I spent a day at the races on Saturday, watching the ISSA Boys & Girls Athletics Championships at the National Stadium; that capped a week when I watched the races on television every day. I am very grateful to a cousin, who was acting as a team doctor, for procuring three season tickets, so that my wife and daughter could also go to see Champs for the first time. My daughter bailed out and spent the afternoon with classmate and eating crabs, I understand. Swim with your own kind :-).
To me, a sports nut, nothing beats watching sports live, and nothing beats being at a sports event. It’s vibrant and all of life can be on display in the raw. In Jamaica, sporting events means ‘vending time’. Roads outside the stadium and en route are lined with people selling food and drink, hats, whistles, vuvuzelas (love or hate them), tickets, and parking spaces. Many people get a great payday on such occasions. The police are often present, along with private security guards,
steering people to the event and away from places they think they can go. Usually, they do this without much incident, though sometimes without the best communication, but things stay pretty good-tempered.
Tickets were hard to come by, and from reports I heard or read, this was not an event where people tried to enter en masse without tickets, by scaling walls.
I mentioned that because an IAAF representative who is in Jamaica to report on Champs, mentioned seeing that on her first visit, though it was a positive sign of what the sport means to Jamaicans.
Parking can be tricky. My wife has diplomatic privileges so can park in the VIP section of the stadium, but it always involves a little ‘negotiation’ as the security look for stickers, which she doesn’t have, and generally need a little time to process that she had a general not specific privilege.
Once inside the stadium, the sight and sounds are something special. It did not take long to fill the stadium (about 35,000) and we were seated at about 3pm. Horns, drums, vuvuzelas, noise makers (sponsor logo-ed), voices were all working to make noise and lift the athletes. The stadium had its sections, with various schools represented in blocks that showed off their colours, in terms of shirts and blouses and caps and ties in school colours. We were seated near a group of Calabar fans (green and black), and to our right was the huge block of Kingston College (purple and white and ‘Fortis’) fans, with a band of drummers and trombones and more.
We could see across the stadium the contingents for Jamaica College (dark blue and white) and Edwin Allen (light blue and white). We saw some groups with the huge flags that cover a section of the crowd and can be passed down the terracing. Truly, a sea of colour, with national scholastic pride on display.
Fans tend to be tolerant of little mishaps. The seats have a gap in their back supports, which means that feet tend to kick backs and lead to lots of “Sorry,”. People have their food and drink: things brought from home, like bully beef or ham sandwiches, bun and cheese, nuts. Jamaica isn’t Jamaica without box food: curry goat, rice and peas, salad; jerked chicken; patties.
Vendors trying to sell soft drinks and cotton candy. A little food and drink get spilt but doesn’t lead to a war. Noise makers hit heads–more “Oops!”
We have the banter. “Want to share some of my bully beef for a taste of your curried goat?” Some of it is jabs at other schools. Immaculate Conception is a famed girls school run by nuns, with an excellent academic reputation, but they do not usually feature strongly at Champs (though they are good in the swimming pool). They put up a few good showings, but have to be ribbed: “What is an Immaculate?” “Is Immaculate one of the new secondary schools?”
We have the events. Fridays and Saturdays are loved because they have many finals; but preliminary rounds also have lots of excitement and set the table for the finals, with teaser performances that are world-class. But, the finals have the biggest dramas. The records falling (20 this year). The disasters: many disqualifications of favourites in the sprints, such as Michael O’Hara, which led to cries of ‘foul’: “No, man! That’s not right. We came to see him/her win.” “Starter, you holding them too long in the ‘set’ position.” Some did not perform as needed to make the cut in the field events: get in a legal jump, at least. Some fell over hurdles. No one was hit by a discus this year. Relay batons get dropped, though I did not see any drops during the races, or exchanges happen outside ‘the box’. Muscles get torn or ankles get twisted, sometimes out of our sight and we learn of that when we hear that someone has withdrawn, too often, a favourite.
The field events are a little distant from the grandstand, but the crowd is focused on them, nevertheless, and went wild as records were broken in the senior boys high jump.
We get to see ‘celebrities’. The PM is usually there, and this PM is a minister for sport to her core. We see the leader of the opposition, the Education Minister; we had a visit from a track legend, Cuba’s Alberto Juantorena. We had prized and medals presented by Jamaican Olympians, such as Warren Weir and Yohan Blake. We had the corporate sponsors presenting, too.
Health and nutrition are better catered for nowadays, and the racers are met with a cup of Gatorade as they finish. Any fallen or injured athlete is soon swarmed by a team with a gurney on wheels and medical help within seconds, and ‘revived’ or transported away for revival or treatment.
The teams look really good.
Again, sponsors are upfront, and those that cover officials and teams get their logos and colours seen all over. Others make sure they are known by their designs. But, the point is that all the participants look well decked-out, and not a rag-tag bunch. The event looks stylish.
Everyone loves the relays and the event always ends with the 4×400 meters, which gave its customary fireworks, and this time a new record in the senior boys event.
We have to be astonished at the depth of talent that Jamaica can put on display, from the Class 4 (10-2) through Class 1/seniors (16-19).
The lines are drawn early and people love to watch the progressions over the years, through the classes. They know and understand the statistics, and see signs of greatness as records held by current or past Olympians get broken.
We saw a new strain of talent this year, with a relay race for the principals of schools, by region: 4×50 meters, to protect their health, though the island’s medical staff was on full alert. It was a great race, with some trundling by men and women, but also some stylish high-stepping, and everyone celebrated like the true winners they are.
Champs 2014 final day ended just when Earth Hour was due to start, about 8.30pm. Fittingly, there was a firework display scheduled after the events were over, and that was preceded by a tumbling and gymnastics display. Many who watched Champs at home–and the live and full TV coverage was excellent–were not much into saving energy and dousing lights until Champs had finished.
We left after the last relay and were home in record time, as most stayed for the displays. I caught it when I got home.
A great day. Now, the wait until next year.
My daughter’s school doesn’t participate, but I will have to get on their case and see if they can muster up a few kids to show some athleticism next year. When I raced as a boy, it was never in front of such fervent fans or a crowd of such magnitude. England’s main venue, Crystal Palace National Sports Centre holds only 14,000, while London has a population of around 6 million. But, London has more sports venues than many countries. I broke records, too, but never in front of a television audience and with national press coverage. I never focused on Champs when sprinting back then, but maybe it was there in my genes and pumping my legs and arms to the tape.