Former National Security Minister and People’s Partnership Senator, Gary Griffith, blamed his former colleagues for mistreating athletes and the current political rulers for exploiting them in his Letter to the Editor on Trinidad and Tobago’s showing at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games:
It has always been our custom that our supporters are very hard to please when it comes to demand for success in sport.
When our athletes succeed, they are hailed as heroes. But if they do not, they are attacked, blamed and discredited.
However, what has been seen and heard during and after the recent Rio 2016 Olympics, by many who have voiced their hurt and disappoint due to the virtually bare cupboard of medals, is indeed unfair. The attacks are pointing in the wrong direction.
Having been involved in national sporting contingents for years—as manager of teams for the Commonwealth, Pan Am and CAC Games—never have I ever seen such criticism and hostility on our own.
The hate campaign started before they even left our shores, over the selection of Marisa Dick in gymnastics. And whilst there are indeed serious matters to be dealt with on that issue, what was alarming were the ridiculous comments by many that “if someone is not born here, then they should not represent us.”
These person obviously are not living in the real world. At the Rio Olympics, almost nine percent of athletes competing in the 10 largest Olympic teams were born in another country, which shows each country knows that finding the talented athlete within the guidelines, regardless of place of birth, is now part of the process.
Several Jamaican athletes defected to represent other countries while a US athlete married a Jamaican one month before the Olympics and acquired a medal for her newly adopted country in Rio.
In fact, we scraped into the 2006 World Cup finals, thanks to an equalizer at home against Bahrain by Chris Birchall, who never saw our island until weeks before the qualifiers started, while ex-England under-17 captain, John Bostock, will soon be representing our country as well.
So those who make such outdated criticisms indeed need to get with the programme.
More importantly however, is the constant pressure that our athletes have to endure over lack of proper preparation prior to major events, including the Olympics. For too long, our athletes have succeeded on raw talent but this can only go so far.
The nation does not know the trials and tribulations that these athletes go through in representing our country. Despite our vast resources, their preparation and development is limited due to inadequate funding.
But when they succeed, they are met at the airport with fanfare and lots of empty promises from politicians seeking political mileage rather than to help the athlete.
Our sportsmen are fed up of being used and treated like dirt, yet still pressured by a demanding public.
These are just a few examples of what they go through:
•Keshorn Walcott was given a javelin prior to London 2012 and, on the assumption that he was not going to do anything of substance, was told by the official “we only lending you this. make sure you bring it back when you return”.
•After his Gold medal success and a long journey to achieve this, he was given an economy class ticket to return home.
•Another athlete who reached a final in Rio, had to wait months to acquire a measly $5,000 to get a critical MRI scan, which obviously affected her training.
•Certain athletes, just a few months before Rio—instead of focusing on their preparations—were asking me for sponsorship money to assist in their preparation.
•The National Hockey Team had flights booked to travel to Washington for the Pan Am Cup but, up to the night before, were still waiting for Cabinet approval for their trip, as has been the case with several other national teams over the years.
•As a Government Minister, I was forced to visit the National Men’s Football team in the hotel the night before they departed for the 2014 Caribbean Cup finals in Jamaica and assure them that their massive outstanding fees would be forthcoming soon, so they would board the aircraft the following day.
•The night before their final game in that same tournament, I had to again call to give them some assurance, as they were demotivated and felt they were being tricked.
•Several of our talented athletes are employed in two jobs, to make ends meet, and skate in to training totally burnt out and with improper diets, which affects their training and development.
•Our Women’s Hockey Team, for which I am team manager, had such inadequate funding that seven persons had to sleep in a two-person room during World Cup qualifiers while there were no funds for meals or transport. But, when they qualified for the World Cup finals, all the pomp, fanfare and promises were thrown at them on their return.
The list is long. This is what must end. Our athletes need the support prior to international tournaments and not cosmetic rewards after.
The fiasco on Keshorn Walcott’s return was as ridiculous as one could get, and sums up how our athletes are treated, used and abused.
After a gruelling two weeks in London and a nine hour flight, he was thrown on to a truck and spent several hours from the airport to Toco surrounded by politicians who gave out cups to supporters. Not of Keshorn, but with pictures of Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar on them.
It is clear that these charades are designed to use athletes, solely to glorify politicians.
Over the last week, similar excursions around the country were conducted—so packed with Government officials that you could not see the athletes—which was followed by the usual nonsensical promises of naming planes and schools after them, so the politicians can cut ribbons and get more mileage.
And when that hype dies, the same athletes are forgotten.
I had several meetings with Mr Walcott’s coach and Trinidad and Tobago Olympic Committee (TTOC) officials after the London Olympics when we tried to deal with what was really needed to support him, as the Elite Athlete funding just not cutting it.
What was proposed was a four-year program to prepare us for Rio and ensure that our possible Olympic athletes would have all the administrative, logistic and financial support required. Additionally, they were to be given a salary and, in return, when the athletes were not on competitive duty or training, they were to contribute to national development by training and lecturing in schools and at youth club teams.
Hence we would be using our best sportsmen in each field to develop our youths.
It is this type of system that was missing, which included provision of proper international exposure, counselling, psychologists, nutritionists, massage therapists, etc, along with a proper medical plan so their focus would be—not on the administrative details but—on simply preparation and training.
This was submitted to then Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar, who initially voiced support and promised to establish it under the Office of the Prime Minister. But it was then shifted to the Ministry of Sport, transformed into Life Sport with more than five times the initial budget and ended up benefiting criminal elements rather than our national athletes who should have used that money to prepare for Rio.
It is also quite disappointing that 40 years after our first Gold medal, we are still asking our athletes what they want after they medal.
What is required, as is done in many other countries, is a set policy known beforehand for rewards in five specific ranges, starting from qualification to the Olympics and World Championships, to reaching the final and acquiring bronze, silver or gold.
The journey to Tokyo must begin now, and it must be done with a proper structure, which must also include horses for courses.
We are so behind the eight ball that we do not understand the critical role of a Chef de Mission, who can be the catalyst for success or the cause for failure.
A Chef de Mission is the virtual Manager of all the Managers, and must be at the Games Village more than any other. So it is absurd to have allowed the head of our contingent to moonlight and spend most of his time on ESPN, speaking about other teams and how great and talented they are, without expecting that this would affect our team.
It is these minor things that can affect concentration and morale—and are often overlooked—which could cost us a medal.
We need to start supporting our athletes and not giving them lip service. TTOC president Brian Lewis’ goal of 10 gold medals by 2024 is indeed still attainable.
Our results in Rio showed that we are failing our athletes and not the other way around.