Travelling by train through the countryside, from Kiev to Donetsk, some 760 kilometers to the east, took you through mostly wide open, gently rolling farmlands. It was somewhat calming and peaceful, the vista outside serene and yet, surreal….mile after mile of fields in the distance, covered in a vivid saffron yellow. What is that? ….never seen anything like that before, anywhere!
Finally, the train passed close enough to the plants to be able to identify them… Aha! They were sunflowers, in full bloom. Subsequent research yielded that Ukraine is one of the world’s largest growers of sunflowers, and its seeds and oil is as much a staple of their diet as is potatoes and vodka.
The few towns we passed through along the way all seemed to be small, quiet little hamlets, rustic; with the majority of the vehicles of old Soviet designs. Life there seemed to go by in slow motion, nothing hurried, and things appeared to be almost lost in time. What a contrast to Donetsk !
We arrived at the station near 1:00 pm, and while waiting outside for the courtesy bus that would take us to the team’s hotel, one couldn’t help noticing the change that the city was undergoing. Everywhere, there was a mixture of the old and the new. “Ancient” Ladas, trams and vintage buses, mixed with the new, western sourced BMWs, Mercedes, Land and Range Rovers, and Volvos… even saw a few Chrysler 300s. Lots of construction going on too, the aged, drab, dormitory styled buildings were being replaced by condos and offices clad in glass and brass, clearly western influenced. The team’s hotel, the Park Inn, was one such example. The appointments in the rooms were modern, upscale, and comfortable. Actually, this was the best I have ever been in when travelling abroad with national teams. Nice …!! …and the food, while not gourmet, was fairly good. Everyone could find enough to eat, whether you were omnivorous or vegetarian.
The motto of the city is “Strength and Beauty”, and its nickname of “the city of a million roses” is well deserved…and then some. All the parks and open spaces, traffic islands, lawns and verges, were aglow with myriads of beds of roses, and in the middle of summer, they were in full bloom. Beautiful was an understatement.
Driving around the city, the “strength” part of the motto also became apparent. Statues were aplenty. Done mostly in iron and bronze, they were seen in front of buildings, in the parks, squares, everywhere. There were several WWII monuments as well, and the Soviet T34 tank atop a stone platform stood out, along with cannons and others such memorabilia. The tributes to WWII were understandable, since Hitler’s armies that invaded the USSR were halted in the Ukraine and ultimately forced to withdraw, with some of the heaviest tank battles taking place in this region.
Nevertheless, the new and relentless pace of western influenced modernization of the city was obvious, and one of the most ironic examples of this was seen in the heart of the city, in Lenin Square. A wide open, well manicured space, dominated by a twenty foot high statue of Lenin, the square has on its eastern side, a McDonald’s fast food restaurant! The statue of the father of Soviet communism now shares the same space with one of the biggest symbols of American capitalism. Comrade Lenin is probably not resting too peacefully in his mausoleum nowadays.
The people of Donetsk who I met were mostly warm and welcoming, but still, reserved. They were quick to smile, but not spontaneously gregarious, like a typical Yardie. They went about their business calmly and focused, at a steady pace, not “mad hatter” crazy like Manhattan at rush hour. They seemed to be as curious about us as we were of them, but were too polite to risk being intrusive.
Donetsk was not a tourist trap. I couldn’t find a souvenir T-shirt anywhere that said Donetsk, or even Ukraine for that matter, even though some matches of last year’s Euro 2012 Football Championships were staged at the Shaktar Donestk stadium, an impressive facility, right across the road from the athletics stadium.
The city began as a coal mining town, when as legend has it, a peasant out searching for firewood, came across some black stuff that had been pushed out by a burrowing gopher. It turns out, that black stuff was coal, and the rest as they say, is history.
Present day Donetsk, while still a mining town, is also a hub for manufacturing and commerce. Banks were to be seen everywhere, even a branch of the Ukraine EXIM Bank, which was testimony to the vibrancy of the city’s exporting and trading sectors.
Onto the meet itself, the Championship was a showcase of Ukrainian organization and efficiency. Events went off as scheduled, and on schedule, and the facilities were superb, both at the warm-up track and inside the competition stadium. Outside the stadium, for us what would be the marathon tunnel side, was a statue of the legend himself, Sergey Bubka, pole and all. The Olympic stadium was ready for the occasion, and the temperature was like home, ideal. The only downside was the less than stellar crowd support.
For team Jamaica, the meet was an unbridled success. It was the very first time that Jamaica topped the medal table at a global athletics competition, of any age group. Interestingly, we won three of the four hurdles events, and could have won the fourth, the girls 400h, if only our Daeshon Gordon, who had the World Youth Leading time, WYL, going into the meet, had completed her application for Jamaican citizenship in time (she was born in the USA to a Jamaican father) and been able to attend. Several of the athletes achieved PRs at the meet. While Christoff Bryan and Tiffany James copped bronze medals in the boys HJ and girls 400m respectively, the really outstanding athletes were:
Yanique Thompson who won the girls 100mh in an Age Group World record 12.94 secs;
Jahleel Hyde winner of the boy’s equivalent, the 110mh in 13.13 secs, one hundredth of a second off the AGWR;
Marvin Williams winner of the boys 400mh in a WYL 50.39 secs;
Michael O’Hara, team captain, winner of the boys 200m in 20.63, at age 16;
and Martin Manley, another Class II 16 year old, winner of the boys 400m in a ridiculously outstanding time of 45.89 secs.
With some of those individual champions in the squad, the boys’ team started as favorite in the relay, and duly obliged in a CR time of 1:49.23 secs.
Javon “Donkey Man” Francis asides, there is some serious quality emerging from the talent pool that is the Jamaican Track and Field juggernaut!
Kudos to all the athletes for a job well done. Also to the coaches, headed by the shrewd Michael Carr, the medical team of Dr. Tahira “Empress” Redwood and physiotherapist Mrs. Andrea Saunders, and the Management team headed by Ewan Scott, the JAAAs Director of Records.
The WYC 2013 in Donetsk, Ukraine was a seminal triumph in the evolving annals of Jamaica’s track and field saga, and I feel truly blessed and honored to have been able to contribute positively to the crafting and execution of that happy chapter.
Fortis forever !