Our recent relay goldmedal win at the 2017 World Championship is the latest success story in TT’s track and field history, since Independence 55 years ago, as JANELLE DE SOUZA discovers in an interview with Dr Basil Ince, a renowned champion athlete.
Since the country’s Independence in 1962, athletics has been the main medal winner at the Olympic Games.
Athletics has been the only category in which the country has medalled, except for one bronze in swimming by George Bovell in 2004. What about Keshorn Walcott’s javelin gold in the 2012 London Olympics you ask? That too is athletics, which consists of both track and field events including hurdles, shot put, javelin throw, hammer throw, discus throw, long jump, triple jump, high jump, pole vault and other sports.
In fact, the focus on athletics has been so great that 181 of 255 slots have been filled by its participants. (Slots is the designation as some athletes participate in more than one event.)
Sunday Newsday recently spoke with Dr Basil Ince, Caribbean sports historian, past president of the National Association of Athletics Administration and former minister of external affairs, to get his take on athletics in TT.
In 1959, Ince, 84, won gold and silver medals in the 400m and 4x400m relays respectively at the Pan American Games. Also, in 1976, he served as the manager of the TT track team for the Olympic Games in Montreal, Canada, where Hasely Crawford won gold in the 100m race.
Ince was also the first Trinidadian to be ranked in the top ten of the world’s best 400-metre sprinters.
Even within athletics however, Ince said the “field” in track and field, was not as popular and not as developed as track for several reasons.
The first, according to Ince, is that there were very few local professional coaches in these events. Today, he believes local universities should be training and putting out educated coaches to be placed in every school. “When you are a baby, you crawl, then walk, then run. No one had to coach you and tell you how to do it. You just run. In field, it’s different. You have to have technical coaches and we never really had those sorts of coaches in Trinidad and Tobago.”
Ince added that while track was less technical, proper coaching was still necessary. He said the early winners in international track came from Queen’s Royal College (QRC). These included sprinters such as himself, Wendell Mottley, Edward Skinner, McDonald Bailey and others.
He said the reason QRC had so many international successes was because the coach there, John Grell, had studied abroad and returned to work at the school, and there was a succession of excellent coaches.
“I have been advocating for some time that one of the policies in the country should be to develop athletes in the schools, from primary to secondary. There should be a trained physical education teacher, someone with a Bachelor’s degree in Physical Education, in each school.”
The other main reason that track became more popular, was because field events were not very important in the United States. He said in the late 1940s and the 1950s, most Caribbean runners were trained in the US because athletic scholarships were available to them.
In fact, he said over the years, 90 per cent of the Caribbean athletes who won medals in the Olympic Games and World Championships, including field events, were trained in the US.
“The States is a magnet because you get a scholarship, you can get an education and there are coaches to train them,” Ince said. “It is easy to point out the exceptions because there are so few of them. Keshorn Walcott and Jehue Gordon. I can’t think of anyone else offhand.
“Even in Jamaica, everyone was trained in the US until all these new people like Usain Bolt, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, and Elaine Thompson. That is because Jamaica now has a coaching school for track and field, and is putting out coaches.”
Ince said a lot of people in TT did the long jump, hurdles, pole vault and other field events. He said TT had been participating in CARIFTA (Caribbean Free Trade Association) games in field events, including javelin, for years but it was only when Walcott “hit the big time” and won Olympic gold that the event became more popular with upcoming athletes.
He also lamented that if an athlete won a medal in anything other than the Olympics or the World Championships, they received little recognition or support for their achievements.
He said the fact that there were participants in these games proved interest but, again, the country did not have the trained coaches to push athletes to the professional level.
However, he stressed that regularity of competition was also necessary to improve and excel as the environment provided motivation to achieve a goal.
Ince told Sunday Newsday that the local physical infrastructure was “not that bad.”
He recalled his days in the 40s and 50s when runners trained on small grounds across the country with lanes marked out in the grass. “It was only when Hasley Crawford won the gold in ‘76 that the stadium was erected in his honour and the country had a proper track.”
Now, there were five main stadiums with proper tracks across TT but he said they were not really necessary to train sprinters. He added that when he went to the US to study, he noticed almost every high school had a track but he did not believe that it put our runners at a disadvantage. Instead, he believed more well-marked recreation grounds were needed so athletes would not have to go far to train, as long as the track was not rocky, bumpy or had holes so as to reduce injuries, running on grass was fine.
“Track people only need a pair of shoes, a shorts and a vest, and they could go anywhere and run. Field people need more. Both the public and private sectors have to help erect structures on recreation grounds, maybe build some showers, and supply equipment.”
Ince said a lack of support for sports had always been an issue including arranging and promoting meets, equipment, places to train, and scholarships. He recognised that Government had a lot to do with a relatively small amount of money.
Therefore, he suggested to athletes that they participate in as many meets as they could, win, and then go to Government or private institutions and ask for support. In that case, the likelihood of a positive response would be increased if the institutions had proof that the athlete was a good investment.
That is why, he said, it was important to have the facilities, coaches and equipment in every school as that system would give children a good base, the opportunity to excel after school and to, possibly, one day, represent the country internationally.
And there are now many more opportunities for youths to prove themselves than there were in Ince’s time. He said back then there were the Olympic Games, the Commonwealth Games, and the Pan American Games.
He recalled that in 1983 the World Championships started and after that, a number of youth games were created which allowed youths to travel the world, gain experience and better prepare them for professional sportsmanship.
According to one website, TT first participated in the Paralympic Games in 1984, sending eight athletes to compete in athletics, swimming and weightlifting. That year, Rachael Marshall won two gold medals and one bronze in athletics and swimming respectively.
TT again sent representatives in 1988, and 2012. In 2016, TT was represented by Akeem Stewart, Nyoshia Cain, and Shanntol Ince, in athletics and swimming. There, Stewart won gold in the men’s javelin and silver in the men’s discus, while Cain won bronze in the Women’s 100-metre race.
In July at the World Para Athletics Championships London 2017, Stewart, 25, won two more gold medals. He broke his own world record in the men’s javelin throw and set a new one in the men’s shot put. He competes in both open and para athletics and is the holder of the open shot put national record.
Stewart told Sunday Newsday that, in his experience, Government did not support athletes in their training but would provide them with plane tickets to compete for national events. He personally received financial support from private entities.
He said when he started training in field events, he invested in his personal equipment although it was very expensive. He also used substitutes for certain equipment such as weight plates as discus, and lamp poles as weights. “There were a lot of problems but I never let that hold me back. I was self-motivated and determined.”
The bigger problem that was “killing the field events” was a lack of competition as there were only three to five local meets annually.
“That is very tough because if the athlete does not have enough competitions before the major championship, you are sending the athlete to fail. So it’s tough,” he said.
Ince said over the decades there had been very little improvement when it came to support for field athletes. He said there had been an increase of interest in the field events since Walcott’s gold medal and so he donated some of his older equipment for the use of younger athletes at track and field clubs in Tobago.
Recognising the difficulties Stewart had, and still has to face, Ince said, “Akeem is charting the way for other people who compete in paralympic sports. Now people are more aware of it... When you are paving the way it’s harder for you than for everybody else.”