A Golden Anniversary? The Caribbean at the Olympic Games

Looking back over the Caribbean presence at the Olympics (1900–present), Kwame Laurence weighs their chances of celebrating golden anniversaries with gold

Cuba’s Alberto Juantorena won gold in Montreal. Photos by www.sporting-heroes.netHasely Crawford won gold for Trinidad and Tobago in 1976. Photos by www.sporting-heroes.netMerlene Ottey is a Caribbean legend. Photos by www.sporting-heroes.net

Jamaica celebrates the 50th anniversary of its independence from Britain during the London Olympics. What would be the perfect gift for its 2.8 million people?

Gold, naturally.

Jamaica’s Independence Day, August 6, is the day after the men’s 100 metres final, the blue ribbon event of the Games. And since the medal ceremony actually takes place on Jamaica’s special day, that golden gift might well be on the cards. Reigning Olympic champion Usain Bolt and 2011 World Championship gold medallist Yohan Blake are both hoping to be the gift bearer.

The only thing that could better a Jamaican win at 100 metres would be a sweep of the 100 metres medals. Only one country has ever managed to finish 1-2-3 in an Olympic men’s 100 final: the United States, which has done it twice, first at the 1904 Games in St Louis, and then at the Stockholm Games in 1912.

A hundred years later, Jamaica has a chance to record the third sweep in the 116-year history of the modern Olympics. Five of the seven fastest men in history are Jamaican, and four of them – Usain Bolt, Yohan Blake, Asafa Powell and Nesta Carter – were expected to face the starter at the Olympic trials in June.

Trinidad and Tobago is also celebrating 50 years as an independent nation, and would be keen to prevent a Jamaica medal rush in the men’s 100.

The fastest Trinidad and Tobago sprinter in history, Richard Thompson, finished second to Bolt in the Beijing Games, and is keen to return to the podium. Back in 1976, at the Montreal Games, the positions were reversed – Trinidad and Tobago’s Hasely Crawford won gold, beating Jamaica’s Donald Quarrie into second spot.

In the final minutes before that historic final, Crawford was a man possessed. Trinidad and Tobago’s first and only Olympic gold medallist is quoted in Basil Ince’s Olympian – 75 Years of Trinidad & Tobago in Olympic Sport: “I was carrying on at a rate, I was cussing, I was scared, I was nervous, but at the same time I was working off my nervousness. Then I saw the two Americans and I went to them and blurted out: ‘You two lose.’”

And lose they did. Crawford was home in 10.06 seconds, Quarrie in 10.07 to take the silver.

Montreal was truly special for the Caribbean: its athletes won the men’s 100, 200, 400 and 800 titles. Quarrie won the half-lap event, while Cuba’s Alberto Juantorena took the one-lap and two-lap races. “Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica and Cuba scored big time,” says Ince. “One newspaper wrote, ‘It was Caribbean day at the Games’.”

Cuba also won an Olympic judo title in Montreal, and three boxing titles, making a total of eight Caribbean gold medals. Among the boxing champions was the legendary super-heavyweight Teófilo Stevenson, who went on to complete a hat-trick of victories at the 1980 Games in Moscow.

Stevenson had won his first super-heavyweight gold in Munich in 1972. Tall, handsome, and equipped with a superb left jab and a crushing right, he was a professional fight promoter’s dream. But professional boxing is considered an affront to Cuba’s communist ideals, and Stevenson is a proud Cuban. He reportedly turned down a US$2 million offer to turn pro. In David Wallechinsky and Jaime Loucky’s The Complete Book of the Olympics, he is quoted as saying:

“I wouldn’t exchange my piece of Cuba for all the money they could give me.”

The Cubans have been absolutely brilliant at the Olympics. In the last 50 years, they have accumulated no less than 60 gold medals. Their best performance was at the 1992 Barcelona Games, where they took 14 gold medals, seven of them in the boxing ring. For heavyweight Félix Savón, it was the first of three golden Olympic outings.

The Caribbean’s 2008 showing was memorable as well, particularly for Jamaica. Since independence, Jamaica has earned 10 Olympic gold medals – no less than six of them in Beijing. In addition to Bolt’s sprint double and the men’s sprint relay, there were gold medals for Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce in the women’s 100, Veronica Campbell-Brown in the 200, and Melaine Walker in the 400 hurdles.

But for all Jamaica’s prowess on the track and Cuba’s all-round success, the region’s first post-1962 Olympic gold medal was actually won by two sailors from The Bahamas, Durward Knowles and Cecil Cooke, who claimed the Star class title at the 1964 Tokyo Games.

There were four other medals for the Caribbean that year in Tokyo, all in track events. Cuban sprinter Enrique Figuerola snared the men’s 100 silver, while the other three medals were claimed by Team Trinidad and Tobago. Wendell Mottley earned silver in the men’s 400, Edwin Roberts took the bronze in the men’s 200, and Mottley and Roberts teamed up with Edwin Skinner and Kent Bernard for the men’s 4 x 400 bronze. A graduate of Yale, Mottley would later make a name for himself in the field of economics, serving as Trinidad and Tobago’s finance minister in the 1991-1995 government.

The Jamaican sprinter Merlene Ottey is a legend in the Caribbean. She appeared in seven Olympics and ranks near the top of the all-time lists for 60 metres indoors (fourth), 100 metres (sixth) and 200 metres (third). But to the sorrow of her many fans, she never managed to strike gold. Of her nine Olympic medals, three are silver and six bronze.

Perhaps strangely for an island region, the Caribbean has never fielded many swimmers. The star has been Anthony Nesty in Seoul in 1988. Swimming for Suriname but born in Trinidad and Tobago, he became the first black Olympic swimming champion when he won the gold medal in the men’s 100 metres butterfly. Sixteen years later, in Athens, George Bovell III took the bronze for Trinidad and Tobago in the men’s 200 metres individual medley, the first Olympic swimming medal for the English-speaking Caribbean.

Track and field, though, have produced the greatest number of Caribbean medallists. Before the emergence of Usain Bolt, it was Trinidad and Tobago’s Ato Boldon who carried the flag for the region. Only two other men have four individual Olympic sprint medals: Boldon earned double bronze at the 1996 Atlanta Games and 100 silver and 200 bronze at the 2000 Games in Sydney.

Blessed with the gift of the gab, his pre- and post-race interviews gave him added appeal. He went on to become an analyst with Olympic broadcaster NBC, and will be in the commentary booth at the London Games.

For both Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago, London 2012 is an opportunity to make a statement in the land of their former colonial rulers. Brian Lewis, secretary general of Trinidad and Tobago’s Olympic Committee, puts in bluntly. “The flying of Caribbean flags and playing of Caribbean anthems is of historical, social and psychological significance – a coming of age and coming full circle. There will be many a tear shed, especially in the diaspora. The significance of the moment will not escape our athletes.”

So if a golden independence celebration beckons, it is in more ways than one.

Pioneers

The first medallists from the Caribbean 1900-1960

Ramón Fonst
Cuba • fencing • 1 gold, 1 silver 1900;
2 gold 1904 (Cuban fencing team 1904:
5 gold, 3 silver, 3 bronze)

Ludovic Augustin
Haiti • shooting • bronze 1924
(Haitian free rifle team 1924: 5 bronze)

Silvio Cator
Haiti • long jump • silver 1928

Carlos de Cárdenas
Cuba • sailing • silver 1948

Juan Evangelista Venegas
Puerto Rico • boxing • bronze 1948

Herb McKenley
Jamaica • 100m, 400m • silver 1948,
1 gold (relay) & 2 silver 1952

Rodney Wilkes
Trinidad and Tobago • weightlifting •
silver 1948, bronze 1952

Arthur Wint
Jamaica • 400m, 800m • gold & silver 1948 and 1952 (1 relay)

Lennox Kilgour
Trinidad & Tobago • weightlifting •
bronze 1952

Durward Knowles
The Bahamas • sailing • bronze 1956, gold 1964 (with Cecil Cooke)

Sloan Farrington
The Bahamas • sailing • bronze 1956

George Kerr
Jamaica • 400m, 800m • 2 bronze (1 relay) 1960

Caribbean gold medallists since 1962

Teófilo Stevenson
Cuba • boxing 1972, 1976, 1980

Hasely Crawford
T&T • 100m 1976

Angel Herrera Vera
Cuba • boxing 1976, 1980

Don Quarrie
Jamaica • 200m 1976

Alberto Juantoreno
Cuba • 400m and 800m 1976

Anthony Nesty
Suriname • swimming 1988

Héctor Vinent Charon
Cuba • boxing 1992, 1996

Félix Savón
Cuba • boxing 1992, 1996, 2000

Ariel Hernández
Cuba • boxing 1992, 1996

Javier Sotomayor
Cuba • high jump 1992

Deon Hemmings
Jamaica • 400m hurdles 1996

Pauline Davis-Thompson
The Bahamas • 200m 2000

Felix Sanchez
Dominican Rep. • 400m hurdles 2004

Tonique Williams-Darling
Bahamas • 400m 2004

Manuel Felix Diaz
Dominican Rep. • boxing 2008

*Diaspora

Donovan Bailey
Jamaica/Canada • 100m 1996

Linford Christie
Jamaica/UK • 100m 1992

Marie-José Pérec
Guadeloupe/France • 200m/400m 1992, 1996

Mark McCoy
Guyana/Canada • 110m hurdles 1992

Tessa Sanderson
Jamaica/UK • javelin 1984

* Diaspora: athletes born in the Caribbean but competing for other countries

Silver and bronze medallists since 1962

Barbados
Obadele Thompson, James Wedderburn

Bermuda
Clarence Hill

Cuba
128 medals**

Dominican Republic
Pedro Nolasco, Gabriel Mercedes, Yulis Mercedes

Guyana
Michael Parris

Jamaica
James Beckford, Juliet Cuthbert, Lorraine Graham, Winthrop Graham, Greg Haughton, Grace Jackson, George Kerr, Tayna Lawrence, Beverly McDonald, Danny McFarlane, Lennox Miller, Merlene Ottey, David Weller

Netherlands Antilles
Jan Boersma

Puerto Rico
Anibal Acevedo Santiago, Aristides González, Orlando Maldonado, Luis Ortíz, Daniel Santos

The Bahamas
Andrae Williams, Chandra Sturrup, Frank Rutherford, Avard Moncur, Ramon Miller, Michael Mathieu, Sevatheda Fynes, Debbie Ferguson, Eldece Clark, Christopher Brown, Andretti Bain

Trinidad & Tobago
 Ato Boldon, Wendell Mottley, Edwin Roberts, Richard Thompson

*Diaspora (since 1928)

Anguilla/UK: Keith Connor 1984
Guadeloupe/France: Patricia Girard 1996
Guyana/Canada: Phil Edwards, 1932, 1936
Guyana/UK: Harry Edward 1920, Jack London 1928
Jamaica/Canada: Ben Johnson 1984
Jamaica/UK: Sandra Farmer-Patrick 1992, Germaine Mason 2008
Jamaica/US: Sanya Richards 2008
Trinidad & Tobago/UK: McDonald Bailey 1952

**Cuba’s silver and bronze medallists are too numerous to list.

Note: these lists do not claim to be exhaustive, and do not always include shared medals for team events. The Caribbean’s 2012 hopefuls are listed on pages 40- 41.