Dreams of Sydney

Kwame Laurence previews the Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia, and looks at what our Caribbean athletes hope to bring home

Gold for The Bahamas at the 1999 World Track and Field Championships in Seville, Spain. Left to right: Sevatheda Fynes, Debbie Ferguson, Pauline Davis- Thompson and Chandra Sturrup. Photograph by Shaun Botterill/AllsportIvan Pedroso, Cuba’s long jump champion, receives gold in Seville, 1999. Photograph by Clive Mason/AllsportTrinidad and Tobago’s Ato Boldon training at Drake Stadium, California. Photograph by Al Bello/Allsport

“I set Sydney goals before I came here. I want to get a medal…” The words are Lorraine Graham’s, but the sentiments expressed by the Jamaican quarter- miler after capturing the 400 metres bronze at the World Track and Field Championships in Seville Spain, last year are shared by many athletes in the English-speaklng Caribbean.

The Olympics represent a dream. For some, participation is fulfillment, while others have their sights set firmly on Gold. Graham fits into the second group, but with France’s Marie- Jose Perec on a quest for a hat-trick of one- lap titles, the task is a tough on Graham, however, will be a strong contender for one of those three medals at the September 15-October 1 Sydney Games. And she is sure to inspired by the Atlanta ’96 heroics compatriot Deon Hemmings.

Four years ago, American world record holder Kim Batten was the one to beat in the women’s 400m hurdles, but Hemmings led the way through the rounds, and again in the final breaking the Olympic record with 52.82 seconds clocking. Two world champions have since been crowned, but though Morocco’s Nezha Bidouane and Cuban Daimi Pernia will pose serious threats for her title, the Jamaican is a fierce competitor.

With sprint queen Merlene Ottey a likely non-starter in Sydney, following her positive test for nandrolone last year, a lot of Olympic focus in both Jamaica and the region will be on Hemmings.

Two other Jamaican women – Beverly McDonald and Merlene Frazer–  would fancy their chances of mounting the medals rostrum. Second and third respectively in the 200m final at Seville, they too, are among the group of regional hopefuls. McDonald and Frazer will also be part of a formidable 4 x 100m relay quartet — but all eyes will be on world champions Bahamas. Sevatheda Fynes, Chandra Sturrup, Pauline Davis-Thompson and Debbie Ferguson combined for gold in Seville.  And if there’s any team that can stop Marion Jones and the powerful Americans, it would be the Bahamas. Individually, Ferguson, Sturrup and Fynes can hold their own in the sprints. In the 100m hurdles, Jamaican talent is abundant, with Michelle Freeman, Dione Rose and Delloreen Ennis- London all capable of advancing to the Sydney final.

The English-speaking Caribbean may be best served by the women at the Olympics. However, there are a few good men – very, very good men _ from whom we can expect a great deal.

Cuba’s Ivan Pedroso is the most talked-about long jumper in the world today, but should he slip up, James Beckford is the man most likely to steal gold. The Jamaican was second to the legendary Carl Lewis in Atlanta, and will be determined not to leave Australia in second place.

Nor does Trinidad and Tobago’s Ato Boldon want to touch down at Piarco International Airport with another pair of bronze medals. Twenty-four years ago, the region made its presence felt with gold in both sprints. Boldon is capable of emulating not only his compatriot Hasely Crawford, the 1976 100m champion, but also Jamaica’s Donald Quarrie, the 200m winner in Montreal. And Barbadian Obadele Thompson coming of age, the possibility of the region claiming four out of six medals is real.

“This year we don’t have Crawford and Quarrie,” says the Trinidad and Tobago sprint star. “It’s Boldon and Thompson! Oba has been waiting to take the next step for a while, so I would love to see us finish top-three in both events. I’m certainly coming home with two medals, but the night would decide which colour.”

Boldon, the 1997 200m world champion, is not likely to go to Sydney as a favourite. That status is reserved for Americans Maurice Greene and Michael Johnson in the 100m and 200m respectively. Boldon is pleased that the main spotlight will be elsewhere, but he knows the expectations from home will be great and he’s prepared to deliver.

In swimming, Jamaican Janelle Atkinson is not going to be a betting favorite for gold in Sydney, but she is world-class, and capable of mixing it up with the best on the planet, from 200m freestyle right up to the 1500 free. At the end of 1999, the teenager was ranked fifth in the world in the longest of her four races, eighth in both the 400 and 800, and 20th in the 200. Atkinson should be a finalist in at least one event in Sydney, and definitely has an outside shot at precious metal.

Leah Martindale was a finalist in the 50m free in Atlanta, but the Barbadian is not the swimmer she used to be and will be hard-pressed to repeat. Martindale’s arch-rival, Trinidad and Tobago’s Siobhan Cropper, will have to be at her best to force her way into the last eight. And another T&T swimmer, Olympic debutant George Bovell, might well make a favourable impression in both the 200m Individual Medleys and the 400m. But his time will come at the Athens Games in 2004.

Unfortunately, Barbadian sprint cyclist Barry Forde did not qualify for Sydney. But his country will be well represented, particularly by Thompson and women’s 400m hurdler Andrea Blackett, who has a good shot at getting into the final. Michael Phillips will be the lone T & T representative in cycling. His bid for glory will come in the kilometre time trial.

The English-speaking Caribbean will have just one fighter in the first-ever official Olympic taekwondo tournament. And with 12 competitors in each category, Cheryl-Ann Sankar’s chances of doing T & T and the region proud in the 57 – kilogram division are as good as any.

Come September, Caribbean eyes will be following Sankar, Hemmings, Boldon, Thompson, Atkinson et al, and we’ll all be hoping for victory.