Top ten Caribbean Olympic hopefuls 2008

Who will bring the Caribbean Olympic glory in Beijing? Kwame Laurence assesses the regional hopefuls for 2008

Asafa Powell of Jamaica celebrates after winning the men`s 100m during the IAAF World Athletics in 2006 in Melbourne, Australia. Photograph courtesy MIKE DADSWELL/GETTY IMAGES SPORTCuba`s Dayron Robles competes to place first in the men`s 60m hurdles in Stuttgart, Germany, in February. Photograph courtesy OLIVER LANG/AFP/GETTY IMAGESCuban wrestler Yandro Quintana, red, defeats Masuod Jokar to win gold in the men`s freestyle 60kg at the 2004 Summer Olympics. Photograph courtesy ANDREAS RENTZ/BONGARTS/GETTY IMAGESFelix Sanchez of the Dominican Republic warms up before the men`s 400m hurdles final of the World Athletics Championships, 2007. Photograph courtesy MICHELLE STEELE/GETTY IMAGES SPORTJamaican track and field star and Olympic medalist Veronica Campbell-Brown training in Orlando, Florida. Photograph courtesy ON TRACK MANAGEMENTOlympic bronze medallist George Bovell III, winner of Trinidad and Tobago`s first medal ever in swimming. Photograph courtesy ANTHONY HARRISTrinidadian long jumper Rhonda Watkins at the National Track and Field Championships, 2007. Photograph courtesy ROBERT TAYLOR

The bulk of the medals that will be earned by Caribbean athletes at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing will make their way to Havana.

At the last Olympics, in Athens, four years ago, the Cubans captured a total of 27 medals. For a country with a population of 11 million, that’s an amazing feat. The northern Caribbean nation’s performance in Greece, however, came as no surprise, and was in keeping with what their athletes had done at previous games—31 medals in 1992, 25 in 1996 and 29 four years later.

The Cubans stand head and shoulders above the rest of the Caribbean, not only in terms of the number of Olympic medals but also the variety of disciplines in which they earn them. Four other Caribbean nations appeared on the Athens 2004 medal table. Together, they accumulated nine medals, eight of them in track and field, with only the swimming bronze bagged by Trinidad and Tobago’s George Bovell III lending some variety.

Cuba, on the other hand, collected 27 medals in nine sports—track and field, boxing, wrestling, baseball, canoeing, judo, taekwondo, shooting and volleyball.

An assessment of the Caribbean’s best Beijing medal prospects is dominated by Cuba, with Jamaica a distant second. So, in the interest of balance, Caribbean Beat is focusing on just a couple Cuban medal hopefuls—a sprint hurdler and a wrestler.

As far as Jamaica goes, it’s all about speed on the track. A Bahamian jumper and a hurdler from the Dominican Republic will be under the microscope as well. And add to that mix a swimmer, a jumper and a group of sprinters from Trinidad and Tobago.

Dayron Robles

Cuba, track & field

The men’s 110 metres hurdles will attract more attention than usual at the 2008 Olympic Games. All of China will be hoping Liu Xiang retains his sprint hurdles title in Beijing.

Dayron Robles is one of the athletes capable of raining on China’s parade.

Robles is just 21, but is already among the fastest men of all time in the 110 hurdles. His personal best at the time of writing, 12.92 seconds, is just four-hundredths of a second outside Liu’s world record.

In March, at the 2008 World Indoor Championships in Spain, Robles was left in his blocks in the 60m hurdles heats, mistakenly thinking that Liu had false-started. He was bitterly disappointed, but it is a low in his career that could work to the young Cuban’s advantage, for he will certainly not be short on motivation when he squares off against his Chinese rival in Beijing.

Asafa Powell

Jamaica, track & field

Staying with speed, let’s examine the credentials of Asafa Powell. If the fastest man of all time cannot deliver the ultimate Olympic prize—100 metres gold—he will be haunted for another four years by the “choker” tag that has unfortunately been attached to his name.

In 2004, he finished fifth in the Olympic 100 final. And last year, in Osaka, Japan, he faded to third in the World Championship final.

Just two weeks after that “failure,” Powell lowered his own world record by three-hundredths of a second, the sizzling 9.74 seconds run fuelling the notion that he does not have the mental strength to handle the really big occasions.

Here’s hoping “The Fastest Man in the World” finds a way to put his best foot forward on the biggest global sporting stage of all.

Veronica Campbell-Brown

Jamaica, track & field

Women of substance. That’s the best way to describe the group of female sprinters who will fly the Jamaica flag in Beijing: Sherone Simpson. Kerron Stewart, and reigning Olympic 200 metres champion Campbell-Brown.

In Athens, Campbell-Brown added 100m bronze to her half-lap gold. The following year she earned 100 silver at the World Championships And then, at the 2007 edition of the global meet, the former world junior double sprint champion turned silver into gold. For good measure, Campbell-Brown copped second spot in the longer sprint.

All things being equal, it will be extremely difficult to keep this 26-year-old sprinter off the podium in Beijing.

Usain Bolt

Jamaica, track & field

Phenomenal! Absolutely phenomenal! Forgive the repetition, but phenomenal is definitely the word that comes to mind when you think about this Jamaican sprint sensation.

Young Bolt’s compatriot the 100-metres world-record-holder Asafa Powell would probably have been Caribbean Beat’s “lead-off leg” choice for our Olympic preview not long ago. But when a 21-year-old who specialises in the 200 metres throws his hat into the ring in the shorter sprint—and proceeds to become the second fastest man in history, by improving on his personal best by more than a quarter-second, he demands top billing.

Bolt was always going to be a contender in the men’s half-lap event at Beijing 2008. After all, a 19.75 seconds personal best and silver at the 2007 World Championships cannot be ignored.

Few, though, would have factored Bolt in as a 100m threat. His 9.76 seconds at the Jamaica International Invitational, in early May, changed that. If Bolt runs in both sprints, the man with a name made for headlines could leave Beijing with two individual medals round his neck.

Yandro Quintana

Cuba, wrestling

At the 2004 Olympics, Cuban wrestler Yandro Quintana was head of the class of the men’s freestyle 60 kilogrammes field, whipping Iran’s Masoud Jokar in the final. Quintana is now 28 and still among the best wrestlers in the world.

Quintana sent out a strong warning ahead of Beijing, when he struck gold at the 2007 Pan American Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. In April this year, the Cuban topped the 60kg division at an Olympic qualifying tournament in Switzerland. Quintana had to work hard for his Beijing berth, getting the better of five wrestlers, including Iran’s 2006 world champion Seyed Morad Mohammadi.

Donald Thomas

Bahamas, track & field

In January 2006, Donald Thomas was a basketballer at Lindenwood University, in Missouri, USA. Today, he’s the reigning world champion in the men’s high jump and a contender for gold at Beijing.

Thomas is a real-life Cinderella, who wore basketball shoes in his first high-jump competition, graduated to cross trainers shortly after, and donned a pair of pole-vault shoes to jump a personal best 2.35 metres and strike gold at the 2007 World Championships in Osaka, Japan.

The Bahamas, the Caribbean and indeed the world are anxiously awaiting the next chapter of the Donald Thomas Story. Twelve months after earning Osaka honours, he will bid for the top prize in Beijing.

This is the stuff great movies are made of!

Felix Sanchez

Dominican Republic, track & field

Felix Sanchez is to the Dominican Republic what Hasely Crawford is to Trinidad and Tobago. That is, the 400 metres hurdler is the DR’s first and only Olympic gold medallist, the “Dictator” romping to victory in 47.63 seconds in Athens four years ago.

Sanchez is expected to be in Beijing, bidding for a repeat. The man best equipped to do a “Kryptonite” job on “Super Felix” is a Trinidadian: reigning world champion Kerron Clement was born in T&T, though he competes for the United States. Sanchez is New York-born but rakes in the global honours for the country of his parents’ birth.

At 22, Clement should have a decided edge on his 30-year-old rival. Sanchez, though, has proven championship pedigree, and is not likely to surrender his Olympic title easily.

Rhonda Watkins

Trinidad and Tobago, track & field

A female Olympic medallist is an alien concept for Trinidad and Tobago. In recent times, though, it is a goal that does not seem as elusive as it once did.

At the 2004 Games, Candice Scott finished ninth in the hammer throw, and Cleopatra Borel-Brown took tenth spot in the shot put. Kelly-Ann Baptiste is one to watch as well. In April, the 21-year-old sprinter led the world in the 100-metres dash, thanks to her 11.06 seconds national record run, in Texas.

But there’s a young woman from T&T who has already struck gold at the global level, a jumper who has what it takes to climb the podium at the 2008 Olympic Games. Rhonda Watkins outclassed her rivals in the long jump at the 2006 World Junior Championships in Beijing, the UCLA student grabbing gold with a 6.46 metres leap. Watkins will return in August, keen to complete a junior-senior double that would write her name into the history books.

George Bovell III

Trinidad and Tobago, swimming

Before George Bovell III entered the pool in Athens on August 19, 2004, Trinidad and Tobago had never earned an Olympic swimming medal. Exactly one minute, 58.80 seconds after he set off on his four-lap journey, a new chapter of Trinidad and Tobago history was written, as Bovell bagged bronze in the men’s 200 metres individual medley.

Bovell will be back in the medal hunt in Beijing, but not in the 200 IM. Instead, he’ll bid for honours in the 50m and 100m freestyle events, a knee injury forcing the switch.

Last year, Bovell gave a glimpse of his prowess in the freestyle, bagging 50m bronze at the Pan Am Games in Brazil with a 22.36-second swim.

Men’s 4×100 metres relay

Trinidad and Tobago, track & field

Darrel Brown has a 100-metres personal best of 9.99 seconds. Marc Burns has stopped the clock at 9.96. And Richard Thompson bolted to a 10 flat personal record in April.But while each of the three will have started the Olympic year with precious-metal goals in the 100, the sprint relay probably represents Trinidad and Tobago’s best shot at a Beijing medal. On paper, a 4x100m relay team including Brown, Burns and Thompson can beat the world.

Olympic titles, though, are won on the track, and not on paper.

Trinidad and Tobago, minus the injured Brown and Thompson, did not even qualify to compete in the sprint relay at the 2007 World Championships, in Osaka, Japan.

Hopefully, by the time you read this Trinidad and Tobago will have run fast enough to ensure an Olympic berth.