Mon | Aug 19, 2019

Hubert Lawrence | Carifta is good for Jamaica

Published:Thursday | April 18, 2019 | 12:22 AM
Jamaican standouts (from left) Shericka Jackson, Megan Tapper (nee Simmonds) and Omar McLeod share a pose at the Norman Manley International Airport after returning to the island following their successes at the 2013 Carifta Games. All three went on to represent Jamaica at the Olympics and World Championships, with Jackson and McLeod winning medals at both.

The current Jamaican anti-Carifta Games sentiment isn’t new. Jamaica is so dominant at the 48-year-old track and field junior event that some fans might just be bored. Add the tight schedule between the ISSA/GraceKennedy Boys and Girls’ Athletics Championships and the Carifta Trials and between the Games themselves and the Penn Relays this year, and the discontent has been aggravated.

However, the Games still play an important role.

It is the first opportunity for young Jamaican athletes to experience international competition. The Carifta experience takes them out of familiar surroundings to other countries via air travel, and out of their school teams into a national team.

It builds loyalty to the black-green-and-gold. Just as importantly, it simulates what they will experience at the highest level of the sport.

EMULATE CARIFTA

There’s nothing else quite like it. In fact, international officials, including IAAF President Sebastian Coe, have urged other regions to copy it.

Take the Carifta Games off the calendar and you find there isn’t anything else that plays the experience-building role for the youngest ones. Every two years, the Caribbean Union of Teachers stages a 15 and under event. In 2017, the IAAF staged the last World Under 18-Championships in Nairobi, Kenya. That’s where Wayne Pinnock of Kingston College rededicated himself to athletics. Now, he is one of the globe’s pre-eminent long jump prospects.

The landscape also features the Youth Olympics and the Commonwealth Youth Games, which cater to athletes under 18 years of age. However, these wonderful events are often staged so late in the year that rest for the youngsters is compromised.

This was the case with the 2018 Youth Olympics in Buenos Aires, Argentina, which took place in October.

The remainder of the international junior calendar caters to athletes from age 16 to 19. That bars the terrific Clayton twins, Tina and Tia, from competing at this year’s Pan-American Junior Championships. Believe it or not, Tia and Tina are just 14.

Many of the region’s greats, including Usain Bolt, Veronica Campbell-Brown, Yohan Blake and Melaine Walker, benefited from exposure at Carifta and the World Under-18 Championships. Now that the latter meet is off the schedule, Carifta is a little bit more crucial.

One guess about Asafa Powell’s disappointing 2004 Olympic 100-metre showing is that he lacked experience on the international stage. Discovered as a diamond in the rough, Powell missed the ladder of junior meets that moulded his peers. Perhaps, if the former footballer had turned to track earlier and gotten experience at the Carifta Games, his 2004 Olympic debut might have had a happy ending.

Thankfully, he matured, brought the 100-metre world record to Jamaica, and became a three-time Olympic 100-metre finalist and a winner of individual medals at two World Championships.

In the same way, the Penn Relays helps by confronting our young athletes with the vagaries of weather. At the 2017 World Championships, a strong Jamaican team was undone by the London chill. Bolt went down, baton in hand, in the 4x100m final. Anniesha McLaughlin-Whilby suffered the same way in the women’s 4x400m final. Ronald Levy pulled just before his 110-metre hurdles heat. Blake couldn’t run flat out in the 200 metres because of the 13-degree weather and the risk of injury.

Lest we forget, Jamaica’s only gold medal came from hurdler supreme Omar McLeod, who is accustomed to cold weather from his ongoing sojourn in the United States.

In addition, Penn Relays often sees non-stars get college scholarships.

The underlying point is that Carifta and Penn still are helpful to the Jamaican track and field effort. We remove them at our peril.

Hubert Lawrence is a well-respected international track and field analyst and commentator.