Mr. Lewis . Independence Day 2018

Keshorn the Redeemer A review of Team TTO at the Rio Olympics

NATIONAL PRIDE: Keshorn Walcott with the T&T national flag following his bronze medal effort in the Javelin competition at last month's Rio Summer Games. –Photo: SEAN MORRISON

Team TTO in Rio 2016
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For 15 days, Trinidad and Tobago waited on a podium finish at the 2016 Olympics. And then, on Day 16 at the Games of 31st Olympiad, Walcott allayed the fears of a nation with men's javelin bronze.

Trinidad and Tobago was able to breathe a huge sigh of relief, thanks to Walcott's third-place finish, the 23-year-old athlete following up on the gold he had earned at London 2012. Walcott was indeed the country's last hope for a podium finish at Rio 2016 for he was the last T&T athlete in competition, his medal-winning 85.38 metres throw coming on the penultimate day of the Games.

Walcott's teammates, too, would have been relieved, for they had come under attack from members of the public in the preceeding fortnight. The criticism of national teams is common.

And there is a place for criticism, once it is constructive. That is not always the case, and the sad reality is that the preponderance of social media created an uncomfortable environment for T&T athletes during the just-concluded Olympics.

Were it not for Walcott's achievement, T&T would have ended the Games medal-less for the first time since 1992 in Barcelona, Spain. The social media backlash, I am sure, would have been a bitter one.

Thankfully, Walcott came to the party, becoming only the third T&T athlete, after deceased weightlifter Rodney Wilkes and sprinter Ato Boldon, to claim multiple individual Olympic medals. Wilkes earned featherweight silver in 1948 and followed up with bronze in 1952. Boldon captured double sprint bronze in 1996. Four years later, he seized silver in the 100 metres dash and bronze in the 200.

We are grateful to Walcott for his deliverance. For while some of us have lived through the medal-drought between Hasely Crawford's 100m gold at the 1976 Montreal Games and Boldon's double bronze success at Atlanta '96, there is an entire generation that cannot relate to a T&T team leaving an Olympic Games empty-handed.

Add that fact to the T&T Olympic Committee (TTOC) “10 Olympic Gold medals by 2024” vision, and there is an elevated level of expectation. Mind you, there is nothing wrong with setting lofty goals. As leader of the local Olympic movement, TTOC president Brian Lewis needs to inspire the nation to get behind the athletes, pushing them to unprecedented heights.

That being said, we have proven to be somewhat shallow as a nation, unable to appreciate sporting excellence that does not translate into medals.
As much as I too was relieved when Walcott assured himself and the country of at least bronze in the men's javelin final, I was not buying into the publicly popular sentiment that Rio 2016 was a disappointing outing for Team T&T.

I'm getting that déjà vu feeling, like I've been here before. Well, I have. Back in 2011, I had put pen to paper, in defence of a successful campaign at the IAAF World Championships in Daegu, Korea. Headlined “Not the 'D' word”, I made the point in my Daegu 2011 review that medals are not the only measure of success, and that “D”, for disappointing, had no place in a post-Championship analysis of the global meet.

Back then, Kelly-Ann Baptiste did a “Walcott”, earning T&T's only medal—a bronze in the women's 100m. However, there were other finalists, all contributing to what was an overall solid showing. No wonder I'm getting that déjà vu feeling.

Athletics is T&T's strong suit, 15 of our 19 Olympic medals coming in that sport. So, allow me to examine athletics in isolation to illustrate just how well T&T performed at Rio 2016. Improving on the Daegu showing, T&T produced seven finalists in Rio for a grand total of 23 points and joint-15th on the placing table, alongside Brazil!

Yes, tiny T&T with a population of just 1.3 million matched the host nation in athletics. Brazil, I should let you know, has a population of 200 million, so we're talking about a talent pool more than 150 times T&T's.

Croatia, Czech Republic, Netherlands, Spain, Japan, Italy, Nigeria, Finland and even the mighty Cubans are among the many countries that finished behind T&T on the athletics placing table. Take some time to digest this information, and ask yourself what was going on in the minds of those who took to social media to vilify the young men and women who represented the Red, White and Black with distinction in Rio de Janeiro.

We are all familiar with the Keshorn Walcott story, and how his surprise gold as a 19-year-old at the London 2012 Olympic Games was celebrated by all and sundry, including the shameless bandwagonists. We cannot forget, and I'm sure Keshorn won't either, the response of some to his challenges in the ensuing years. His London achievement was described as a “fluke” when constant battles with injury kept him out of successive World Championship finals.

But do not be fooled by his quiet, unassuming exterior. Walcott is a passionate patriot, with a burning desire to bring glory to his country. Remember, this is the athlete who sat in a wheelchair on his arrival in Toronto, Canada, last year, ahead of the Pan American Games. The injury to his left ankle made him a doubtful starter. But, at the risk of further injury, the Toco thrower cast away his soft cast and proceeded to grab gold for his beloved country.

Co-producing the CCN TV6 Olympic build-up series, Chat with a Champ with host and 2013 400 metres hurdles world champion Jehue Gordon took me to the Hasely Crawford Stadium on many an early morning for interviews and video-taping of training sessions with committed national athletes, each with Olympic aspirations.
Walcott was one of the constants on my visits to the Crawford Stadium, the Olympic champion quietly going through his paces under the guidance of Cuban coaching maestro Ismael Lopez Mastrapa. Talk about work ethic!

Given the harsh criticism that came Walcott's way between London and Rio, it was extremely gratifying to see him come good at South America's first Olympic Games. From the massive 88.68m qualifying throw to bronze in the final, Walcott has proven to the doubters he is the real deal.

The fact that proof was even required is a poor reflection on T&T society. It's not that I'm surprised, though, since this is the same society that seems incapable of fully appreciating world class performances that do not end up on the podium.

Perhaps, this is a bit harsh on my part since the negatives expressed on social media do not necessarily represent the views of the entire populace. The fact remains, though, that there was an online atmosphere throughout the Games that made some of our greatest servants in sport feel unappreciated and unsupported.

But who's to blame?

In a post-Rio conversation with one of our 32 Olympians, the suggestion was made that the responsibility for our collective thinking falls squarely on the nation's leaders. The observation was made that the Government rewards medallists, but not finalists. This is a valid point, and certainly food for thought.
The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) publishes a points table as well as a medal table at the end of its events. Further, cash awards are on offer at IAAF World Championship meets for positions one through eight. There is a lesson to be learnt from the world governing body for athletics.

Surely, Machel Cedenio is deserving of more than just lip service in recognition of his amazing achievement at Rio 2016. Fourth in the greatest 400m race in history, Cedenio got over the line in 44.01 seconds to erase Ian Morris' 24-year-old T&T record from the books.

Do not be deceived. The fact that the Morris run, produced in the semis at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, could not be broken for almost a quarter century does not in any way diminish the achievements of the quartermilers that followed. The Morris record was simply that good. The retired T&T athlete is currently 28th on the all-time world performance list, that top-30 position bearing testimony to the quality of 44.21.

The new T&T benchmark belongs to 20-year-old Cedenio, his 44.01 sizzler earning him 15th spot on the all-time list. All things being equal, Cedenio will join the elite sub-44 club sooner rather than later, and will also work his way up the all-time list. The world acknowledges that in Machel Cedenio, T&T has been blessed with a talent capable of developing into a one-lap great.
Surely, the Point Fortin quartermiler deserves to be rewarded by the country that will benefit from all the attention he is certain to attract in the coming years.
Then, there's Michelle-Lee Ahye, the first woman from T&T to appear in three finals at the same Olympic Games. Sixth in the 100m dash, sixth in the 200, and second leg runner on the fifth-placed 4x1 team. Ahye is just 24, and has a bright future ahead of her.
Having successfully attempted a sprint double at a major global championship for the first time, the Carenage sprinter has plenty to be pleased about. Her body held up under the rigours of doubling, in addition to two rounds of the sprint relay. As a bonus, Ahye broke her own national 200m record in the semifinal round, clocking 22.25 seconds. Everything is pointing towards Ahye becoming the country's first female sub-22 sprinter.
Ahye and Cleopatra Borel are T&T's only double individual Olympic finalists. Ahye's achievement came in the space of days in Rio. Borel did it in a 12-year period, between Athens 2004 and Rio 2016. Ahye, though, holds the edge, having secured two top-eight finishes. Borel was ninth in Athens and seventh in Rio.
Aren't they both deserving of rewards?
The Cleopatra Borel story of perseverance is in itself a gift to the nation. At 37, the reigning Pan American Games champion secured her best-ever Olympic finish. That's inspiring! I'm a full ten years older than Borel, and I'm inspired. Far more for the young field athletes who look up to her and are keen to make a career in the throwing events.
T&T also reached both sprint relay finals in Rio. Fifth for Semoy Hackett, Ahye, Kelly-Ann Baptiste and 18-year-old Khalifa St Fort represented the country's best-ever female finish on the world's biggest sporting stage. Keston Bledman, Rondel Sorrillo, Emmanuel Callender and Richard “Torpedo” Thompson finished seventh in the men's 4x1 final, but were subsequently disqualified for a lane violation.
In the individual men's 100m, T&T did not field any semifinalists. The harsh public response to the elimination of Bledman, Sorrillo and Thompson reflected an attitude of ingratitude. All three had previously served the country with distinction at global meets, climbing Olympic, World Championship and World Relays podiums in T&T colours.
Thompson, in particular, has distinguished himself on the Olympic stage, earning three silver medals. Who could forget the animated celebrations with the Red, White and Black when he finished second to Jamaican sprint legend Usain Bolt in the Beijing 2008 100m final. It is little wonder that because of the Rio experience, a disenchanted “Torpedo” began harbouring thoughts of hanging up the spikes that have brought so much joy to his fellow-citizens.
The biggest disappointment for T&T at Rio 2016 would have to be the early exit of the men's 4x400m relay team. A shoo-in for precious metal, the combination of Jarrin Solomon, Lalonde Gordon, Deon Lendore and Cedenio seemed to be safely through to the championship race. But Lalonde, running the second leg, stepped out of lane. The resulting disqualification of the T&T quartet put paid to what, I daresay, was a realistic shot at gold.
Yes, that's what I said. A shot at gold. LaShawn Merritt is a top-class performer, adding Rio 400m bronze to the one-lap title he had captured back in 2008. But his decision to attempt the 400/200 double made the American anchor vulnerable. Let's just say it would have been interesting to see Merritt negotiate a challenge from fast-finishing Cedenio.
Seeing Jehue Gordon go out in the opening round of the one-lap hurdles was difficult to watch, especially knowing that his body is not where it was before an abdominal injury and subsequent surgery, last year. But Jehue is only 24, and will come back strong once he gets his body back to the well-oiled machine it was three years ago.
Away from track and field, inexperienced super heavyweight boxer Nigel Paul left himself wide open, and paid a heavy price. Knocked out and face down on the canvas, the big man learnt a tough but valuable lesson.
Swimmer Dylan Carter signaled that he could be a worthy heir to George Bovell's throne with a 48.80 seconds national record swim in the men's 100m freestyle.
Gutsy sailor Andrew Lewis shrugged off life-threatening injuries sustained in a December 2015 freak accident to heroically battle the seas, teaching those who were paying attention important life lessons.
There were encouraging first-time Olympic appearances for T&T, judoka Christopher George and 39-year-old rower Felice Aisha Chow doing the country proud.
There was a mixed bag for Njisane Phillip. The sprint cyclist produced his fastest-ever flying 200m at sea-level, stopping the clock at 9.813 seconds to progress sixth fastest to the head-to-head stage. Phillip did not fare as well in this phase of the event, and went out early. Frustrated and discouraged by a lack of support for his Olympic dream, Phillip may never wear a T&T uniform again.
That would be a sad development.
Sad too is how we have been exposed as a nation by our response to T&T's first-ever Olympic qualification in gymnastics. We all have our opinions on the Marisa Dick/Thema Williams situation, and how Dick eventually got that Rio 2016 spot ahead of Williams. I have mine, too. Williams is seeking legal recourse, and I do hope that whatever justice is in this case, it is served.
But irrespective of your views on the TTOC's decision to send Dick to Rio, the fact is she went as a representative of T&T. To those who publicly declared on social media or privately rationalised in their own minds that Dick could not receive their support, I encourage a re-think on the true meaning of patriotism.
That apart, the constant crude abuse of 19-year-old Marisa's surname on social media and elsewhere is sickening to the core, and a reflection on who we are as a people.
Like her or not, Dick is a young woman who does not deserve to be denigrated in this way, regardless of the circumstances. For those of you who may not have a daughter, a wife or a sister, I am certain you have a mother.
As a society, have we lost all respect for women? This is an alarming issue that goes beyond the sporting fields.
Please T&T, let us turn this around before it's too late, using as a catalyst the positive energy generated from the Rio success of “Keshorn the Redeemer”.

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