on its own would have been enough to make headlines around the world.

But Usain Bolt was not finished: he went on to add a gold medal for the 200 metres, and another gold medal in the 4 x 100 metres relay, both of them in world record time too.

There were were three more gold medals for Jamaica in 2008. Veronica Campbell-Brown made a successful defence of her women’s 200 metres title, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce won the women’s 100 metres, and Melaine Walker led the field in the women’s 400 metres hurdles.

Caribbean athletes won nine gold medals altogether in Beijing four years ago, and six of them went to Jamaica. The other gold medallists were the Cuban sprint hurdler Dayron Robles; his compatriot, Greco-Roman wrestler Mijaín López; and the Dominican Republic’s boxer Manuel Félix Díaz.

But it was on the track that the Caribbean really distinguished itself in Beijing. And it is on the track that we must keep our eyes fixed as we weigh the prospects for Caribbean athletes ahead of the 2012 Games in London.

 

In a nutshell: the Caribbean ones to watch

CUBA

Lázaro Álvarez
Born                      January 28, 1991
Event                    Boxing (featherweight)
Record                  Won 5, lost 1
Olympic medals    0
Mijaín López
Born                       August 20, 1982
Event                     Greco-Roman
wrestling                (120kg)
Olympic medals    1 gold
Yarelis Barrios
Born                       July 12, 1983
Event                     Discus
Personal best        68.03 metres
Olympic medals    1 silver
Guillermo Martínez
Born                      June 28, 1981
Event                    Javelin
Personal best       87.17m
Olympic medals    0
Lázaro Borges
Born                      June 19, 1986
Event                    Pole vault
Personal best       5.90 metres
Olympic medals    0
Yipsi Moreno
Born                      November 19, 1980
Event                    Hammer throw
Personal best       76.62 metres
Olympic medals    2 silver
Julio César la Cruz
Born                      August 11, 1989
Event                    Boxing (light heavyweight)
Record                  Won 8, lost 4
Olympic medals    0
Dayron Robles
Born                      November 19, 1986
Event                    110m hurdles
Personal best       12.87
Olympic medals    1 gold
Ibrahim Camejo
Born                      June 28, 1982
Event                     Long jump
Personal best        8.46 metres
Olympic medals    1 bronze
Leonel Suárez
Born                      September 1, 1987
Main event            Decathlon
Personal best        8,654 points
Olympic medals    1 bronze

JAMAICA

Yohan Blake
Born                      December 26, 1989
Main events          100m, 200m
Personal best        9.82 (9.80 wind-assisted), 19.26
Olympic medals    0
Veronica Campbell-Brown
Born                     May 15, 1982
Main events         100m, 200m
Personal best       10.76, 21.74
Olympic medals    3 gold, 1 silver, 1 bronze
Asafa Powell
Born                     November 23, 1982
Main events         100m, 200m
Personal best       9.72, 19.90
Olympic medals    1 gold
Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce
Born                     December 27, 1986
Main events         100m, 200m
Personal best       10.73, 22.15
Olympic medals    1 gold
Melaine Walker
Born                      January 1, 1983
Main event            400m hurdles
Personal best        52.42
Olympic medals    1 gold
Sherone Simpson
Born                     August 12, 1984
Main events         100m, 200m, 400m
Personal best       10.82, 22.00, 51.25
Olympic medals    1 gold, 1 silver
Shericka Williams
Born                      September 17, 1985
Main events          200m, 400m
Personal best        22.50, 49.32
Olympic medals    1 silver, 1 bronze
Kerron Stewart
Born                     April 16, 1984
Main events         100m, 200m
Personal best       10.75, 21.99
Olympic medals    1 silver, 1 bronze
Usain Bolt
Born                      August 21, 1986
Main events          100m, 200m
Personal best        9.58, 19.19
Olympic medals    3 gold

TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO

Kelly-Ann Baptiste
Born                     October 14, 1986
Main events         100m, 200m
Personal best       10.84, 22.60
Olympic medals    0
Andrew Lewis
Born                      November 30, 1989
Event                     Sailing (Laser standard)
Personal best        National Champion
Olympic medals    0
George Bovell
Born                       July 18, 1983
Main events           Swimming: individual medley, freestyle
Personal best        200m medley 1:58.80, 50m freestyle 21.20
Olympic medals    1 bronze
Njisane Phillip
Main event            Cycling
Olympic medals    0
Jehue Gordon
Born                     December 15, 1991
Main event           400m hurdles
Personal best       48.26
Olympic medals    0
Richard Thompson
Born                     June 7, 1985
Main events          100m, 200m
Personal best        9.85, 20.18
Olympic medals    2 silver

THE BAHAMAS

Trevor Barry
Born                      June 14, 1983
Event                     High jump
Personal best        2.32 metres
Olympic medals    0
Leevan Sands
Born                       August 16, 1981
Event                     Triple jump
Personal best        17.59 metres
Olympic medals     1 bronze
Donald Thomas
Born                      July 1, 1984
Event                     High jump
Personal best        2.35 metres
Olympic medals    0

DOMINICAN REPUBLIC

Manuel Félix Díaz
Born                      December 10, 1983
Event                    Boxing (welterweight)
Record                  Won 9, lost 0
Olympic medals    1 gold
Félix Sánchez
Born                      August 30, 1977
Main event            400m hurdles
Personal best        47.25
Olympic medals    1 gold

GRENADA

Kirani James
Born                       September 1, 1992
Main events           200m, 400m
Personal best        20.41, 44.36
Olympic medals    0

ST KITTS AND NEVIS

Kim Collins
Born                      April 5, 1976
Main events          100m, 200m
Personal best        9.98, 20.20
Olympic medals    0

PUERTO RICO

Javier Culson
Born                     July 25, 1984
Main event           400m hurdles
Personal best       47.72
Olympic medals    0

 

Going for gold

Track & Field: a Caribbean forte

Usain Bolt is still very much in the equation for the July 27-August 12 London Olympics. He is only 25, and has a good shot at adding three more gold medals to his collection.

Since his phenomenal showing in Beijing, he has continued to dominate the global sprint scene. He repeated his triple success at the 2009 World Championships in Berlin, lowering his 100 metres record to 9.58 seconds and improving his 200 metres standard from 19.30 to 19.19.

He briefly surrendered his 100 metres title at last year’s Championships, in Daegu, South Korea, when a false start in the final cleared the way for a new world champion, none other than his training partner and Jamaica team-mate Yohan Blake.

But Bolt bounced back at once with a golden run of 19.40 seconds in the 200 metres. For good measure, he anchored Jamaica to victory in the sprint relay, in a world record 37.04 seconds. Blake ran the third leg in that race, handing the baton to Bolt.

The question on everybody’s lips, though, is whether those roles will now be reversed, and the proverbial baton passed from Bolt to Blake in London. Basil Ince, author of the recent Olympian – 75 Years of Trinidad & Tobago in Olympic Sport, says Blake is well equipped to challenge his compatriot. “He is the only one besides Bolt with the possibility of triple gold. Jamaica will hold its own, and the emergence of Blake will add spice to the sprints.”

Blake is just 22, with a personal best of 9.82 seconds in the 100 metres. But it was his 200 metres victory at the Memorial Van Damme – part of the Samsung Diamond League – in Brussels last September that established him as a serious contender for Bolt’s Olympic titles. Jaws dropped as the young Jamaican completed his half-lap of the track in 19.26 seconds – the second fastest time ever recorded.

Ince, himself a Pan American Games 400 silver medallist back in 1959, says that while he expects Jamaica to enjoy another successful Olympics, keeping all six titles will be challenging.

“Remember that back-to-back wins in the sprints are extremely difficult. It will not be easy for Bolt to repeat the doubles of 2008, nor easy for Shelly-Ann Fraser to repeat in the 100. It will be simply breathtaking for Usain Bolt to have the impact he made in Beijing. It means he will have to win three more golds with three world records. Not impossible, but highly improbable.”

Trinidad and Tobago sprinter Richard Thompson was second to Bolt in the Beijing 100 and anchored his country to silver in the sprint relay. Based in Los Angeles, Thompson is hoping to return to the podium in London. There were also silver medals in Beijing for Jamaicans Kerron Stewart and Sherone Simpson, finishing in a dead heat for second place in the women’s century.

Their team-mate Shericka Williams took silver in the women’s 400 and was part of the 4 x 400 team that earned bronze. Stewart took bronze in the 200. The Bahamas tasted success as well – Leevan Sands picked up bronze in the men’s triple jump, and the men’s 4 x 400 team snapped up silver.

As for the Cubans, Robles was not the only track and field athlete to climb the podium in Beijing. There were silver medals for Yarelis Barrios (women’s discus) and Yipsi Moreno (women’s hammer throw), and bronze medals for Ibrahim Camejo (men’s long jump) and Leonel Suárez (men’s decathlon).

Brian Lewis, secretary general of the Trinidad and Tobago Olympic Committee, says it is “very possible” the region will surpass its Beijing performance in London. “The Caribbean will dominate, especially in track, in particular the sprints, both in men and women.”

Caribbean sprinters occupied no less than six of the eight lanes in the men’s 100 championship race at Beijing. But things were different in the men’s 400. There, the United States swept the medals, LaShawn Merritt emerging as the star of the show with gold in 43.75 seconds. That made it seven straight titles for the Americans, starting with Alonzo Babers’ triumph in 1984.

Well, that enviable run could end in 2012. And the man best positioned to replace Merritt at the top of the podium is the young Kirani James from the fishing village of Gouyave in Grenada. He signalled a warning to the Americans with World Championship gold in Daegu last year – he was just 18 at the time. He’s still only 19 heading into the London Games, but he has all the expectations of Grenada resting on his shoulders. Grenada has never won an Olympic medal: but based on his strong finish in Daegu – a well-timed run that denied Merritt gold – James has what it takes to break the US stranglehold.

Even before that, James was a global champion. In 2009, he captured the 200/400 double at the World Youth (under-18) Championships in Bressanone, Italy. A year later, he won 400 gold at the World Junior (under-20) Championships in Moncton, Canada.

It was at Moncton that a young Trinidad and Tobago sprinter, Jehue Gordon, romped home in the men’s 400 hurdles. He had drawn attention a year earlier with a fourth-place finish at the World Championships in Berlin. That championship run was one of the best performances I have ever seen by a Trinidad and Tobago athlete. I stood in awe at the Olympic Stadium in Berlin as the 17-year-old matched strides with the best one-lap hurdlers on the planet. He got home in 48.26 seconds, just three-hundredths of a second slower than bronze medallist Bershawn Jackson of the United States. The Dominican Republic’s Félix Sánchez, the 2004 Olympic gold medallist, was among the athletes who trailed Gordon to the line.

In Berlin, this teenager from Maraval, Port of Spain, became the youngest-ever World Championship finalist in an individual sprint event. Now 20, Gordon is hoping to turn his potential into precious metal in London.

James and Gordon are new kids on the Olympic block, but Jamaican sprinter Veronica Campbell-Brown is a seasoned veteran. Though she turned 30 in May, she’s showing no signs of slowing down. In fact, she produced her personal best of 10.76 seconds for the 100 metres in 2011. And in Daegu last year, she added the World Championship 100 metres silver to her 2007 gold, 2005 silver and 2004 Olympic bronze.

It is in the 200, though, that the Trelawny sprinter has become a legend. “If Veronica Campbell-Brown wins in the 200,” says Ince, “it will be a feat of historic proportions, since it will be [her] third consecutive win.”

There are few who would bet against Campbell-Brown completing a hat-trick of half-lap titles. After all, she’s the reigning world champion, claiming the crown in Daegu after playing second fiddle to American Allyson Felix at the previous two editions of the World Championships.

Kelly-Ann Baptiste, from Plymouth, Tobago, is another Caribbean woman who could shine in London. In Daegu last year, she became the first female Trinidad and Tobago sprinter to earn a medal at a major senior global meet, taking bronze in the women’s 100.

The Cuban boxers could not maintain their country’s lofty standards in Beijing, and heard their national anthem played only twice. They will be hoping to regain their rightful place on the podium this year. Two 2011 world champions, bantamweight Lázaro Álvarez and light heavyweight Julio César la Cruz, are in contention for gold.

But Cuba’s Dayron Robles won Olympic gold in the men’s 110 hurdles, a fitting reward for a near perfect season. At the time of writing, he has eight sub-13 clockings to his name, seven of them from 2008, including his 12.87 seconds world record. In the Olympic final, he got to the line in 12.93. In London, he will bid to become only the third man to repeat as Olympic sprint hurdles champion.

Among the other Caribbean track and field athletes to watch in London, Jamaican sprinter Asafa Powell is something of a dark horse. He has been overshadowed by Bolt, and now Blake, but if everything falls into place at the right time for the Jamaican sprinter he could certainly grab the London headlines.

There is plenty of potential too in the St Kitts and Nevis sprinter and 2003 100 metres world champion Kim Collins. He is already 36, and the temptation is to dismiss him as a serious medal contender. But those who have followed his career know that Collins can never be ignored. Only last year, he claimed World Championship 100 bronze.

Keep an eye, too, on the Puerto Rican one-lap hurdler Javier Culson, Bahamian high jumpers Trevor Barry and Donald Thomas, Cuban pole vaulter Lázaro Borges, and his compatriot, javelin thrower Guillermo Martinez.

Cycling, Sailing & Swimming

The 21-year-old Trinidad and Tobago cyclist Njisane Phillip will make his Olympic debut in London: he will not be the favourite for sprint gold, but he should acquit himself well. His compatriot George Bovell, on the other hand, is a veteran swimmer who won a bronze medal in 2004 for the 200 metres individual medley. He will be 29 by the time he dives into the Olympic pool this year. London will be his fourth Olympic Games, and quite possibly his last; but he is determined to make an impression in the 50 metres free.

Andrew Lewis is the first sailor from Trinidad and Tobago to achieve the Olympic qualifying standard in the Laser Class and will be one of only 12 sailors from around the world to compete in that class in London.

But for all the brilliance the region may produce at London 2012, the brightest spotlight will still fall on Usain St Leo Bolt as the Jamaican sprint sensation bids to write three new chapters of Olympic history.