Making Waves and Sporting Greatness

Alia Atkinson

Alia Atkinson, 100m breaststroke finalist

Jamaica had its first medal brush in the 30th Olympiad in London on Monday afternoon (Jamaica time) when Alia Atkinson powered through the waters of the Aquatic Centre for the finals of the 100m breaststroke. By a hair’s breadth, Atkinson placed fourth. And in the Olympics where a hair is all that separates glory from failure, Atkinson’s fourth-place is far from failure because, well… it’s swimming.

One of the greatest paradoxes about Jamaicans (and I’m told Caribbean people in general) is that we might be surrounded by water, but we don’t swim. We have wonderful beaches where we cavort, drink rum or coconut water (or both), eat jerk chicken and steam fish and we’ll even go as far as splashing about in the water, but swimming, … not really. For some of us the sea is just the place where you go to break the curse of salt and wash off your bad luck. So it’s absolutely great that we have a swimmer in the 2012 Olympics, one who made it to the finals and almost earned a medal, creating a national record.

Alia Atkinson

Atkinson did her country proud by placing fourth in the 100m breaststroke

Atkinson wasn’t merely swimming against her competitors in the pool at the Aquatic Centre; she was going against a tide of tradition that has in the main kept the Caribbean out of the competitive waters. She is not alone. If Wikipedia can be believed (with the requisite servings of salt of course) we have had a few decent swimmers. However swimming is not athletics.

The separation between the two isn’t a matter of history. It’s a matter of resource. It’s been noted by various experts (and non-experts like myself) that Jamaica has been able to create its current glorious crop of sprinters because our runners are developed at every stage of the education system. Even from our early education (basic school) days when we are just learning to count to ten, running (often with a lime and spoon) is a part of the school’s extra-curricula activity.

Every school doesn’t have a pool. Every school doesn’t have a language or science lab. Every school doesn’t do dance or drama or lawn tennis, or table tennis. But every school has a patch of grass or dirt where they can have a sports day and that sport is usually running.

Swimming on the other hand, is largely relegated to the elite with many high schools, including some of our very established and highly respected institutions, having no access to swimming pools. Additionally, as far as I am aware (and I admit to not being very aware) even our athletic tradition was developed more from well-meaning private groups or individuals rather than a general national policy geared at developing athletics. That policy (I think) is just coming around now.

And as Atkinson’s interview with Gleaner reporter Andre Lowe highlighted, getting the sponsorship support to keep you in the game is far from easy. Though not complaining, Atkinson remarked that she hoped to be able to garner enough support to be able to continue to train through to the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. And while we hope she is able to, the trick of it is that we tend to support winners, not those who have a great chance at winning. The attention she has thus far received may well earn Atkinson her much needed support.

Gi dem a run! When the sprints begin every pan shall knock and every bell shall ring!

Atkinson’s performance allowed many Jamaicans to feel an additional swell of pride we were waiting to tap into later this week, because when the running begins every pan shall knock and every bell shall ring. Recently there seems to have been greater effort to support other sports which will is very welcome. Our athletes Arthur Wint, Herb McKenley, Donald Quarrie, Merlene Ottey, Grace Jackson, through to our current crop of Asafa Powell, Melaine Walker, Shelly-Ann Fraser Pryce, Veronica Campbell Brown, Yohan Blake and Usain Bolt are a huge part of Brand Jamaica and the reason we pack a cultural punch that resonates far beyond our size. These athletes allow us to sport our greatness. It gives us something else to be proud of in our wonderful little country where so much goes so wrong.

I remember being downtown during the 2008 Olympics and a newspaper vendor was selling the afternoon Star. She looks at me through the open window of my trusty 1996 Suzuki Swift points at the paper and  says “Downtown girl a front, country girl a back! No uptown girl!” The “girls” being referenced were Shelly Ann Fraser-Pryce and Veronica Campbell Brown. But what the vendor was pointing to is that Jamaican athletics is dominated by many who strive against great economic and social odds. The growing cadre of locally grown athletes have further cemented it position as a valid path and it has certainly been an inspiration to others to attempt to achieve such greatness.

However, regardless of how my heart soars and races along with our runners, we can’t all run. So it’s important that other routes be developed, whether they be other athletic, artistic or academic avenues. Indeed, as this is Jamaica, let me not ask too much. We don’t need the avenues – those wide, well-paved, tree-lined routes. Just a give us track and we will cut and go through.

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