The Olympic Games are like the World Cup of (almost) everything, a celebration of the countless physical challenges human beings have set for themselves under the name of sport. The world’s biggest athletic spectacle, the Olympics attract the largest number of sportsmen, and feature the widest range of nationalities and the greatest variety of disciplines.
The lofty values of the Olympic Charter aside, the Olympics are about winning. Nobody arrives at the Olympic Village without dreams of leaving with a medal, preferably one made of gold. For Caribbean athletes, the arena where this dream has most often been fulfilled has been the Olympic stadium, site of the track and field competition. Caribbean athletes have been making an impact in track and field since the 1948 Games, when Jamaicans Arthur Wint and Herb McKenley took the gold and silver in the 400 metres, and the current crop of Caribbean athletes is certain to make its presence felt this summer in Athens.
This is not, however, to detract from the efforts of Caribbean athletes who have made tremendous efforts in other disciplines, and in Athens the region’s attention will also be turned towards the Olympic aquatic centre, to follow the fortunes of Trinidad and Tobago’s world record-holder George Bovell III, considered one of the top contenders for the 200-metre individual medley title. Bovell is one of 20 athletes Caribbean Beat profiles in this special feature on the Caribbean at the 2004 Olympics. The other 19 have similarly demonstrated, by their performances during the past year, that they have what it takes to compete at the highest levels of their sport. Several have at least one Olympics under their belts; a few — like the “Three Bs” — will be making their debut at Athens. Two are certified veterans: Trinidad and Tobago’s Ato Boldon, with three Games to his name, and the indefatigable Jamaica-born Merlene Ottey, whose Olympic Games tally will reach a phenomenal seven in Athens. We also pay tribute to Cuba’s success at the Games, achieved against considerable odds, and finally writer Ian McDonald poses a question both timely and controversial: could a united Caribbean Olympic team ever be a possibility?
Among the hottest contenders at the Athens Olympics will be three young Caribbean men: Darrel Brown and Marc Burns of Trinidad and Tobago, and Usain Bolt of Jamaica. Four years ago, at the time of the Sydney Olympics, they were all virtually unknown. Now the whole world knows they’re three of the fastest men alive.
Trinidad and Tobago
100 m, 4 x 100 m
Trinidad and Tobago
100 m, 4 x 100 m
100 m, 200 m, 4 x 100 m
Athens in August 2004.
At the Olympic stadium north of the city centre, thousands of fans gaze eagerly down at the starting blocks. Suddenly a Bolt of lighting strikes the track, causing severe Burns, and the emission of Brown smoke billowing into the air. The “Fire Brigade” is waiting for action. These officers, though, are not in the business of extinguishing blazes. On the contrary, igniting tracks is what they do best.
Jokes aside, it’s clear that among the hottest athletes at this year’s summer Olympics will be three youngsters from the Caribbean: Usain Bolt, Marc Burns, and Darrel Brown. Commentators call them the future of track and field. Well, get ready for some time travel: the future is already here.
Last August, Brown held his own among the best sprinters in the world, at the World Championships in Paris, France, where the teenager seized silver in the men’s 100-metre dash. Still only 19, the Nike-sponsored sprinter will be a relative baby in the starting blocks at the birthplace of the Olympic Games.
“My goal for Athens,” Brown explains, “is to make the final, and pull off a medal. Any colour.” Trinidad and Tobago’s 100-metre world junior record holder (10.01 seconds), a student of Southern Union Community College, Alabama, is not one to waste words. Nor does Brown expend energy unnecessarily on the track. And he’s caught the eye of some of the Caribbean’s Olympic veterans.
Jamaica’s 1976 Olympic 200-metre champion Donald Quarrie, for one, is very impressed. “Darrel is very smooth and very strong. For sprinting, he has a very efficient technique, getting his knees up and moving his arms quite well. Darrel has demonstrated that, potentially, he’ll be a contender for the Olympics.”
Quarrie also holds Usain Bolt in high esteem. “He can be as good as he wants to be, and as good as he can be. Usain Bolt is young, and has many years ahead of him. I’m quite sure we’re going to see him performing at a very high level in the years to come, both in the 200 and the 400.”
Hasely Crawford, Trinidad and Tobago’s first and only Olympic gold medallist, is another big Bolt fan. He was at the 2004 Carifta Games in Bermuda, last April, to witness the towering Jamaican’s mind-boggling 19.93-second world junior record run. “Bolt is perfect for the 200,” he says. “He’s all legs, more or less, and executes well. He runs a very strong curve, and he’s a very strong finisher. That’s a dangerous person! I saw a perfect athlete in Bermuda. But the Olympics is about ‘mental.’ If Bolt is mentally strong, the gold is his.”
And Crawford strongly believes that Brown will join the elite “Golden Club” in Athens. “Brown’s the man to beat,” the 1976 Olympic 100-metre gold medallist declares. “To me, he doesn’t have a sprinting style. I prefer rugged power-sprinting. He seems relaxed and easy, but it works for him. Once Darrel is healthy, he’s the man to beat.”
If the two teenagers live up to Crawford’s expectations, history may be repeated. Crawford himself was one of the two lead characters when the T&T–Jamaica Olympic sprint double chapter was written in Montreal, Canada, back in 1976. The other was Quarrie—who agrees that another Caribbean double is possible in Athens. But he insists that 21-year-old Burns is not to be discounted in the 100 metres. “He runs very smooth, and has great potential. Based on time, he has not made his mark in the same way Darrel has, but Burns could make a big breakthrough this year. Sometimes the Olympics brings out the best in us.”
Crawford, though, holds the view that Burns will come of age at Beijing 2008, not Athens 2004. “Marc is young, and by the next Olympics, he’ll be the ripe age.”
As a 17-year-old, at the Sydney Olympics four years ago, Burns wore national colours in the 4 x 100-metre relay. Team T&T exited at the semi-final stage.
“These are two different experiences. In the relay,” Burns says, “you have team-mates who will be there for you, but in the individual events there’s more pressure. All depends on you. But then again, this is the big stage. Once you’re there, either you’re prepared or not.”
Burns and Brown live just five minutes’ drive apart in Alabama, and sometimes train together. Though they have always been rivals on the track, the sport they have both chosen puts no strain on their relationship. “If Darrel and I are in a race, when we go on the track it’s business,” says Burns. “But off the track, it doesn’t matter. We down forever . . . cool like that.”
Their friendship goes back ten years. “It’s a real strong one,” says Brown, “starting in 1994, when I made my first national team for the CUT [Caribbean Union of Teachers] Games.” This call to national duty came just a year or so after eight-year-old Brown decided to try the sport he had seen his brother take part in.
Brown and Burns have been on many T&T teams together, trading victories over the years. They have gone head-to-head in two World Junior Championship 100-metre finals. At the 2000 meet in Chile, Burns had the upper hand, finishing third, one spot ahead of his compatriot. Two years later, in Jamaica, Brown turned the tables, grabbing gold in a Championship record 10.09 seconds. Burns took the silver, in 10.18. Going into the 2004 season, that clocking still stood as his personal best.
Surely, there are many more Brown/Burns international showdowns to come. Brown insists, though, that their brotherly bond will endure. “It’s just a few seconds we have to race against each other. But after that, it’s back to friends. Whoever wins, wins — once we finish one-two or two-three. Once we both pick up medals, we’re cool with that.”
Burns is confident and outgoing. He loves having a good time, and though he’s now based in the US, where he shares many light moments with the Browns — Darrel and his elder brother Darron — the 2002 World Junior Championship 100-metre silver medallist has not forgotten his friends back home. During our interview, he says he wants to mention the friends he hangs out with when he’s in Trinidad: “My neighbour Orlando Phillip, Dustin Williams, Lisanne Alexis, and Amanda Outridge.”
Brown, too, projects confidence, but much prefers the walk to the talk. His response to an enquiry about his career goals is short and to the point. “To win Olympic gold medals in the 100 and 4 x 100, and to hold the 100 world record.”
Brown and Burns hold Bolt — one of their major rivals for gold — in high regard. And the feeling is mutual. The three athletes are very similar: modest upbringings and supportive families have moulded them into hungry, focused individuals.
Unlike the other two, the 17-year-old, 6-foot-5 Bolt is still based at home, in Jamaica. And while he isn’t keen to move his training base outside of his homeland, he’s champing at the bit in anticipation of his trip to Athens. “I really want the Olympics to come. I know I’m very good, but I don’t know the other athletes, so I won’t talk about gold. I’m just going there to do my best, and that’s good enough for me. I’m anxious to go to Athens and do my best.”
Anxiety is not a word you’d associate with Bolt. Well-spoken, self-assured, and accommodating, the Puma-sponsored teen is very comfortable with the international media’s microphones.
Bolt’s assessment of himself applies to the other Bs as well. “I’m determined. I really want to win. When I go out on the track, I have one focus. My one goal is to get the gold.”
Let that assertion be a warning to the status quo.
“I just run and try to win”
What makes Darrel Brown a champion sprinter?
Training hard and not getting swell-headed.
Do you have any nerves, ahead of your first Olympic Games?
I’m just going in like it’s a normal race, so I won’t panic or be that nervous. I will be nervous, but I’m going to approach it like any other race.
Who are your idols in track and field?
Maurice [Greene], Ato [Boldon] . . . the same men I’m competing against. I still look up to them, but when race-time comes, you have to blank that out and run.
How fast do you expect to run this year?
I don’t say what time I’m going to run. I just run and try to win, and whatever time appears, it appears. But hopefully, I’ll run faster than last year [10.01 seconds].
When did you first realise you could become a world-class athlete?
At the 2000 World Junior Championships, in Chile. I placed fourth in the 100 metres final. I was just 15 at the time, the youngest athlete in the whole field.
You clocked 10.4 seconds in that final, the same time produced by the bronze medallist, your friend and compatriot Marc Burns. Was missing out on bronze a big disappointment?
Not really. I knew I had one more World Juniors.
“I can see myself as one of the best”
What got you interested in track and field?
The competitiveness of the sport, and growing up seeing where it can take you in life, seeing different places and living comfortably, both you, your family and your friends, things like that.
Your father, Alec Burns, was a fast bowler for Trinidad and Tobago. Did you ever consider a future in cricket?
As a young child, you try everything. I tried swimming, football, cricket . . . but I was best at sprinting. In primary school, I was a batsman. My dad, though, said I would be a good fast bowler, but yuh know I ain’t listenin’ tuh dat!
When did you realise you could become a world-class athlete?
From 1998, after winning the Carifta Games under-17 sprint double. And ’99, after I got injured, the effort I put in to get back. That discipline showed me I had the tools to be a world-class athlete.
Who are your idols in the sport?
Still Ato Boldon. And I have a lot of respect for all the other competitors. People like Tim Montgomery, Darrel [Brown] . . . Montgomery ran the world record, so he knows what 9.78 feels like. His legs have already reached that point, so you can never count him out. But idol-wise, still Ato. I admire his will-power towards the sport. Also, what he has done for track and field in Trinidad and Tobago, and where he has placed it, opened doors for people like Darrel and me, and other upcoming athletes in T&T.
What are your Olympic goals?
To reach the 100-metre final. From there, anything could happen. Once you reach the final, everybody is exhausted, mentally and physically. So, it’s about who has the strongest will-power at that point in time, or who put in the most preparations, and executes best.
“A medal is what I’m aiming for”
When did you start track and field?
At about ten. I was playing cricket first. I was a fast bowler, and my cricket coach said I should try track and field.
When did you first realise you could become a world-class athlete?
In 1999. My first year, I was at the back of the pack. But I noticed I was stepping up in the second year, so I decided that this sport can work for me.
How have your parents influenced your development?
My parents always have my back. They always make sure I get everything I want, my spikes, my shoes, clothing, anything. They really encourage me to do good. All my family and friends too. They encourage me to go forward, always.
What are your goals for the Olympics?
I’m just going there to do my best. I’m planning to run under 20 [seconds]. I don’t know if that can get me a medal, but a medal is what I’m going to be aiming for in Athens.
Do you see yourself as the next Michael Johnson, dominating the world at 200 and 400?
Michael Johnson is my idol. I really respect him as a big athlete. So yes, I’ll try my best to become the next MJ.
Is Johnson’s 19.32-second 200-metre world record something you think about?
Yes. It’s in the back of my mind. One day, I hope I’ll get the chance to take a shot at 19.32.
DARREL BROWN (Trinidad & Tobago)
Born October 11, 1984
MARC BURNS (Trinidad & Tobago)
Born January 7, 1983
USAIN BOLT (Jamaica)
Born August 21, 1986
George Bovell III
Trinidad and Tobago
100 m and 200 m swimming
When George Bovell III splashed to the fastest time in the world back at the 2001 World Championships in Japan, the swimming fraternity asked what the abbreviation “TRI” stood for. Such was the then-17-year-old Trinidad and Tobago swimmer’s underdog status. The Auburn University sophomore eventually finished for an historic fourth in the final (the first English-speaking Caribbean swimmer to make the top eight), and gave the swimming world notice of his potential for world-class success.
Three years on, and the T&T swim sensation is not only more widely known in the heady world of swimming, but is also considered one of the top contenders for a medal at the Athens Olympics in his pet event, the 200-metre individual medley (IM).
Born into a family of high-achieving athletes (his father, George II, was a top regional and successful university level swimmer; his mother Barbara swam in the 400 metres final for Barbados back in the 1972 Munich Olympics; and his younger brother Nicholas has been a Carifta and regional standout in swimming), the six-foot-five swimmer was blessed with the right gene pool from which to splash to his world-beating swimming exploits.
It all climaxed with his world-record swim at the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) men’s swimming and diving championships in Long Island in March 2004, when Bovell smashed the 200-metre IM world record by nearly a second, in a very fast 1:53.93. That performance was a near-perfect exhibition of his superb, effortless, but efficient technique, as he glided over the water to victory, leaving his competitors floundering helplessly in his slipstream.
Despite the lofty pace of his accomplishments in the pool — he won four medals at last year’s Pan Am Games in Santo Domingo, and is also currently the holder of 46 Trinidad and Tobago records — Bovell is humble and laid-back. This humility — a trait that dates back to his pre-world-class swimming days — has endeared him to the T&T public and to his competitors. But it has not prevented him from maintaining his dogged focus and determination to swim in those uncharted waters where no Trinidad and Tobago swimmer has swum before.
A stickler for precision and detail in his preparation, Bovell has been known to be very demanding of his two coaches, local handler Anil Roberts and US Olympic coach Dave Marsh. “I think he has a great chance of getting among the medals,” says Marsh. “[US phenom Michael] Phelps is still ahead, but George is working on closing the gap, and the fact is, George still has a lot of time . . . he will probably be the man to beat in Beijing in 2008.”
“He is the consummate professional, and all the athletes in T&T need to learn from him,” Roberts says. “I still think he can take that world record lower over the next ten years.”
One thing’s for sure. When August comes around and Bovell more than likely mounts the medal rostrum in Athens, he will find himself under a kind of scrutiny he’s never experienced. And he will still be modest.
GEORGE BOVELL III
Born July 18, 1983
400 m, 4 x 400 m
Lorraine Fenton has a reputation for being a woman of few words, but that doesn’t mean she lacks a sense of humour. At the 2003 Lausanne Athletissima, where she won the 400 metres on a track drenched by thunderstorms, she deadpanned to journalists after the race. “I was in a hurry to get out of the rain,” she said, adding, “Normally I run faster here, but today I couldn’t because of the weather.”
What’s normal for Fenton is beyond the grasp of most athletes. Ranked second in the world in the 400 metres as of May 2004, she’s a major contender for the gold in Athens, her second Olympic outing. Though she showed potential at both high school and college level, Fenton started blossoming as an athlete only after completing her degree in criminal justice at Pennsylvania’s Lincoln University in 1997. She attracted controversy when a dislodged shoe prevented her from running the second leg of the 4 x 400-metre relay at the 2002 Commonwealth Games, causing the Jamaican team to lose its lead.
A happier occasion was her silver-medal win at the Sydney Olympics, where she missed Grace Jackson’s long-standing national record by seconds; the record finally became hers in 2002 at the Monaco Grand Prix. A two-time winner of Jamaica’s Carreras Sportswoman of the Year Award, the Carbondale, Illinois-based Fenton will be looking to better her Sydney performance at the Athens Games. The recent retirements of France’s Marie-Jose Perec and Australia’s Cathy Freeman have left a gap at the highest level of the women’s 400 metres — a gap Lorraine Fenton’s aiming to fill.
Born 8 September, 1972
St Kitts and Nevis
Anyone needing proof that very small countries can produce big champions need look no further than Kim Collins of St Kitts and Nevis, the current world 100-metre champion. Last summer, on a breezy night in Paris, he took the gold at the Stade de France — capacity 80,000, twice the population of his homeland.
A modest fellow, much loved by fans and journalists alike, Collins lacks the usual bravado and over-the-top flash of most 100-metre winners. In interviews, the 28-year-old is frank, sometimes obliterating the notion that to be the world’s best you must dedicate yourself to nothing but training.
“I’m not one of those hard-working sprinters,” says the Texas Christian University sociology graduate. “I’m an easy-going guy. When I don’t feel like going to training, my coach is going to get a phone call, and he appreciates that. I don’t believe in lifting weights, or pumping iron. There are a lot of things I don’t believe in. So it’s great he accepts that, and lets me do the work I want to.”
This refreshing unconcern, alongside his ability to beat the Greenes, the Montgomerys, and the Browns of the world, means the best now fear him more than he fears them, and marks him out as the neutral’s favourite for gold this summer.
“Gold in Athens is my ultimate goal . . . I’m determined to take my chance to be Olympic 100-metre champion. It won’t be easy, but on a good day I know I can win, no matter who lines up against me in the final eight.
“The Americans are not going to take it lying down. They have the Olympic champion and the world record holder. They are going to come out firing. They don’t like to lose.”
Neither, on his form of the last two seasons, does the man from St Kitts.
Born 5 April, 1976
On two previous occasions Alleyne Francique had made the finals of the outdoor World Championship without placing for a medal. Finally, at the 2004 World Indoor Championship in Budapest, the 28-year-old Commonwealth indoor record holder became the first Grenadian to win a global track and field title, capturing gold in the 400 metres. “It feels good, because when I went into the race I had country first and then myself afterwards,” said Francique after the race. “I wanted to win this for my country, and get the national anthem played.”
Adored at home for his fierce national pride and unswerving determination, Francique saw the Budapest championship as an opportunity to reward his fans. He dominated from the first, controlling his heat, the semi, and then the final itself.
The three-time Grenadian Sports Personality of the Year, Carifta Games gold medallist, and Pan Am bronze winner is now hoping to add an Olympic medal to this year’s success, but Francique understands that being the World Indoor Champion doesn’t guarantee anything.
“Not because I won the world indoor title I think I can win the Olympics, because that is a different story,” he says. And he’s right: no World Indoor champion has ever gone on to win the Olympic gold. Nonetheless, if he can improve his personal best of 44.72 to a 44 low, a medal will be within reach. “I want to open [my season] in about 44.8, 44.9, and my goal this year is to run 44.2, 44.3, 44.4 — and I think I can do it.”
Born 7 June, 1976
Trinidad and Tobago
“Last year at this time I didn’t have the Olympic A Standard,” says Cleopatra Borel, Trinidad and Tobago’s shot put record holder and Virginia Tech volunteer coach. “I was under a lot of pressure to get to 18.55 metres.” What a difference a year makes.
Sixth place at the 2003 Pan Am Games and the subsequent lack of a podium finish only increased the effusive 24-year-old’s determination. “I was disappointed because I felt I should have done better, so I went back to Blacksburg [Virginia] and I worked to improve. I was very happy at the start of the indoor season, when I realised that my work paid off.”
It certainly did. In January 2004, Borel produced what was the leading throw in the world at the time, announcing her potential to those at the top of her event. “At the time I was leading the world in January, I knew a lot of good shot putters hadn’t thrown as yet, but I was pleased with my improved distance. At the end of the indoor season, I still had the fourth best throw in the world, and I feel I can compete with the best . . . I’m happy I got to this mark during the indoor season. I can focus on the Olympic Games and not have to chase the mark all year.”
With Commonwealth, Carifta, Worlds, and Pan Am experience to call on now, the nerves are steadier, and the experience of turning out in T&T colours more relaxed. “I love to compete and represent Trinidad and Tobago. I think it’s cool to be a shot putter, since our island is known mostly for producing sprinters.”
What does she think the future holds? “After the Olympics, I hope to attend graduate school and complete a master’s in education. As far as the shot put goes, I am not sure of my post-Olympic plans — but I think that my best is yet to come.” And this summer her best may well be good enough for a medal.
Born: 10 March, 1979
100 m, 4 x 100 m
A member of the five-member Bahamian sprint team known as the “Golden Girls”, who first showed their mettle with a first-place finish at the 1999 World Championships in Seville, Spain, then went on to win gold at the Sydney Olympics in 2000, the number two-ranked Sturrup is one of the hottest contenders for the women’s 100 metres in Athens.
In 2002, a stress fracture kept her in a removable cast for six weeks. It took months of training to return her to competition level. Yet in 2003 Sturrup became the first Bahamian to contest the IAAF Golden League million-dollar jackpot (which awards US$1 million in gold to athletes placing first in the same discipline over the course of six qualifying meets). She was one of two remaining contenders, and just three titles away from winning the prestigious prize, when she failed to take gold at the Berlin Golden League meeting in August 2003. This would have made her one of the world’s richest track and field athletes, adding to the 20,000-square-foot plot of land and the other lucrative gifts given to her and her team-mates by the Bahamian government after their Sydney win.
Based in Raleigh, North Carolina, where she trains under Trevor Graham, Sturrup is a training partner and close friend of US sprint queen Marion Jones. Now ranked number two in the world — a position she also held in 2000 and 2001 — and with her compatriot Pauline Davis-Thompson (winner of the 200-metre silver at Sydney) retiring this year, Sturrup will be the women’s standard-bearer for the Bahamas at Athens. Her 100-metre personal best of 10.86 places her on the world all-time list at number 22, and an Olympic gold medal in this event is the crowning achievement she longs for. “I have always come so close, but yet so far,” she says. This summer in Athens she may go all the way.
Born September 9, 1971
Aliann Pompey was hailed as a Guyanese national hero after she powered past favourite Sandi Richards of Jamaica to take the 400 metres gold at the Commonwealth Games in 2002 — and rightly so. It was the country’s first Commonwealth Games athletics gold since Phil Edwards won the 880-yard event back in 1934.
A late bloomer, the diminutive Pompey took up track for the first time after her family migrated to the US in 1992, following in the footsteps of her younger sister Allison. “I was really light in high school. The doctor told my dad I need physical activity,” she says. Her talent was immediately obvious. By 1995, she had won the hotly contested 400-metre title at the New York State Championships. Wooed by several universities, she chose Manhattan College, a small, private college in the Bronx, so she could work with sprint coach Joe Ryan (who remains her coach to this day). There, she etched her name into the school’s annals by becoming their first female NCAA champion, and the first student to set a national collegiate record.
“There’s a real contrast between the person you see on the track and off of it,” says her coach. “She’s the most humble athlete I’ve ever coached, and in the sprinting game, that’s very, very unusual. But when that gun goes off . . . there’s a real, real fire in her eyes.”
Based in New York, and usually one of the smallest athletes in the field, Pompey has achieved most of her 400-metre wins, as The Village Voice put it, “in nerve-rackingly dramatic come-from- behind fashion.” Her build forces her to approach each race like an endurance runner, not a speed runner, she says. Whatever the reason, the technique works. And her attitude certainly helps. “I try not to go out in a race thinking about second place.” You can bet that in Athens she’ll be thinking of gold.
Born 9 March, 1978
Trinidad and Tobago
You’re in the customs area, at the airport, and the officer on duty steps away from the passenger at the front of the line, watching him with great suspicion.
Do not panic. The man in front is not a terrorist. He is Trinidad and Tobago taekwondoist Dr Chinedum Osuji.
“Almost invariably, when customs people hear ‘taekwondo’ and ‘full contact kicking’, they take a half-step away, as if in response to some subconscious signal that they should perhaps be a little wary around this guy.”
But while customs officers have nothing to fear, Osuji’s opponents in the men’s welterweight division in Athens would be well advised to approach the 27-year-old fighter with extreme caution.
The son of Nigerians Dr Pashcal and Dr Rose Osuji, he was born in Trinidad in 1976, three years after his parents moved there and his father started working at the Caribbean Agricultural Research and Development Institute (CARDI). Though he’s a dangerous man on the mat, Osuji is not your typical taekwondoist. Last year, he graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a PhD in polymer science, and subsequently landed a job at the biotechnology company Surface Logix in Boston. Osuji’s professional life involves many hours of research. And since taekwondo also makes serious demands on his time, a skilful balancing act is required.
But the affable St Mary’s College, Port of Spain, old boy is equal to the task. He possesses not only a fine mind, but an admirable work ethic as well. “We had fighters who were better than him,” T&T Taekwondo Association (T&TTA) technical director Master Jin Young Jung explains, “but Chinedum worked very hard. He’s a well-rounded fighter with all the basics, and many people do not know him. That will work to our advantage in Athens.”
Born December 15, 1976
Asafa Powell is probably best known to sports fans around the world for his controversial disqualification from a 100-metre quarter-final at the 2003 World Championships in Paris. Under an unpopular new IAAF rule, Powell was dropped from the race for a false start, along with vocal US sprint star Jon Drummond (who proceeded to make a scene on the track at the Stade de France, shouting at officials and refusing to leave so the event could continue). Video footage subsequently revealed no visible false start by either man — but the race computer’s verdict was taken as final.
This turn of events can’t have been easy on then-20-year-old Powell’s nerves. But you don’t develop into a world-class sprinter unless you have nerves of steel, and a month after the Paris debacle Powell showed what he was made of, winning the 100 metres at the final Golden League meet in Brussels, in a personal best time of 10.02 — the third fastest time ever achieved by a Jamaican. “This is a kind of revenge for what happened to me in Paris,” he said. “I was very eager to win this one.”
Following his three older brothers into the track and field arena, Powell coached himself throughout his junior career, and won the Jamaican national junior championships in 2001. Unlike most other world-class Caribbean track and field athletes, Powell is based not at a North American university or training camp, but in his home country — he trains in Kingston under Jamaican coach Stephen Francis.
Ranked ninth in the world in the 100 metres as of May 2004, Powell may be a long shot for gold in Athens — but don’t underestimate his determination. He says he can improve his best time to under 10 seconds — which only six men have ever done — and an Olympic medal is well within his reach. Then, finally, he may erase the memory of that unfortunate day in Paris.
Born 23 November, 1982
Trinidad and Tobago
Hammer throw and shot put
When it comes to the big events, some athletes take pressure in their stride, while others wilt under the intense glare of a million eyes. Candice Scott, the English-speaking Caribbean’s first track and field medal winner at the 2003 Pan Am Games, with a bronze in the women’s hammer throw, always seems to walk tall.
“The Pan Am Games was such a proud feeling for me. I love to represent my country. I have been representing Trinidad and Tobago since I was in the junior age group at the Carifta Games and Junior Pan Am Games — being able to get on the medal podium again as a senior was another memorable moment.”
Going into Athens, her focus is equally composed, carrying forward what she has learned and continuing to improve with new records. “I am the type of athlete who has the mind-set that, in every competition, you can come out with some type of experience. The experience I came out with from the Pan Am Games is, I was able to hold my own and throw with world-class athletes. I believe this is vital on the road to competing in Athens.”
Couple this experience with hard work on her technique — “the toughest thing about training for this event is always concentrating on technique . . . getting the technique right makes the hammer go further” — and there’s a sense of potential victory draped all over this young athlete.
Looking forward, Scott says she wants “to compete in at least two more Olympics”. Athletic competition, it seems, doesn’t faze her at all — on the contrary, it’s a natural stimulant.
Born 17 September, 1980
On clocking a gold medal-winning 20.66 in the 200 metres at the 2004 IAAF World Indoor Championships in Budapest, Hungary, Dominic Demeritte sealed his place in athletic history — this is the last year the 200 metres will be contested at the World Indoors. He’ll never have the chance to defend this title — so, come August, he’ll be going after a new one.
Demeritte is the first Bahamian man to win gold at the World Indoors (triple-jumper Frank Rutherford captured the bronze in 1987), and only the third Bahamian ever to win an indoor championship medal. But a spate of wins in recent years — particularly by the women’s 4 x 100 metre relay team — has made the multi-island nation a force to be reckoned with in world athletics. A year earlier, at the 2003 World Indoors, Demeritte had taken home a bronze medal in the 200 metres, but felt overlooked, overshadowed. His gold in Budapest clearly announced the arrival of another potential superstar.
And even as he celebrated this victory, his mind was on bigger goals. “He’s going to celebrate that when the season’s over,” said Desmond Bannister, president of the Bahamas Association of Athletics. “Dominic wants to focus right now on the Olympic Games.”
Back in high school, Demeritte competed in baseball and basketball as well as track and field. Only when his parents insisted did he focus on the track. “Back then he was fighting it,” says his father, Don, “but he got into it, and to this day whenever he does something, I always say to myself this is vindication.” That rock-solid family support saw him through his time at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he was part of the Team Caribbean All-Stars squad that contested the 4 x 200 relay at the 2003 Penn Relays. And you can be sure the Demeritte clan will be on hand in Athens, cheering and hoping.
Born 22 February, 1978
Andrea Blackett has come a long way since the 1996 Olympics, when she failed to qualify, citing the stress of constant academic pressure and inadequate preparation. Eight years on, the petite 28-year-old, coming off a tough two-year battle with illness, is stronger than ever before, with her rhythm back and her times in the 400-metre hurdles consistently fast.
“I’m really happy that I’ve been able to get back into the shape I was in three or four years ago,” says Blackett, whose 2003 season best was a blistering 53.71, and whose personal best of 53.36 dates back to a fourth-place finish at the 1999 World Championships. “I’ve been injured, I’ve been sick, in 2000 I got chicken pox. I’m just thrilled to finally be back in that shape . . . I knew it was just a matter of time.”
Victor Lopez, her coach (and also the man responsible for two more of the world’s best women’s 400-metre hurdlers, Puerto Rican Yvonne Harrison and Jamaica’s Allison Beckford) agrees. “After taking two years to overcome injuries, she finished [last] season very, very well. She’s very healthy now, and is a great competitor. Andrea has a great chance in Athens.”
From a low season in 2002 — with a best of just 56.95 — the former Commonwealth Games champion has climbed back to a fifth-place rank in the world, thanks to ever-faster times and a strong finish to the 2003 season, including sixth place at the World Championships and a Pan Am Games bronze.
A national hero at home, and a holder of the Barbados Service Star, Blackett faces a tough field in Athens, and might find gold a hurdle too far — but don’t count her out. She’s looking good for the other medal spots, and may well spring a surprise.
Born 24 January, 1976
Trinidad and Tobago
“It tastes awful, and it works.” The Buckley’s cough suppressant slogan reveals an important truth about life. And for Kerron Clement, cross country running is like Buckley’s.
“He really hated cross country,” explains head coach Mike Mosley of La Porte High School in Texas, “but I made him run it anyway. It did so much good for Kerron, making him very strong. Though he didn’t like it, he ran with heart.
“Kerron could be a medal contender in Athens,” Mosley continues. “He can run in the 47s, which would put him in line for a medal.” A 47-point clocking in the 400-metre hurdles is a lot to ask of an 18-year-old. But Clement is special. At 16, three years after migrating to Texas from Petit Valley, Trinidad, with his mother, the phenom clocked 49.77 seconds, a huge lot to ask of a high school student.
Clement is now attending the University of Florida, where he’s coached by Mike Holloway. Though still a freshman at UF, he has already made his mark. On 13 March, Clement equalled the 400-metre world junior indoor record. And less than two weeks later, he opened his 2004 outdoor campaign with new Central American and Caribbean (CAC) and Trinidad and Tobago 400-metre hurdles junior records. Surely, big things are ahead for Clement. Some may be tempted to describe him as “the next Felix Sánchez”.
“I’m just trying to be myself. I don’t want to be nobody else,” declares the supremely confident one-lap hurdler. “I’m trying to be ‘the great Kerron Clement’. I want people to know me by that name.”
KERRON STEPHON CLEMENT
Born October 31, 1985
Long jump, 4 x 100 m
Wearing Auburn University colours, Elva Goulbourne has won several NCAA titles, and after winning the 2003 long jump she became the first female athlete to win the same event both indoors and outdoors for two straight years. Yet the 24-year-old Jamaican deliberately decided to sit out the collegiate circuit 2004 indoor season, even though she remains eligible to compete. “I’m not taking it. It was great, but my college career is done,” she says, demonstrating the thoughtful determination that has made her a NCAA record-setter.
Goulbourne’s career took off after she beat hometown favourite Jade Johnson to the long jump gold at the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester, with a 6.7-metre jump she described as “way below my best”. Now, ranked third in the world, she’s preparing to unleash that star power in the sand pit at Athens. Her rest from collegiate competition, she hopes, will see her in prime physical condition. And as far as mental preparation is concerned, she sees everything in a larger perspective. “I’m leaving everything in God’s hands,” she says. “He guides and protects me, and gives me the strength to compete.”
That strength comes in a relatively small package. Just 170 cm tall (her personal best in the long jump is 6.91 metres — more than four times her height), Goulbourne is petite for a long jumper, but she more than makes up for it in personality and attitude. “It amazes me how far Elva jumps. And though she’s so tiny, she has a presence on the track,” says her friend and former training partner Danille Prime, a Trinidad and Tobago high jumper. In August, at Goulbourne’s second Olympic appearance, the world may finally feel that presence.
Born January 21, 1980
400 m hurdles
Felix Sánchez, Dominican and fiercely proud of it, is the world’s top 400-metre hurdler. A two-time world champion with extraordinary speed, stamina, and near perfect technique, he is virtually unbeatable in his event. At the end of the 2003 season, the man with a Superman tattoo on his shoulder had gone 47 races without a loss, a winning streak dating back to July 2001, making him the firm favourite for this year’s Olympics.
“There have been a lot of good hurdlers,” says Sánchez, “but that’s it; they’re just good hurdlers. I want to be one of the great ones.”
Born in New York to Dominican parents, Sánchez chooses to represent the Dominican Republic. He topped off an impressive 2003 by winning the Pan Am gold in front of a frenzied home crowd in Santo Domingo. Winning in a Pan Am record time of 48.19 seconds, he sent the 18,000-seat Olympic Stadium crazy as he crossed the finish line, and took his lap of honour with the Dominican flag draped over his body.
“I was very nervous,” said Sánchez later. “I knew people wanted this medal. I was warming up and heard the stadium roar. I knew if I didn’t do it I’d have to wait for Brazil 2007.”
For the Athens Olympics, there’s talk of a double-headed campaign, placing his pet event, the 400-metre hurdles, alongside the straight 400 metres. Sánchez wants to do both, says his agent Tony Campbell, “but we need to have the 400 hurdle first. It’s better to have the hurdles first, because it’s more difficult. No one ever tried this double. It makes a big story.” It certainly would.
Smooth and very much in control, Sánchez is the man to beat this summer — and he knows it. “The thing about being at the top is that everyone in the world — I mean, people in Poland, South Africa, all over the world — they want to beat Felix Sánchez.”
Born 30 August, 1977
Slovenia (formerly Jamaica)
100 m, 200 m, 4 x 100 m
When the Slovenian Olympic team marches past at the Olympic opening ceremony on 13 August, the team member from this tiny European republic most likely to attract attention will be a tall, black female sprinter named Merlene Ottey. But Ottey would be a standout even in a team where she wasn’t the member with the darkest skin. At 44 years old, and as the most decorated female athlete of all time, she’s a phenomenon, plain and simple.
Much is made of Ottey’s longevity because it is, in fact, a terribly big deal. Sprinting is perhaps the ultimate numbers game. Few disciplines demand more of the body (or the mind, for that matter). Most runners are already planning their retirements by their early 30s. But in Ottey’s case, the normal rules don’t seem to apply. At the 1995 World Championships she became the oldest ever female gold medallist when she won the 200 metres at the age of 35 years, 92 days. After taking the bronze in the 200 metres at the 1997 World Championships, she became the oldest female medallist ever, at 37 years, 90 days, and also brought her World Championships medal total to an incredible 14, four more than the next best performer, Carl Lewis of the USA. Her 4 x 100 metre relay silver medal at Sydney in 2000 — her sixth Olympic Games — made her, at the age of 40 years, 143 days, the oldest ever Olympic medallist of all time, and brought her Olympic medal haul to eight (three silver and five bronze), and her overall number of titles to more than 30.
Born in Cold Springs, in the Jamaican parish of Hanover, on 10 May , 1960, Ottey started competing in track and field events at 13, and first represented Jamaica at 19. While attending the University of Nebraska she set several US collegiate records, and at one point in 1982 held nine of the ten top times in the 300-yard dash — in the world. In her first Olympic outing at Moscow in 1980 she won bronze in the 200 metres, the first Olympic medal ever won by a Caribbean woman.
At the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984, Ottey took two more bronze medals, in the 100 metres and the 200 metres. After going medal-less in Seoul in 1988, she returned to win the 200 metres bronze in Barcelona in 1992. In Atlanta in 1996 she took the silver in both the 100 metres and the 200 metres, and the bronze in the 4 x 100 metre relay.
Ottey holds some dubious records as well: with six individual (and two relay) Olympic medals, she is also the most medalled sportsperson never to have won gold. Until her spectacular winning streak of the 1990s, she had finished third on so many occasions that she became known as the “bronze queen”, a trend she broke when the won the 4 x 100 metre title at the 1991 World Outdoor Championships. The 100 metres Worlds title has eluded her to this day.
An international career spanning almost 25 years is unlikely to be trouble-free, and Ottey has been in her share of tight spots. She was forced to withdraw from what would have been her seventh World Championships in 1999, following reports that she had tested positive for the drug Nandrolone. The two-year ban imposed upon her was in fact lifted only a year later, in time for the Sydney Olympics, where she attracted criticism by demanding a spot on the 4 x 100 metre Jamaican relay team, though she had not completed all of the qualifying rounds. National champion Peta-Gaye Dowdie was eventually displaced to make room for Ottey, and some believe it was the bad blood the incident generated that prevented the team from taking first place.
Then in 2002 came Ottey’s decision, after having lived and trained in the Slovenian capital of Ljubljana since 1998, to become a Slovenian citizen, and represent that country instead of Jamaica (she does maintain dual citizenship).
Whether it’s good genes, or something in the water in Cold Springs back in the 1960s, or sheer grit and determination, or a combination of all of the above, come this summer, as Merlene Ottey takes her place in the starting blocks next to some woman who was still in diapers when Ottey won her first Olympic medal in 1980, we’ll all be waiting with bated breath to see what it means to be over 44 and to compete at the highest level of your sport. And in light of the cryptic comment, “the only thing I know for certain is that after the Olympic Games in Athens I will no longer be there as a sprinter,” if a 48-year-old Merlene Ottey turns up at the 2008 Olympics to compete in the 1,600 metres or the marathon, we’ll be surprised — but not very.
Born 10 May, 1960
Trinidad and Tobago
100 m, 200 m, 4 x 100 m
Athens 2004 will be Ato Boldon’s fourth and probably final sortie into Olympic competition. For an athlete who has consistently competed at the highest levels, with medals from all major competitions to prove it, the sense of farewell is unfamiliar, to say the least.
“I think when I had my youth and my health, I took the Olympics for granted,” says 30-year old Boldon. “This Olympics, regardless of the result, will be the one I most treasure. Short of winning the gold, nothing can happen to me at these games I haven’t gone through already. Everything else I’ve done — every other medal colour, every other emotion.”
His results agree. Double gold at World Junior Championships; 100 metres Commonwealth gold; silver and bronze from the Sydney Olympics; double bronze in record-breaking races at the Atlanta games. Then there are his senior World Championship golds, and a host of records — from youngest medallist in a 100-metre World Championship event to his sub-ten second 1998 100-metre season average, a first for any sprinter.
As with all greats, controversy has dogged Boldon occasionally. In 2001 he tested positive for ephedrine — a banned stimulant, but one found in many over-the-counter medicines. And for years, commentators have claimed his friendship with training partner and current Olympic 100 metres champion Maurice Greene has dulled Boldon’s killer instincts, converting potential victories into missed opportunities. Others say such talk is ill-conceived: this is a man who bridged the gap from Hasley Crawford’s gold in 1976 to Trinidad and Tobago’s current crop of potential world-beaters. Remove Boldon from the picture, and T&T would still be waiting for their first Olympic medal in 28 years.
“Am I responsible for all this Trinidad and Tobago Olympic potential? No, I don’t think I’m responsible directly. Maybe indirectly I’ve had an effect. Kids before might have seen their only sporting options as cricket or football — maybe even basketball — and I think kids today who are 10 to 15 years younger than me can look and say, ‘Yeah, this guy is doing well, he seems to be doing good . . . this is an avenue I could take.’”
And this indirect effect has been regional as well as national. Today, the Caribbean has more world-class athletes raring to compete than at any other time in the region’s sporting history — particularly in sprinting, where a shift in the global balance of 100-metre, 200-metre, and 400-metre power is a realistic possibility.
Boldon, for one, is confident. “I said a year or two ago that this Olympic games would be a coming-out party for the Caribbean region, as well as for Trinidad and Tobago. I think it is the first Olympics in a long time where we will have multiple medallists coming back.”
Same-day doubling — running the 100 and 200 metres in the same day — is how competitors and spectators alike best remember Boldon. Few other sprinters do it with the same composure and ruthless effect. He is one of only six men ever to run under 10 seconds in the 100 metres, and under 20 seconds in the 200 metres.
This year, however, Boldon is concentrating on the 200 metres. “100-metre sprinting is something that looks very easy, but is in fact only easy if you’re not running at a world-class level . . . I’ve struggled in the last two years to run times that before would have been my worst races of the year.”
Beyond Athens, Boldon’s future is still to be written. “First, I’d like to keep a promise I made to myself: that this year goes the way I want it to, and I bow out gracefully. I think it’s going to be interesting. I have a lot of things I have been invited to do that I’ve never been able to get into, because track and field is so much of a lifestyle and a commitment.
“People have to understand, this is all I’ve ever done. I’ve never had another profession. From 18 to 30, that’s been my life, every day. I think I’m ready to see what real life is like. One of my team-mates remarked to me that maybe I’d have a year or two off and decide, you know what, I’m in reasonably good shape, and come back for Beijing.”
But before he can get round to these dilemmas, there’s still the small issue of a 200-metre Olympic race to take care of.
Born December 30, 1973
THE CARIBBEAN’S OLYMPIC POWERHOUSE
The two arenas where Cuban athletes have truly dominated are the boxing ring and the baseball diamond
Cuba is as sports-mad as any other country in the Caribbean, and sport is one area where the Cuban government has consistently put its money where its mouth is. That commitment has been rewarded with tremendous success on the world stage. By far the strongest Olympic power in Latin America, the Cubans have come home from every Olympic outing since Mexico 1968 laden with medals. They were in fifth place overall in Barcelona 1992, with 14 gold medals, and eighth in Atlanta 1996, with nine. At Sydney in 2000 they were again in eighth place, with 11 golds and a total of 29 medals. Cuba is ranked 22nd overall in terms of total medals won, with 137 — ahead of wealthy countries like Norway and Austria.
Cuba has participated in nine out of the 11 Olympic Games since Fidel Castro took power in 1959 (they boycotted the 1984 and 1988 games). Castro banned professional sports in 1962, and Cuba’s state-run sports sector is entirely — and for the most part, proudly — amateur, but successful athletes are among the country’s elite, receiving perks not readily accessible to their fellow citizens, including foreign travel.
Cuba’s Olympic successes have come in a range of events, including volleyball, fencing, canoe/kayak, wrestling, basketball, and judo. In athletics, Alberto Juantorena distinguished himself in the 1976 Games as the first — and still the only — athlete ever to win both the 400 metres and the 800 metres. But the two arenas where Cuban athletes have truly dominated are the boxing ring and the baseball diamond.
Before the revolution, Cuba was a prolific producer of world-class fighters such as Kid Chocolate and Kid Gavilán. Since 1972, boxers like Félix Savón, José Gómez, and Juan Lemus have won a total of 27 gold medals for Cuba, an alarming figure considering the country boycotted the games in ’84 and ’88. (Andrei Chervorenko, a Soviet coach sent to share training techniques as a display of Communist solidarity, was allegedly summoned home after Cuba started outshining the Soviet Union in competitions.) Baseball, too, has long been one of the country’s passions (Castro himself was a promising pitcher), and the Cuban team held the baseball title for two successive Olympics before the US beat them in Sydney.
Though the country’s sporting ranks have been affected in recent years by a string of defections, and in spite of serious economic difficulties, Cuba remains a force to be reckoned with, buoyed by a proud amateur spirit. It’s said that the notorious boxing promoter Don King once offered heavyweight champion fighter Félix Savón US$10 million to turn pro. Savón’s response was, “What do I need $10 million for when I have 11 million Cubans behind me?”
A WEST INDIES TEAM IN ATHENS?
The West Indies cricket team has achieved world-class status. Could a united Caribbean Olympic team ever be a possibility? Ian McDonald argues the case
The core of the Caribbean Community, the English-speaking West Indies, has for a long time been defined not as a state identified by frontiers or unified Government, but as an intellectual and cultural space that we experience in common. This region-wide affinity, this bedrock of experience held in common, is what sustains any hope we have of one day achieving full economic and, finally, political unity.
This “nation-in-the-making” affinity flows from a number of sources, including shared democratic values, a shared language, and the University of the West Indies. In addition, a crucial definer of our destiny together is cricket — as a game, as a religion, as a cultural expression — and, specifically, the West Indies cricket team.
It is simplistic and shallow-minded to say or think that cricket is just a game in the West Indies. Economic and military success are not everything in history, just as material well-being and the exercise of power are not all that matter in a man’s life. It means a great deal to be a cultural leader in the world — to lead in the arts, in literature, in music, in the theatre, in architecture, in style and fashion, in scholarship — and cricket as much as any game represents an international cultural expression of abiding significance. To play an important part in the sport of cricket gives us stature in the world. Pride and self-confidence grow as we compete among the best anywhere. It is an important part of growing into nationhood.
In the writings of W.B. Yeats there is a wonderfully eloquent phrase: he speaks of “a community bound together by imaginative possessions”. Yeats used this phrase in the context of discussing the importance of a national theatre for his beloved Ireland. When I think of cricket and the hope of West Indian nationhood, the phrase strikes a chord with me. Cricket binds us together. Economically, we are much divided, and sometimes seem tempted to go our separate ways. Politically, we remain deeply suspicious of each other, and therefore cannot so far summon the will to come together in the many ways we must know are necessary for practical nationhood. But cricket — there we are different and better and more confident and more together. Truly it is supremely an imaginative possession that binds our community together.
And, therefore, the question naturally follows — if in cricket we can act as one, and derive a vital sense of undivided selfhood, why not strive for the same in other sports?
For 30 years, from 1953 to 1983, there was one other united West Indian sports team: the West Indies Davis Cup tennis team. I know this well, since I played with extreme pride in the very first match for the West Indies, in their tie against the United States in Jamaica in 1953, and later captained West Indies Davis Cup teams with even greater pride in the 1960s. I think it was a tragedy that the West Indian Tennis Association meekly accepted a sudden ruling by the International Lawn Tennis Federation in 1983 that the West Indies, not constituting a country by their rules, could no longer play in the Davis Cup as a united team. Since 1983, there have been a number of years when a West Indian team drawing on the tennis talents of all the region’s countries would have done extremely well in the Davis Cup.
I cannot understand why more thought has not been given to organising sports other than cricket on a pan-West Indian basis. Nor can I understand why there has not been more debate on this issue in the Caribbean media. A West Indian presence as one nation in the Olympic Games, the Commonwealth Games, the Pan-American Games, the Davis Cup (again), the World Cups in soccer and rugby, and other world and regional events, is infinitely worth pursuing. As West Indians draw closer together, we cannot afford to neglect the tremendous emotional charge that can be derived from grassroots identification with sporting teams embracing all of us as one.
The Olympics in Athens are imminent. As we watch from thousands of miles away, imagine how splendid it would be to see all West Indians marching as one — or, at least, all the West Indian countries marching one after the other in a bloc — in the opening parade. And I am certain that, counting all the medals that will be won by West Indians, the number relative to population would be near the top of the Olympic table.