Ladies and gentlemen,
I would like to thank the RJR Sports Foundation for inviting me to speak tonight. I am not one usually to take on such mammoth tasks, but this is one I could not turn down and I hope I am able to do it some justice. As someone who wore Jamaican and West Indies colors with great pride, it gives me tremendous pleasure to be here tonight.
In recent years, a group of supremely gifted sprinters have ensured that the island of Jamaica is much more than just a speck on the world map. The pinnacle of their dominance came in London last summer, the fiftieth year of our Independence, with the hugely talented Usain Bolt at the forefront. For those that don’t know much about Jamaica, Bolt’s flamboyance and yellow yam-and-chicken-nugget eating habits, have provided a small window into our world, much like Bob Marley’s music did more than a generation ago. But as we all know, there’s a lot more to this island than reggae and exciting Olympians.
In sport, Jamaica’s achievements can be traced back to the days before the Second World War. In 1939, George Headley became the first batsman to score centuries in both innings of a Test at Lord’s, and remained the only batsman to do so until Graham Gooch repeated the feat in 1990 – 51 years later. Had Headley played in the sort of formidable teams that I was fortunate enough to be part of, others wouldn’t now glibly refer to him as the Black Bradman. It could easily have been Bradman being called the White Headley.
Headley was born in Panama but his Jamaican mother moved him back here when he was 10 years old. His skill became apparent when he was at Calabar Elementary School, where funds were so tight, that he kept wicket without gloves. Until today, only two men – Bradman and Graeme Pollock, - have surpassed his batting average. Were it not for the politics of the time, he would surely have led West Indies in more than one Test match.
Headley wasn’t the only lodestar in those pre-Independence years. Arthur Wint became Jamaica’s first Olympic gold medalist in London in 1948. You could say that Bolt, Yohan Blake and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce were the latest links in a chain that stretches back more than 60 years. In 1952, the 4x400m relay team comprising of Wint, McKenley, Laing and Rhoden, set a world record at the Helsinki Olympics. It would be the first of very many for Jamaica. And while we are on the topic of firsts, let us look at some other firsts. Merlene Ottey was the first Jamaican woman to win a medal at the Olympics and some may say, `sure someone has to be first,’ But, Merlene went on to win nine medals which are more than any woman in the history of the Olympics in athletics, has won. Then there is Deon Hemmings, the first Jamaican woman to win Olympic gold, which was of course, the 400M hurdles in 1996. And lest we forget, our only medal at Olympic level not achieved in athletics was David Weller winning a bronze cycling medal in Moscow 1980.
This medal in cycling reminds me of an encounter I had while soaking up all the goodwill during the Olympics in London last year. When we were winning medal after medal, so many people kept coming up to me and knowing that I am Jamaican, kept congratulating me on our achievements. Of course as you know, all these medals were in the sprints and one smart-Alec commented, partly in jest that we needed to start thinking of winning medals, like England, in races like the 5,000 and 10,000 metres. To which I smugly replied: “You see sir, we are a bit smarter than that in Jamaica. When we need to go those distances, we make use of that great invention – the car.”
In terms of sporting talent, we have been blessed. When I was coming through the ranks as a cricketer, Lawrence Rowe debuted with a double century and century right here in Jamaica at Sabina Park against New Zealand - still the highest aggregate by a debutant in Test cricket. And he went on to, among other innings, score a triple-century against England at Kensington Oval, which is still talked about in Barbados. In that same decade, Don Quarrie won Olympic gold in Montreal.
Courtney Walsh established himself in the West Indies team as I was making my way out. And by the time he retired, he had taken more Test wickets than anyone in the history of the game. The Reggae Boyz made it to France 1998, while countries far larger, continue only to dream of qualifying.
John Barnes, another son of the soil, illuminated English football during his prime with Liverpool, while Lennox Lewis and Frank Bruno took on the very best in the boxing ring. Lewis and Bruno were doing this, representing their adopted country England. But they were no doubt dripping black, gold and green sweat. And of course we produced our own home grown world boxing champion in Mike McCallum who became the WBA junior middleweight champion in 1984.
Lots of other Jamaican-born or born of Jamaican parents or a parent, have placed their names on the big stage. Two that come quickly to mind of fairly recent vintage are Donovan Bailey representing Canada, and Linford Christie representing England - both in athletics. On a more domestic level but making a splash nonetheless and especially in the earning stakes, there was Patrick Ewing in US basketball, and now in the most unusual of places, the National Football League (NFL), Patrick Chung for the New England Patriots and Ndamukong Suh who won a ton of awards as a college player, and who now plays for the Detroit Lions.
Now a few of you may be thinking: `ok Chung, I can understand with our motto here in Jamaica being `Out of many one people,’ and all the mixtures quite evident here in our society. But Ndamukong Suh? Well folks, he probably has never been to Jamaica as he was born in Portland. Not the one to the eastern end of the island, but Portland Oregon. He attended the University of Nebraska. His father is from Cameroon, but his mother Bernadette Lennon, is from Spanish Town, St. Catherine, Jamaica. More Black-Green-and-Gold blood. There are of course many more and that is evidenced by the numerous internationally acclaimed sportsmen and sportswomen which we have produced, who haven’t won our Sportsman or Sportswoman awards here in Jamaica. But since I have only been allotted ten minutes to speak, I have to scale back a bit.
All this, ladies and gentlemen, from an island whose population is just over that of a Mumbai suburb, and less than many single cities in the UK or our northern neighbors the USA.
As we all know ladies and gentlemen, Jamaica gets a lot of bad press internationally because of the violence we commit against each other. When times are hard, there will be those that get dispirited, lose focus and look for short cuts. We need to try and make sure that such kids find their way to tracks, cricket pitches and other sporting facilities. These sometimes are their only safe havens where their pent up frustrations and energies can be channeled into chasing worthwhile dreams.
What I would like to say to all the young people of Jamaica though, who aspiring to emulate the greats who have gone before us, and are with us tonight, is this. All these greats obviously had abundant talent, but it didn’t and doesn’t end there. A lot of hard work was put in to enhance that talent to get the end results that we read about, and now see. Having read Arnold Bertram’s book `Jamaica at the Wicket’, I now know about all the hard work Headley put in to accomplish his achievements. Not just spending hours batting, but showing dedication enough to improve himself as a person in every way. He taught himself to swim in Kingston Harbour by building himself a raft, pushing it out to sea, and swimming around until he got tired and then holding unto the raft to rest. After a while he could swim across the harbor from Kingston to Port Royal, unaided.
Just recently, I was watching a documentary done by the great American athlete, Michael Johnson, right here in Jamaica, about Jamaica’s athletic prowess, and of course it focused on Usain Bolt. It showed Usain training up at the Mona Campus athletics track. He was running, it seemed, all afternoon, doing some long sprints, to build endurance I presume and at one point he bent over and vomited on the track. Yes, it was shown in the documentary, and all I heard from the mike that the producers of the show had, just freely recording every sound around was the coach Glenn Mills asking, “Usain yu alright?” There was no anxiety in his voice, just a polite enquiry to make Usain know he was aware. That is the kind of hard work that is required, not just eating plenty yellow yam. Don’t believe that fairytale.
Ladies and gentlemen we know the expression Yu name gone abroad.’ It has been said before, but these days with the modern technology available shrinking the world, even more, `Jamaica really gone abroad.’
Marley, whose `One Love,’ was termed Song of the Millennium, by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), has graced almost as many T-shirts and posters as Che Guevara. They imitate the Bolt victory pose on the streets of India and Africa.
In the line of US politics, and we know that is followed closely by the entire world, Colin Powell, whose parents moved to the US from Jamaica, was once Secretary Of State of that country. That is high profile. And but for being torpedoed by the Republican Party, Susan Rice the current United States Ambassador to the United Nations, whose grandparents are Jamaican, could have also held that post.
Ladies and gentlemen, we have come a long way, and I know we won’t sit on our laurels and think that’s enough. We will keep moving forward. But as much as we have left to do, let’s not forget, how we got this far. Someone like Headley may not have got his due. But the generations that he, Wint and others inspired, have given us much to be proud of. We need to remember and keep building on that. We must. And as Marley once sang, “In this bright future, you can’t forget your past.”
They were the trailblazers.
In conclusion, I would like to congratulate all the nominees in all categories here tonight. There can only be one Sportsman and Sportswoman of the Year. But you’re all winners. GO JAMAICA!!