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Reality Checks

Express - October 1, 2000
By Raffique Shah

BEFORE the wee hours of last week Thursday morning when Ato Boldon faced the starter in the 200 metres finals at the Sydney Olympics, if anyone had dared to tell Trinidadians and Tobagonians that a gold medal for this country’s super-sprinter was not a sure thing, he or she would have probably been lynched on the spot.

Or, more than likely, the person would have been deemed a traitor to the country. Yet, in the face of all the hype of “Golden Boldon”, there were those among us who knew of the uncertainties of such events, and more than that, the fact that the absence from the race of Michael Johnson and Maurice Greene did not necessarily mean that Ato was sure to win.

Let me say that well before the Games, as someone who follows the world of track and field closely, I had felt that our champ stood a better chance of winning gold in the 100 metres than in the 200. Of course, I had my reasons for adopting that line, which seemed strange to those who succumbed to emotions and put patriotism and propaganda before reality. Whereas before Sydney Ato seemed to be incapable of beating Greene in the 100, by the time the Games came around the American was nursing a minor injury, and more than that, he had been beaten in a few races.

In fact, when I wrote (in The Independent) about the 100, I had all but touted Ato for gold. That was based partly on how he looked (I’ve never seen his body in better condition) and on partiality towards one of “our boy”. Greene was obviously the man to beat, but I felt Ato could have done it.

Still, as the experts will tell you, anything can happen in nine-point-something-seconds. And something did happen: Greene, racing in his first Olympics, turned on the demon inside of him and sprinted away to glory and gold.

That race was a treat in other ways, too. There was Barbados’ Obadele Thompson. And Kim Collins of St Kitts: God, was I happy for him! For so many years have Jamaica and Cuba produced sprinters-to-quarter-milers of class, tiny Trinidad and Tobago had to settle for the occasional medal (Mottley and the Tokyo quartet in 1964, Hasely upsetting the field in Montreal), and the tinier Eastern Caribbean islands have fared even worse. So Collins must be a dream come true for our brethren in St Kitts and the OECS.

But back to the 200, and to us doing some reality checks before we end up shedding tears or drinking ourselves into stupor. Many people forgot that Ato had suffered a serious injury last year that put him out of the Grand Prix circuit.

During this year’s Grand Prix, he did the sub-20/sub-10 double only once, and many of his times were slow by his standards.

In the 200 final, which came after however many rounds in both sprints, he had to summon his reserves and contend with that niggling injury at the back of his mind. He said afterwards that he had “run out of gas”. I believe he was also thinking of not pushing himself harder in order to avoid hurting so badly that it would put him out of contention for the rest of the season.

Still, don’t write off Ato for the year—not yet. There are some big races coming up in Europe (and Japan, I believe), and given his class, once he retains form he could stamp his name in the book of world records. Whereas in the Olympics athletes are restricted to that “one moment in time”, the world record could come on any day on which everything works for you. That, in my view, is not beyond Ato. Greene may well find himself kissing the gold medal even as he kisses goodbye to the world record in the 100 metres!

I began this piece by referring to Trinis going crazy over our sporting heroes based more on “vaps” than on realities. Worse, they are pushed into these “off side” positions (to borrow a football term) by officials whose forte is hope, not work, and by media personnel who fall for hype, who fail to do their homework. I sound this warning at a critical time, not for Ato, since there is no more pressure on him to perform (which is why he’d probably break the 100 record), but for our football team.

Already, watching the thousands of fans who cram the local venues at which matches are played (most of whom seem to know little or nothing about the game) and the mas’ that follows the team’s victory run, you get the feeling they are sure that Russel Latapy and the boys will get to the finals, scheduled for Korea/ Japan in 2002.

While it is true that our team is playing good “ball”, one still detects flaws in both our forward and defence lines. Coach Ian Porterfield will have noted these and is certain to work on them, especially now that we are assured of a place in the final round for one of three Concacaf places for the World Cup.

He has almost a year to work on these weaknesses, and we all hope that the players will overcome them and be ready for the tough matches ahead. But while every Trini and ‘Gonian would want the team to get one of those three places, we have a long way to go before we get there.

Let us not delude ourselves into thinking that we are already in Seoul or Tokyo. We have beaten Mexico, yes, and that for me is our biggest achievement to date. But come next year, with World Cup fever gripping the globe, don’t you think the US, Mexico, Jamaica and several Central American teams will be working overtime to book their tickets to Tokyo?

Of course, we stand a great chance—probably the best since we were robbed in Haiti of a berth to Germany in 1974, and in 1989 when our local officials ensured that the “road to Italy” was mined with an overcrowded stadium and physically exhausted players.

It is time for sports fans to do reality checks, for us to read between sportswriters’ lines, and most of all, to distrust everything you hear from sports officials.

Sure we have sports talent that is disproportionate for a country of our size. But we must be careful when assessing this against a global background just as we must be wary of self-seeking officials, especially those who would want to use patriotic fans as political footballs.

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