This coming Saturday will see the start of the 48th CARIFTA Games – the touchstone junior track and field competition for the Caribbean region that has energised and accelerated the careers of generations of athletes. Did anybody mention Usain Bolt? Of course. We’ll get back to him.
The latest version of an enterprise that began in 1972 will be staged in the Cayman Islands. And by the time the Games are over, on April 23, Jamaica will have won more medals than anyone else. It has been that way for more than 40 years. But who’s counting? Certainly not Sir Austin Sealy, the man who set the Games in motion with a notion…
Sealy turns 80 this year, which means he will be stepping down as a full International Olympic Committee member, having joined in 1994 – the same year as Craig Reedie.
In the course of the past 50 years, this elegantly spoken Barbadian banker and businessman – whose CV includes directorship of state-run radio, TV, sports and tourism authorities, as well as a stint as Ambassador to the United Kingdom and then Israel – has had a huge guiding role within sport.
He was President of the Barbados National Olympic Committee from 1982 to 1996, holding the role concurrently with the Presidency of the Amateur Athletic Association of Barbados for the first six of those years. That was Sealy’s second period as head of Barbados track and field following his earlier stint from 1970 to 1978 – and it was during this time that he had his big idea.
“In 1972 the athletics federation of Barbados had its 25th anniversary of IAAF membership,” he told insidethegames, speaking from his home in Bridgetown.
“We were a small island with a fine athletics tradition, but at that time we couldn’t seem to find many talented athletes to speak of. Many of them had gone on scholarships to US colleges and had just drifted away.
“So that’s how it started. I decided our young athletes needed a challenge closer to home to respond to. I thought – let’s find the stars of the future, let’s start a junior championship. And we don’t have to be selfish about it – let’s invite the rest of the Caribbean.
“I was more concerned to find out what was our standard. How did we compare with our colleagues from Jamaica and Trinidad?
“At the time it was easier for northern Caribbean nations to compete on the mainland of the United States in competitions like the Penn Relays. But for eastern Caribbean nations that was more difficult. So we needed to find a way of exposing our young talents to competition nearer home.”
He decided upon the name of the CARIFTA Games – referencing the recent transition in the area from the Caribbean Free Trade Association (CARIFTA) to the Caribbean Community (CARICOM).
CARIFTA had been set up to enhance relations between the English-speaking countries of the Caribbean after the dissolution of the West Indies Federation. The CARIFTA Games took that idea a step further, including the French and Netherlands Antilles in an annual junior track and field championship meeting.
“Calling it the CARIFTA Games was just a straight copy of the name of the organisation,” Sealy said. “From time to time people would suggest changing the title, but there was always opposition to that, particularly from The Bahamas and Bermuda, who said the CARIFTA Games meant something as a name to people in their country.”
Because of the wide disparity in the size and populations of the nations involved – Jamaica has around three million inhabitants, Barbados 300,000, Montserrat 5,000 – there was a conscious effort made not to assess the Games in terms of overall medals won. The aspiration was, and still is, to focus upon each individual athlete.
“We never encouraged the idea of a medals table,” Sealy said. “Although that is something the media in particular like to talk about – ‘China win more medals than Russia, or Russia win more than China…’. But we’ve never gone along with that.
“We don’t want to make a big thing of which nations have won medals because of the huge disparity in populations and resources. We wanted each individual athlete to concentrate on winning their own gold, silver or bronze. It was the Olympic model.”
The meeting normally runs over three days during the Easter period and includes more than 150 events, with under-20 and, more recently, under-18 categories for boys and girls, with the latter changing to under-17 in 2017.
In the early years, the event rotated among Barbados, Trinidad & Tobago, Bahamas, Martinique, Guadeloupe and Bermuda, who had sufficient facilities. Since 2000, Grenada, St Kitts and Nevis and St Lucia have built new stadia allowing them to become hosts.
Sponsored by regional companies in recent years, the CARIFTA Games have for the past 20 years been hosted under the auspices of the North and Central American and Caribbean Confederation (NACAC) of the IAAF, which has provided some financial support to underwrite the costs of competing.
Between 1985 and 1989 an event that had begun as a track and field meeting went multi-sports, including cycling, swimming and other activities. As such, the 1989 edition, held in Barbados, attracted more than 1,500 competitors.
But the following year, the athletics governing bodies of the region chose to revert to the previous version of the CARIFTA Games, and it has been a track and field event since 1990.
“After the 1989 Games, the Athletics Associations of the Caribbean came to me and said they had decided they wanted to do their own thing and make the CARIFTA Games a solely track and field meeting,” Sealy recalled.
“As someone who was then President of the National Olympic Committee, I thought that was a bit selfish. I was quite disappointed they wanted to do that. But it was their decision.
“This year the Games are being held on the same weekend as the 35th CARIFTA Swimming Championships, to which I had given my commitment to attend. Because of the problems there have been with planes, a number of flights by US airlines have been cancelled, which means I won’t be able to get to the CARIFTA Games until the third day.
“But I am in good company because I think the IAAF President is in the same position!
“Many of the other disciplines have also continued, aquatic sports in particular and who knows, perhaps one day a truly multi-sport CARIFTA will resume.”
Sealy has not had direct involvement in the CARIFTA Games for the past 20-odd years. Yet he is always at the heart of them. Since 1977, the Austin Sealy Award has been given to the athlete deemed by a panel of officials to be the outstanding performer at each Games.
To look down the line of winners is to appreciate a golden vein of athletic talent...
Pauline Davis, The Bahamas, 1984. She went on to compete in five Olympics, winning silver in the 4x100m relay at the 1996 Atlanta Games and, four years later in Sydney, finishing second behind Marion Jones in the 200m to earn a silver that turned gold nine years later when the US athlete was retrospectively banned for doping abuse. Davis-Thompson, as she then was, also earned gold in the 4x100m relay at Sydney.
Michelle Freeman, Jamaica, 1988. Six years later she won the Commonwealth 100m hurdles, and took Olympic bronze in the 4x100m at the Atlanta Games.
Kareem Streete-Thompson, Cayman Islands. 1989, as an under-18 athlete, and 1990 as an under-20 athlete. He went on to win world indoor silver in the long jump in 2001, bronze at the Commonwealth Games the following year, and the 1993 Universiade title.
Obadele Thompson, Barbados, 1994. He went on to win 100m bronze medals at the 1998 Commonwealth Games and 2000 Sydney Olympics, also winning World Cup gold in 1999. At 200m, he was world indoor silver medallist in 1999.
Debbie Ferguson, The Bahamas, 1995. Was also in the 4x100m team that won gold in the 2000 Sydney Games and won world 200m gold the following year.
Darrel Brown, Trinidad and Tobago, 1999 and 2000, both as an under-18 athlete. He went on to win the 2002 world junior 100m title, and 100m silver at the 2003 World Championships. He also won three world silvers in the 4x100m.
Veronica Campbell (later Campbell-Brown), Jamaica, 2001. Went on to win eight Olympic medals as a sprinter, including the 200m gold from 2004 and 2008. Also part of 4x100m team that won gold at the Athens 2004 Games. Winner of three world golds – one at 100m, one at 200m and one in the 4x100m.
Yohan Blake, Jamaica, 2007. Won 100m gold at the 2011 World Championships, added Olympic golds in 2012 and 2016 as part of the 4x100m relay team. In 2011, ran the second fastest 200m ever – 19.26sec.
Kirani James, Grenada, 2009. Won the world 400m title in 2011 and the Olympic title in 2012, adding Olympic silver in 2016. Commonwealth champion in 2014.
Jehue Gordon, Trinidad and Tobago, 2010. Won the world junior 400m hurdles record that same year and became world champion in 2013.
Shaunae Miller-Uibo, The Bahamas, 2013. Won world 400m silver in 2015 and the Olympic title in Rio a year later. Added the Commonwealth 200m title in 2018.
Brianna Williams, Jamaica, 2018. Won gold in the 100m, 200m and 4x100m in the under-17 section of the CARIFTA Games. Later that year became, at 16, the youngest girl to win 100 and 200m titles at the IAAF World Under-20 Championships. Awarded IAAF Rising Star award.
Have we missed anyone out? Oh yes. That man Bolt.
By the time he received the 2003 and 2004 awards, he had already won the IAAF World Under-20 200m title in his native Kingston, Jamaica, as a gangling 15-year-old.
Bolt first ran at the CARIFTA Games in 2001, winning silver in the 200m and 400m. The following year he set Games record at those distances. His first Austin Sealy award marked the winning of four golds in 2003.
At the CARIFTA Games of 2004, in Bermuda, Bolt – who had recently turned professional – became the first junior sprinter to run the 200m in under 20 seconds, clocking 19.93sec.
But the award winners only show one seam of gold that has run through these annual Games, as Sealy points out.
“When the Games were a multi-sport event we had a swimmer Anthony Nesty who went on to win the Olympics. He competed for Trinidad at the Games, as his mother came from there, but his father was from Suriname and he switched nationality for the 1988 Seoul Olympics. He won the same event there as he had at the CARIFTA Games swimming – the 100m butterfly.
“In 1972 we had one of the outstanding efforts of the Games when Andrea Bruce, who was 17, won the high jump in a height that earned her an Olympic qualifying place for that year’s Munich Games. She went on to finish ninth in the final.
“Forty years later we had Keshorn Walcott, from Trinidad and Tobago. He won the javelin at CARIFTA and then went on win the world junior title. Three months later he was the Olympic champion at the London 2012 Games.
“So many of the Jamaican sprinters who won medals at the past three Olympics have competed at the CARIFTA Games. All the Jamaican girls were CARIFTA Games champions. Usain Bolt too, of course.
“That’s why there are always scouts at the competition. Because people know that when you are looking for the next Usain Bolt you need look no further than the CARIFTA Games.”
Asked to reflect on how his CARIFTA contribution stands in the context of his long sporting career, Sealy said: “My association with the CARFTA Games, and with track and field, probably takes pride of place. It’s been a while since I had any active role in the CARIFTA Games, but I was very proud to be at its 40th anniversary celebrations. It made me feel old!
“But I have also had strong links throughout my life with the Commonwealth Games. I think I am right in saying I’ve been to every Games since Kingston in 1966.
“I was treasurer of the CGF from 1986 until 2016. In the same year I took up that position I also took a small party of businessmen and officials from the Barbados to Edinburgh, to speak with the organisers of the Commonwealth Games of that year – the Robert Maxwell Games as some called them – and to observe how they were going about their business.
“It was all fairly clandestine but we had the idea of bidding for the 1998 Commonwealth Games and this was part of our preliminary preparation. I took over a party of around 12 and we had a close look at things like the Games insurance and arrangements for the athletes’ accommodation.
“Our idea at the time was for a ‘floating village’. We didn’t have space on land for an athletes’ village at that time – although it wouldn’t have been impossible to build on land – so we looked into the idea of having three large ships for our use in Bridgetown Harbour.
“But we put the brakes on it when Wes Hall – the former cricketer who was Sports Minister at the time – got a call from the Indian Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi. New Delhi had been bidding for the 1994 Games and we had an expectation they would get it. But when those Games went to Victoria, in Canada, we were asked if we would let India bid for the next ones in 1998.
“In the end that was what we agreed. We didn’t exactly pull out, as we had not entered a formal bid. But India has about 80 per cent of the Commonwealth population and we knew there was a desire to move the Games around the Commonwealth after many years of it rotating between Britain, Australia and Canada.
“So that’s how it turned out. In the end India didn’t put forward a bid for 1998, which went to Kuala Lumpur. But of course New Delhi eventually got the Games in 2010.”
In recent years, there have been some suggestions in the Jamaican press that the Caribbean athletics powerhouse should pull out of the CARIFTA Games because it has become too much of an ongoing mis-match.
“I haven’t heard too much of that view recently,” Sealy insisted. “But when people did used to say things like that, I always answered it by saying that the Jamaican athletics authorities didn’t have to send their best to the Games. They could always send, as it were, a second XI.
“But they don’t seem to have done that.”