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Playing politics with sports, or sports with politics?

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You know when you are getting old by the constant use of the phrase “In my days…” So I will vary the approach by beginning this article by saying “I grew up when ….”

I grew up when sport was a natural part of the growing up process, when it was unthinkable that sport could be a career, when opportunities at representation internationally were, except for cricket, virtually non-existent, being limited to an odd Commonwealth Games appearance and where sporting facilities were extremely limited and decidedly underdeveloped. Just as the same piece of land would support mangoes and plums and guavas and sugar apples, with us voracious youth switching from one to the other according to season, so too did our limited facilities have to support our seasonal sporting activities.{{more}} Victoria (the Park) was Queen then, hosting not only our top national and regional fixtures in cricket and football, but even a Caribbean netball tournament as well.

In that context boys would change gears (figuratively since there were precious few literal gears then) from cricket to football almost instinctively with no fuss. Girls were not so lucky having to settle for netball at any national and regional level. That seamless transition not only provided the basis of a rounded (well, relatively so) sporting upbringing, it also produced a number of multi-talented sportsmen at the national and Windwards level. Foster Huggins and “Dougan” Mc Cauley, the late Dougie Cambridge and the superlative Mike Findlay come readily to mind.

Those days are long past and we have moved on, if not always upwards. Today, opportunities abound in sport as careers in football, in cricket, basketball, athletics and we have produced outstanding professional athletes in these disciplines who have made our country justly proud. In addition to the space for upward mobility there is a greater range of disciplines being offered though the physical and human infrastructure to support those who remain wanting. Sport in these times demands a higher level of professionalism, more single-mindedness of purpose and that makes it difficult for dual representation at the highest levels.

In addition to the development of individual athletes, there is need to develop the respective sporting bodies while meeting the challenge of working together and sharing meager resources under the umbrella of a National Olympic Committee or National Sports Council. The role of each individual unit within such over-arching structures, the roles of all vis-a-vis the central Government which in our context is often the arbiter of the distribution of resources, and the use of the limited facilities have turned out to be major challenges that we are not always able to conquer.

Our historical experience also provides another formidable hurdle. No one can deny that in the field of sport in the Caribbean, cricket has, to use a famous sporting term, the INSIDE LANE. It is the one sport which has been able to cross territorial boundaries and announce the Caribbean to the world in a way that we have been unable to in any other venture, be it in sport, politics, economics, or what have you. In spite of national claims, it is THE WEST INDIES which has made its name in sport. This has given cricket administrators access to the ears and inner chambers of politics and business in the region in a way that no other group of sporting administrators have been able to accomplish. It has however not always been exploited for the good of West Indies cricket or the people of the region. But that is another issue. What is important here is that there is an acknowledgement of almost a built-in bias towards cricket where resources in the region are concerned.

Like all biases, real or imagined, it must be addressed but we must take particular care that in doing so we do not end up throwing out the baby with the bath-water. There is, growing in this society and in some others in the region to a lesser extent, a dangerous trend to pit one sport and its practitioners against those of another. Cricket versus football is becoming a needless local debate, fuelled by the political considerations of some on one side of the political spectrum or another.

It is being most manifested in the just claim of a “home for football” but being done in a manner which rather than seeking to meet genuine aspirations or to correct imbalances, real or perceived, can end up with us all fighting over the crumbs rather than trying to increase the size of the pie and thus the share of each person dining at the table. In it all, footballers and cricketers, and their armies of supporters can easily become cannon fodder, sacrificed on the altars of political ambition.

We cannot afford to go down that road. We must be mature enough to recognize the inherent dangers. We must be able to sit all us true patriots down and place our overall national interest and sporting development above all else. Let us neither play politics with sport nor play sport with politics.

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