It’s the old adage that the Caribbean produces world-beaters in spite of its sports systems rather than because of it. While measures have been put into place and the rhetoric from various sports ministries across the islands hint at an understanding of the critical thinking required, the Caribbean is still playing catch up with regard to providing the needs to enable us to truly milk the talent upon these shores.
The ‘requirements’ here are not the draconian measures employed by a 1970s East Germany determined to use sport for political propaganda, though their scouting methods and talent development centres now serve as the blueprint for nations that have realised the exposure and patriotic fulfilment (national confidence) that comes with international sporting success.
Governments in the region have mostly grasped the importance of global sporting victories; the problem is one of implementation of ideas. We boast wonderful plans, we build great structures, but are hard pressed to create the infrastructure that means the difference between a ‘hard luck’ fourth place and a top step of the podium or place in a major final.
Of course there are exceptions, considerably more than just ‘notable’, but these are blips along a flat line of inconsistency. Nations love crowing about repeated multiple-medal hauls at major events because this hints at a developed society that is able to generate consistent success. It’s good for exposure, good for trade, good for tourism and as alluded to earlier, great for national pride with the spin offs of work ethic, production and brotherhood. Thus, team wins in particular are invaluable, especially when there is a smaller population to draw upon.
Before we delve into the constraints that limit our sporting prowess, let us be clear that the frustration stems from the evidence before us in the form of the exceptional groups that made use of the existing infrastructure to go on to the stratospheric heights of world supremacy. The Jamaican sprint teams of the past decade, the netball teams of various territories and of course the West Indies cricket team (1975-1995), prove what can be achieved by simply scratching the surface of institutionalised sport development. As any member of the dwindling base that is the current Windies fan will tell you, the talent is there but the framework is not.
Yet, in 21st Century Caribbean, there are reasons to be hopeful that the matter is being meaningfully addressed: while new stadia are constructed (Grenada is now building the Kirani James Stadium courtesy of EC$ 85 million from China, while Trinidad has turned the soil on its long awaited velodrome and swimming facilities), the push by institutions such as UWI, in offering courses and degrees in fields such as Sports Management, means that regionally, we are beginning to follow the example of Jamaican athletics in producing home grown athletes. The move away from being reliant upon simply providing the necessary buildings is a crucial one.
Brick and mortar do not produce sportspeople; they only provide the venues. For far too long the Caribbean has constructed sites amongst fanfare as provisions for budding sports stars who’ve failed to emerge. It was always the case that despite the stadia, large and small, the required expertise existed in more developed nations. Even the all-conquering Windies squads benefited in no small part from the players undertaking the season long rigours of County Cricket, the finishing school where they perfected their art.
Bolt, Powell and Fraser-Pryce emerged from a totally localised network of coaches, doctors, nutritionists…and were not the products of the American collegiate athletic circuit. Suddenly, there was no longer the perception that another country needed to refine our raw talent.
A thought shift occurred when the likes of Bolt, Powell and Fraser-Pryce emerged from a totally localised network of coaches, doctors, nutritionists (cue mention of the infamous Jamaican yam), and were not the products of the American collegiate athletic circuit. Suddenly, there was no longer the perception that another country needed to refine our raw talent. Their successes paved the way for others to follow: witness T&T’s Jehue Gordon, who hones his world beating hurdling skill on local shores while completing his Sports Management degree at his local university. Should this pattern continue amongst the next generation – infrastructure would prove essential. Within a decade the Caribbean can have multiple local systems serving a number of disciplines.
The idealistic vision must have clearly defined goals, a strategic plan to meet those targets and a regional set of rules across all sports. Each Caribbean nation has to view the full complement of their sports as the single brand that they are seeking to develop. As such, various federations under the national umbrella must adhere to the aforementioned collective law; easier said than done when different rules exist for each sport’s governing body. In short, the development of said strategic plan requires nationalistic thinking. The efforts of some governments regarding this issue are to be commended: T&T’s SPORTT Company, a State Board entrusted with the marketing and maintenance of sports has tread new ground and ensured that a number of teams have been the best ever prepared squads to represent their nation.
The timeframe for reaping the rewards of infrastructural investment will require considerable patience because many of our systems are starting from scratch. As an example, the United Kingdom wallowed in the sporting doldrums twenty years ago, with a cricket team still being beaten by lower ranked teams such as New Zealand and Zimbabwe, and a football team unable to qualify for the World Cup. There was little investment for less popular sports and sports as a whole relied upon dedicated volunteers and traditional revenue streams not appropriate for the big business that sport was then developing into. It all came to a head when the UK won the solitary gold medal at Atlanta 1996. Following the national outcry, a World Class Performance Plan was set up whereby lottery funding was given to each sport – after each federation submitted their own plans and requirements. Thereafter, each sport was granted a larger or smaller slice of the funding based upon performances i.e. medals gained, at major championships. The result? Within four short years the sprouts began to shoot up at the 2000 Olympics, the cricket team climbed steadily to claim the number one world ranking while the UK started to develop and dominate in non-UK traditional sports such as cycling and badminton. Private enterprise came knocking, eager to cash in on the positive brand association.
At the risk of cries of opposition to modern day colonialism, the Caribbean needs to follow this example, but tweak it to suit our particular needs. This is where regional thinking comes in: quite simply the majority of the islands on their own do not possess the monetary means to make the needed investment in infrastructure, making collective funding an appealing option. Yet, given that after three decades of pontificating about a West Indies cricket academy, we are still unable to decide upon a location, our divisiveness may yet prevent this being a viable option.
Collective investment would see the larger economic powers of the region putting in more; they also possess greater experience on the global scale and there is the chance of these nations exercising that strength. On paper, pooling our resources is the way forward; the reality – given our sometimes fractious history – is that it probably wouldn’t work.
Money. Money. Money. To redefine our sporting infrastructure is crucial, especially if we tie this in with the region’s chief money spinner, tourism. Dwindling tourist numbers has to force a radical re-think to get visitors through our airports. And sports tourism offers the best avenue to achieve this. Our climate, topography, geography, exchange rates and language makes us the perfect candidates, with our target markets eight hours or less away. We have already established the need to exploit the tourism market, but our competitors have jumped the gun and we are not yet even in the blocks to face the starters pistol. Think Australia, think South Africa, think Qatar and Dubai; all have invested heavily in sports tourism, initially attracting persons from temperate regions, and currently attracting sport-loving fans around the world year-round.
The truth is this offers the best opportunity for the Caribbean to develop the necessary infrastructure for our sport: by using the offshoot of the already established network of tourism. But we have to be in a position to offer not just the facilities but the expertise as well. During the winter/off-season athletes and teams search for the best in pre-season camps. Create the best and they will return and others will follow. If we were able to offer platforms for nutritionists, biomechanics, sports psychologists etcetera to conduct their pre-season groundwork in the idyllic setting of the islands, we’d be onto a money-spinning winner. By extension, our local athletes and coaches would gain from working and training alongside seasoned professionals and we’d be on our way.
Where the private sector has been targeted is through the franchise system of team ownership as part of a recognised event. The all-important television revenue streams come into play here, witness the success of the initial Caribbean T20 tournament in 2013. The opportunity presents itself to hold winter events to embellish the sports tourism package, across all sports. Even though they may not all generate TV funds, they will provide healthy competition at the end of a long training block and create more events for the locally based athlete. Franchises are the future that some Caribbean sports need to look to, building fan loyalty and attracting sponsors. Of course easier said than done, but it has to be a total marketing package, with team members trained to be media savvy, offering the subliminal positive association that will attract the private investment.
The successes where we continue to punch above our weight, proves our competitiveness in an increasingly professional sports world. We have the vision in some quarters but we need that massive push to make the shift that will benefit our societies and allow our supremely talented sportspeople to reach their full potential. Creative thinking can aid the radical transformation through linkages between the private sector and the tourist industry. The right noises are being made, but the think-tanks need to move swiftly. Our regional talent deserves no less.