Things Then, Things Now: A 60 Year Perspective of School Athletics

Article by: 
Patrick Robinson
September 16, 2017

The track and field season for schools in the 1950’s was confined to only one of the three terms of the school year (the first term back then) and spanned the 3 month period January - March.

In the first two months of the term, a short period by today’s standard, athletes would prepare to compete on their schools’ Sports Day, which in those days was a major event in school life. Sports Day ranked, on the competition calendar, second only to “Champs”, which followed a month later. With the exception of a few “elite” Class 1 athletes who would compete with the seniors in the months following Champs, that was it, for 99% of Champs’ athletes - a mere three months of track and field action for the year. Carifta Games, Penn Relays etc. which we now take for granted were events yet to come.

Contrast today, with athletes training and competing for nine months of the year. This triples the time spent devoted to track and field – with profound consequences, two of which come readily to mind. First, the phenomenal improvement in performance of today’s school athletes vis-a-vis yesteryear’s, is in no small way attributable to the much longer (three fold) time spent engaged in the sport. Of the perhaps hundreds of jaw dropping performances that could be cited in support of this theory, for the sake of brevity, mention will be made of two only.

Calabar’s Class 1, 4 x100 M Relay time of 39.08 seconds in Champs 2015 would in 1964, have broken the world record, earned them a silver medal in the Olympics (gold to USA in 39.06 seconds) and the distinction of being the second fastest team in track and field history. The 40.29 seconds ran by Calabar’s Class 2 4x100 M team in 2016, bettered the 40.6 seconds done by Jamaica’s men’s team ( which included world record holder Dennis Johnson ) in the Central American & Caribbean Games of 1962, incidentally the very first track meet to be held in our Nation Stadium. One cannot but marvel that the teams referenced above were from a single school and not a Jamaican All Schools team which Americans believed to be the case in times past when Kingston College first entered the Penn Relays and immediately started dominating; but that’s another story.

Another profound consequence of track athletes devoting nine months in a year to the sport is the preclusion of their participation in other school sports. The days of track athletes performing and excelling in one, two or three other sports are gone. The likes of a Mabricio Ventura (K.C.), Mickey West (Wolmers), Noel Sproul (J.C.), Lyndie Headley (K.C.), Ali McNab (Cornwall), Alva Anderson (J.C.) and Ernie Hayden (Munro), Lawson Matthews (Calabar), Milton Powell (Wolmers), we will never again see . Today, with rare exception (e.g. Jaheel Hyde), it’s strictly specialization in school sports.

One is left to wonder, how many mediocre track athletes who possess exceptional inborn potential to become truly great cricketers, footballers, swimmers etc. never see that potential realized - a consequence of never being exposed to another sport, track and field consuming all their time. Even the three month period away from active training/competition is an integral part of the overall track program. It provides the essential rest period to aid recovery from the previous season, readying athletes for the season ahead. Today, we have development meets in abundance. The Douglas Forrest, Queens/Grace Jackson and Youngster Goldsmith meets are but three of the many. On a single day (a Saturday) there has been as many as six meets across the island. Not so in the 1950’s. then, occasionally there would be dual and triangular meets between schools.

There are fond memories of “country schools” Happy Grove High in St. Thomas and Knox College in Spauldings, hosting Kingston College athletes in dual meets. The trip to and from the country in the back of a McCaulay’s Company covered transport truck with backless wooden benches serving as seats, was great fun. the after competition function including a tasty dinner, the camaraderie , indeed the entire day’s outing formed fond memories that have lasted.

Today, our young athletes travel in relative comfort in cars and buses to meets over the island e.g. Milo Western Relays. More than that, they jet around the world to meets in the Americas, the Caribbean, Europe, Asia and Australia. By age 18 years, it is not uncommon for an athlete to have made ten or more foreign trips to compete in meets, viz.: Penn Relays, Carifta Games, World Junior and Youth Championships, Central American & Caribbean Junior Championships, Pan Am Juniors. Lyndie Headley (K.C.), competed in six (6) Champs, won the Class 1 100 yards, 220 yards and 120 yards Hurdles events in 1962 at Sabina Park, but never made it beyond our shores to compete as a school boy. Incidentally, after 1962, the “ yards “ measurement was superseded by “ metres “ in 1963, when Champs moved to its new home, the newly built National Stadium.

Foreign travel is a big deal, especially for teenagers. It is a bigger deal when it is ‘all expenses paid’ and others (team offi cials) arrange and supervise all aspects of the travel. The athlete just simply has to show up.

Track and field is hard, gruelling, disciplined work that requires tremendous motivation for the work to be sustained. The prospect of competing in foreign lands must act as a big motivator, helping the athlete endure the hard work necessary to excel. The prospect of foreign trips also serve as a powerful recruiting tool, forever attracting newcomers to the sport, an actuality that augurs well for track and field in Jamaica. Today, schools, almost without exception have the benefit of the services of at least one certified coach. This fact is arguably the single most important reason for Jamaica’s high placing in world athletics. It was the late, great Teddy McCook, founder of these Gibson McCook Relays, who when he was JAAA’s president, instituted the large scale training of coaches so that, in time, and here I quote, “ every school can have a quali_ ed coach”.

Fifty, sixty years ago there were no certified coaches. there was little in the way of science informed coaching, as is the case today. Back then, the task of coaching fell to former athletes (usually old students), teachers, sports masters and a few famous coaches like G.C. Foster, Ted Lamont, Herb McKenley, Dennis Johnson, Keith Gardener and the visionary genius Foggy Burrowes, none of whom was certified. Today’s school athletes are awash with gear and equipment for training and competition, thanks to the help of sponsors and other sources. those who reach the level of national representation may be completely outtted two or more times in a season. But there was a time when some athletes ran barefooted even at the National Stadium. It’s going to be a surprise to many to learn that our former sprint queen, the great Merlene Ottey, in her very first race at the

National Stadium, ran barefooted. This is just a sampling of the many changes which have occurred in schools’ track and field over the last sixty years as seen through the eyes of one observer. Despite the many changes, one thing has remained unchanged throughout, the backbone of Jamaica’s track and field program remains Volunteerism.