Nicholas Paul

FLASHBACK: Yuta Wakimoto of Team Japan, left, and Nicholas Paul of Team Trinidad and Tobago compete during the 1/8 finals of the track cycling sprint event at the 2020 Summer Olympics, in August, in Izu, Japan. —Photo: AP

“You can give your all, and they always compare you to the opponents and what they’re doing. Why not compare their support to what we get? It’s not an even playing field.”

Trinidad and Tobago quarter-miler Deon Lendore hit the proverbial nail on the head following his third-place finish at the Wanda Diamond League final in Zurich, Switzerland on September 9. Yes, Lendore has to cover the same 400-metre distance as his rivals. But is there equity in opportunity in the pursuit of podium positions? The answer is an emphatic NO.

T&T enjoyed podium finishes in six straight Olympic outings, starting with Ato Boldon’s double sprint bronze in 1996 and culminating with Keshorn Walcott’s javelin bronze 20 years later. That run came to an end at Tokyo 2020, the country’s first medal-less Olympics since Barcelona ’92 opening the floodgates of criticism.

Sadly, men and women who had given their all—and then some—in an effort to bring glory to our country, came under fire, one commentator even suggesting they did not deserve to be described as elite athletes. For many of these “experts”, gold, silver and bronze are the only measures of excellence they acknowledge.

Don’t get me wrong. I love to see the “Red, White and Black” raised during medal ceremonies. This is what those who represent the country strive for. Yes, I was disappointed that the T&T flag did not make its way up the pole at Tokyo 2020. The medal-less Games was a first for me in 25 years of Olympic coverage. Finishing off the podium, however, does not equate to failure.

Top ten in the world in any field is an achievement worthy of praise. A T&T lawyer ranked eighth or ninth on the planet would be celebrated. The same for a cardiologist, plumber, civil engineer, actor, teacher or epidemiologist. I would certainly be proud to be recognised as a global top-ten sports journalist.

We acknowledge world class status in other fields, but heap scorn on our athletes. I wish I could point the finger only at the “experts” who crawl out of the woodwork every four years to have their say on the country’s Olympic showing. The truth, though, is that those who know better are also guilty. This tweet, written by a colleague, is a painful reminder of the media’s complicity:

“It was a sad end for Team TTO at Tokyo 2020, with the hope of a podium finish from T&T’s cyclists Nicholas Paul and Kwesi Browne turning into a big fat zero in the end.”

Ouch! Paul and Browne did not deserve this harsh criticism following the Tokyo 2020 men’s keirin. They came through a tough qualifying process to book their tickets to Tokyo. Not satisfied with just competing, the hard-working pair distinguished themselves at the Games. Browne was ninth in the keirin, while Paul secured sixth spot in the sprint to emerge as the most successful T&T performer.

There were top-ten finishes too in track and field. Jereem “The Dream” Richards finished eighth in the men’s 200 metres final; Michelle-Lee Ahye was ninth overall in the women’s 100; Lendore was ninth in the men’s 400; Tyra Gittens earned tenth spot in the women’s long jump; and Lendore, Richards, Dwight St Hillaire and Machel Cedenio combined for eighth in the men’s 4x4 final.

Seven top-ten performances on the world’s biggest sporting stage is nothing to scoff at for a country of 1.3 million. You might want to suggest that I’m setting low standards. I’m not. The reality is that we have over-achieved for many years, relying on natural talent to punch above our weight.

The Tokyo 2020 barren patch, however, is not something we should happily accept. But training our guns on the athletes is misguided. Remember Lendore’s words at the top. The athletes are doing their part, but need greater support.

“Listen to the athletes,” Lendore continues. “We see what goes on behind the scenes. We aren’t just blowing smoke and complaining.”

Support comes in many forms. From a financial perspective, both Government and Corporate T&T need to appreciate that funding needs to be adequate and timely. Raw talent and an alignment of the stars may result in glory. Keshorn Walcott’s men’s javelin gold in 2012 is a prime example. But when it comes to consistently producing Olympic medallists, money talks.

Great Britain earned 30 medals at the 2004 Athens Olympics. Four years later, in Beijing, the medal haul increased to 47. University of Salford sports economist David Forrest put the improved performance into context.

“We spent an extra £165m and got 17 more medals, so that’s about £10m a medal.”

In case you’re wondering, the conversion is more than TT$90,000,000 per medal! Sport at the highest level is indeed big money business. Investment cannot flood in mere months before the Games.

We have a fair idea who will wear national colours at the 2024 Olympics. They need to be supported now. Others will emerge along the way, and they too must be given adequate funding on the road to Paris. Now is also the time to invest in the stars of tomorrow; the emerging talents who will form the nucleus of T&T teams at the 2028 and 2032 Games.

Sports administrators also need to listen to the athletes and answer their call for support. Quality administration is about embracing the role of facilitator; identifying, acknowledging and addressing the needs of the athletes. In these pandemic times, there are increased challenges, including limited training and competition opportunities—all the more reason for an athlete-first approach.

And what about the role of the media?

Paul is the talk of the town following triple gold at the Nations Cup and kilo silver at the World Champs. The Flying 200 world record holder deserves all the media attention. Some might argue, though, that sixth in the sprint at Tokyo 2020 was more impressive than the medals that followed. Paul’s star status was established before the Olympics, and merely confirmed at the Games.

Browne also impressed in Tokyo, his tactical acumen in the keirin earning him ninth spot overall in an impressive field of 30 world class sprinters. That performance, coupled with his back story of being hospitalised for more than five weeks in 2020 as the country’s fifth Covid-19 case, should translate into multiple in-depth interviews in the electronic media. Sadly, this is not the case.

Being a bandwagonist society, acclamation is reserved for those with gold, silver or bronze draped around their necks. But instead of reflecting society, we in the media need to lead the thought process, using our keyboards and microphones to support deserving athletes—elite and aspiring alike.

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