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Sports as a vehicle for building character and engendering national pride Part 2

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30.APR.09

(continued from last week)

(An address delivered by Mr. Justice Adrian D. Saunders at the Awards Ceremony of the National Sports Council of St. Vincent and the Grenadines on Saturday, 19th April, 2009)

I will always remember two amazing feats of unparalleled sportsmanship. The sportsmen in question both live here amongst us in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. One event occurred in Barbados during the 1972 West Indies New Zealand Test series. The West Indies had won the toss and chose to bat on a lightning fast pitch. We were skittled out for 133. Glen Turner and Jarvis were the opening batsmen for New Zealand.{{more}} Turner had been having a prolific season with the bat. He had scored a double century in the Jamaica test. With New Zealand on 2 runs for no loss, Turner attempted to glance Grayson Shillingford down the leg side. Mike Findlay, behind the stumps, flew to his left, and air-borne, he managed to snag the ball in his left glove. The crowd roared, his team mates appealed and Umpire Cecil Kippins gave Turner out. Now, Mikey had the ball in his grasp as he dived full length, but as he hit the ground and rolled, the ball was jarred out of his grasp and touched the ground. It happened so fast that no one but Mike Findlay knew the ball had touched the ground. Even if there was the use of technology in those days, a television replay could not have shown what had happened because Findlay was fully stretched when he got hold of the ball, hit the ground and rolled over, and came up with the ball in his hand. As Turner trudged off to the pavilion, Mikey walked across to skipper Sobers and informed him that the catch was not cleanly taken. Sobers indicated this to Umpire Kippins who reversed his decision. The other event I witnessed myself at the indoor National Arena in Jamaica. The Cubans had sent a formidable table tennis contingent to the Caribbean Table Tennis Championships. The Cuban Number 1 player was a man called Omar Alba. Alba squared off against Orville Haslam, the Jamaica Number 1, in the Men’s Singles Final. It was gripping table tennis. In those days a game went up to 21. In the fifth and deciding game Haslam was leading 18-16 when a return from Alba barely clipped Haslam’s side of the table. The referee did not realize the return was good. He scored the point for Haslam, making the score 16-19. Haslam knew the return was good but was powerless to overrule the umpire. What did he do? When Alba served the next ball, Haslam deliberately batted the ball away. He gave back the point to the Cuban. Guess what? Alba went on to win that game, and the championship.

These remarkable feats of good sportsmanship remain indelibly etched in my mind, even though each of them occurred well over 30 years ago. Neither Mikey nor Orville made any real money from their respective sports. But they earned a whole lot more. They are both truly honorable men. Ultimately, this is what sports should be about. Money can be counted in dollars and cents. But that never lasts. Integrity is priceless. And a good reputation endureth forever.

So, that’s the first and most important point I would like to stress this evening – the role that sports play in building character.

The second point I want to make is the importance of sports in engendering national pride. A Jamaican friend told me that in the immediate aftermath of the magnificent performances by the Jamaican athletes at the Beijing Olympics, there was a remarkable drop in the crime rate in Jamaica for the next few days. Now, I don’t know for sure if the crime statistics supported that conclusion. But if they did, I would not at all be surprised. When our sporting teams or sports personalities excel on the international stage we feel happy. We put aside all our petty differences with each other. We become united. We see their performances as embodying all our national hopes and aspirations. I still have fond memories of the euphoria we in SVG felt in 1979 when our football team led by Morrie Millington did us so proud in Suriname. And who can forget when our netball team trounced the other Caribbean teams or a few years ago when our women cricketers beat up the rest of the region or some few weeks ago when our young footballers did so well playing at home? These accomplishments make us feel proud. They cause us temporarily to forget our differences. For days and weeks afterwards we walk with our chests thrust forward, our heads held high. We proclaim to the region and to the world that, as we used to say, it’s not the size of the country but the quality of the team work that counts.

At times like these, everyone wants to lionize our sporting giants. If they are overseas we send them congratulatory messages. We rush to Arnos Vale to give them a hero’s welcome. The government honours them in all sorts of ways. But, you know, that’s not when our sportsmen and women most need the attention. They need similar if not greater attention in the build-up, the preparation for their competitions. Those who are employed need time-off in order to train. Those who are unemployed need a job so that they can live decently and eat nutritiously and not have to wonder where the next meal is coming from. They need the best coaching they can get, they need good, honest, hardworking administrators and they need proper facilities.

Effectively, I have lived away from this country since 1996. But of course, I return from time to time for short periods. If anyone asks me what I find most striking about this country over those 13 years I have not lived here, the answer for me is easy, but depressing. To me, the most striking development has been the polarization of the country into two political groupings permanently at war with each other. Now, it is normal, it is natural for a certain amount of tension and high political fever to accompany party campaigning a few weeks before an election. But it seems now that that kind of extreme rivalry, almost hostility, is maintained throughout the entire cycle until the next election when it can hardly get worse. It is spurred on and sustained by a proliferation of radio talk shows to which Vincentians call in principally to demonise other Vincentians. These days when I come home, I sense the need to be conscious about what color shirt I wear into Kingstown or I might risk being the object of a scornful glance or two. It never used to be like that. It makes me wonder, if sport is supposed to be a unifying influence, is such an environment conducive to efficient and effective sports administration at the community and national levels? I can only express the fervent hope that sports at those levels do not suffer from this awful divisiveness. Integrity and ability, competence and efficiency, just like their opposites, straddle party lines. And our human resources are too small to afford us not having the best people in the right places.

I am aware that there are plans for the construction of a national athletic stadium. That project would certainly be a massive boost to our track and field community. We have always had good athletic talent in SVG and Mr Cummings is a prime example. But we need better facilities if that talent is to develop. At the recently held CARIFTA Games in Saint Lucia, we were the only country in the Windward Islands not to win a single gold medal. Saint Lucia garnered a total of 6 medals, while Grenada not only won 7 but, for me, the most outstanding athlete of the Games was a Grenadian who smashed the 400 meters record that had formerly been held by Usain Bolt. Grenada and Saint Lucia are States with modern track facilities. I congratulate young Delohni Samuel on his silver in the 5,000 metres, even as I note that he is based in Canada.

On a more positive note, one of the things that has really pleased me over the last few years is the awesome strides being undertaken in educating young Vincentians, especially at the secondary and tertiary levels. These days, sports and education have a reciprocal effect on each other. Training and coaching methods have become so scientific that if you aspire to reach the highest levels in sports you have a serious uphill task if you are illiterate or barely literate; or if you can’t or won’t use your head. Earlier this year in New Zealand after Danny Vettori had bowled one of our batsmen, Vettori pointed to his own head, disdainfully shaking it. It was a very unsportsmanlike gesture. But it conveyed an awful humiliating truth. Sometimes we just don’t use our heads.

If you don’t know or thoroughly understand the rules of your sport or if you can’t access and process information from the internet; or if you are ignorant of the history of your sport; or if you are unable or unwilling to learn from the experiences of those who played the sport when you were in diapers or even before you were born, there is only so far you can reach. It is no longer enough to be talented. In order to nurture and hone that talent we need also to apply ourselves academically and adopt scientific methods.

Regrettably, we seem to be producing a generation of children who prefer to remain inside with a Play Station or to play games on a computer than to be physically active. They just sit there, huddled together, eyes wide open, staring straight ahead at an electronic screen, with only their fingers moving, almost at the speed of light. Some parents, unfortunately, do not discourage this because they reason that, in a world of rising crime rates, they prefer to know that their children are safe and in doors.

This tendency among young people towards sloth must be combated, especially as it is accompanied by an unhealthy promotion of junk food over locally grown and more nutritious food. Now more than ever it is imperative to invest in sport and to encourage participation in physical activity and a healthy lifestyle. Growing children need inspiration and physical stimulation, and sports are a great way to provide such things.

I had promised myself that I would not be long and so I wish to close now. This has been a most impressive ceremony and I see that there are still several presentations to be made. I want you all to know, however, that there are many Vincentians in the diaspora, like myself, who are always alert to the successes and the fortunes and the noble efforts of our sportsmen and women and, no matter how far away we are, we try to follow as best as we can what’s happening with sports in our homeland. Whenever there is a regional or international competition we eagerly check to see how SVG is doing. I remember a year or two ago our senior football team went to Jamaica and put a serious licking on the Jamaicans. I couldn’t contain myself as I boasted to my colleagues in Trinidad about the prowess of Vincie Heat. Shortly after that our team was invited to Trinidad to take on the Soca Warriors. Sure enough, my son Yanek and I went down to the Hasely Crawford Stadium in Port of Spain. There was a good sized crowd. Yanek and I were sandwiched between rows and rows of Trini fans, bedecked in red and black, egging on the Soca Warriors. When the Trinidadians scored the first goal the crowd went wild, jumping and waving and blowing horns. Yanek and I remained seated with our heads bowed. Shortly after, the Warriors scored again. Once more the crowd erupted. Once more Yanek and I were the only ones not rejoicing. Instead we sank back into our seats with glum expressions on our faces. Then, as the lady next to Yanek made to sit back down after exhausting herself dancing, she pointed at us and said: “Wait nuh, all yuh from Sin Vincent”. We nodded sheepishly. But, that’s how it is in sports. You win some and you lose some. When Trinidad scored their third and then their fourth goals the lady showed greater consideration. She stopped jumping and waving. She merely patted Yanek on his leg, smiled and said: “Hard luck. All yuh must come back again another time”.

I am truly grateful to have been invited to be a part of this wonderful ceremony and I thank the Council for this signal honour. I particularly wish to thank my special friends, Alli Thomas for all the arrangements she made to facilitate my presence here and Andrew Cummings for his warm and generous introduction earlier. And, of course, most of all, I thank you for having the patience to listen to me.

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