Historic gold: the earliest Caribbean Olympic heroes

At the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Caribbean sports fans will have dozens of home-grown champs to cheer on. But the region’s history of Olympic success stretches back more than a century. James Ferguson looks back to the earliest Caribbean Olympic heroes, and how today’s athletes have kept their victorious legacy alive

Illustration by Rohan MitchellJamaican Olympic medallist Arthur Wint at the 1948 Summer Games in London. Photo by Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Who would dare to guess what will happen to the athletes from the Caribbean at the Olympic Games in August? Will Jamaica’s Usain “Lightning” Bolt break the nineteen-second barrier in the 200 metres? Or will he come second to Justlin Gatlin in the 100 metres, as predicted by the statistics company Infostrada? Will Keshorn Walcott of Trinidad and Tobago repeat his feat in London in 2012, of winning gold in the men’s javelin event (the youngest champion ever)? And who would bet against Cuba picking up medals in boxing? They won two golds four years ago.

The Caribbean has come on, literally, in leaps and bounds since seventeen-year-old Cuban fencer Ramón Fonst surprised Louis Perrée, the local favourite, to take the gold medal in the epée at the Paris Olympics of 1900. Perhaps it helped that he had been trained in France, but his medal was all the same the first for a competitor from the Caribbean and Latin America. Nicknamed “El Nunca Segundo” (“Never Second”), Fonst repeated his success in 1904, winning both epée and foil fencing events, and for good measure won a gold at the 1938 Central American and Caribbean Games at the age of fifty-five.

In Haiti’s capital Port-au-Prince, the national stadium (sadly damaged in the 2010 earthquake) is named after one Silvio Cator, who took a silver in the long jump in Amsterdam in 1928. His 7.58-metre leap was a mere sixteen centimetres short of the winner’s, and it still stands as a record in Haiti. When he retired from athletics (he also played football for the capital’s most successful team), the polymath Cator went into politics, and in 1946 was elected mayor of Port-au-Prince — hence the name of the stadium. He wasn’t the first Haitian to win an Olympic medal; Ludovic Augustin had gained a bronze in 1924 in the last-ever team shooting event.

In the 1940s and 1950s, competitors from the Bahamas and Cuba (sailing), Puerto Rico (boxing), and Trinidad and Tobago (weightlifting) all achieved success in their fields, but the stand-out athlete of the period was Jamaica’s Arthur Wint, a.k.a. “The Gentle Giant,” the first gold medallist from the island, who won the 400 metres in 1948 in London. (His compatriot Herb McKenley came second.) In a foretaste of the Bolt phenomenon, Wint went on to triumph again four years later in the 4×400-metre relay race in Helsinki, contributing to a new world record, while also coming second in the 800 metres. These successes were far from the end of his career. He qualified as a doctor, was Jamaican ambassador to Sweden and High Commissioner to London, and fittingly died on Jamaica’s Heroes Day in 1992.

English-speaking Caribbean territories first competed while still colonies, and then, briefly, under the banner of the West Indies Federation in Rome in 1960 (the thirteen competitors were known as “Antilles” and gathered two bronze medals). With the move towards Independence in the 1960s, however, came a new age of athletic excellence, with increased resources and nationalistic enthusiasm, which culminated in the annus mirabilis, forty years ago exactly, of 1976 in Canada. Not only did the ever-reliable Cubans pick up two golds in boxing (the celebrated super-heavyweight Teófilo Stevenson had won a gold four years previously in Munich), but Trinidad and Tobago celebrated a first-ever gold medal, won by Hasely Crawford in the 100 metres, and Jamaican Don Quarrie picked up a gold in the 200 metres (and a silver in the 100 metres). Quarrie would later win a bronze in the 200 metres in Moscow (1980) and a silver in the 4×100 metres relay in Los Angeles (1984), showing considerable stamina, and has been honoured by a statue at the entrance to the National Stadium in Kingston’s Independence Park. As for Crawford, he went one better, having Port of Spain’s 23,000-capacity stadium named after him.

Success continued into the 1980s and 1990s. Cuba became an established force in boxing, with Stevenson (the son of an immigrant from St Vincent) winning a boxing gold again in Moscow in 1980. A man of principle and a folk hero in Cuba, he reputedly turned down a $1 million deal to turn professional. He was followed by boxers such as Hector Vinent Charón, who won the light welterweight title in 1992 and 1996, and Félix Savón, who took the heavyweight gold medal in 1992, 1996, and 2000. Like Stevenson, Savón was determined to remain an amateur, and rejected hugely lucrative offers to fight the likes of Mike Tyson. Jamaica, meanwhile, created its own Olympic history in Atlanta in 1996, when Deon Hemmings became the first woman from the island to win a gold medal, triumphing in the 400-metre hurdles. She won two further silvers in Sydney four years later, before passing on her crown to fellow Jamaican Melaine Walker, who won the same event in Beijing in 2008. From 1980 to 2000, meanwhile, Merlene Ottey had won no fewer than three silvers and six bronzes for Jamaica in 100-, 200-, and 4×100-metre events.

Which brings us to London in 2012, where the Caribbean — Cuba included, of course — can be said to have punched well above its weight. Jamaica took first, second, and third place in the men’s 200-metre finals, with Usain Bolt also winning the 100 metres (thus becoming the first man ever to win both events at two different Olympics). The Bahamas won the men’s 4×400-metre relay race, while Grenada could boast its first-ever medal when Kirani James stormed home in the 400 metres. There were also medals for the Dominican Republic’s Luguelín Santos and Felix Sanchez, as well as the Jamaican women’s 4×100 relay team. In all, the Caribbean region accounted for thirty-six medals, with Cuba leading the field with fifteen.

Can it get much better in Rio? The signs are promising, and widespread confidence shows how far the region has come. There has even been a suggestion, in Caribbean Journal, that one of the bigger countries — Jamaica or Trinidad and Tobago — might one day host the Summer Olympics. One wonders what an athlete from Finland would make of competing in an average temperature of 29 degrees Celsius (seven degrees higher than Rio) — but, then again, athletes from the Caribbean have had to endure the vagaries of cold climates in places such as Helsinki and Moscow over the years.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of a Caribbean Olympic Games, the words of the late, great Teófilo Stevenson, when turning down the big money offer, sum up what is central to the Olympian spirit: “What is a million dollars against eight million Cubans who love me?”