I have at my own expense attended every Carifta Games since 1994 (save 2004 and 2013) and one thing stands out. It is the fact that the countries with a strong tradition of inter-schools competition at the secondary level are consistently at the top of the medals table.
In my humble view, unless and until T&T creates a strong, popular, inter-schools competition at the secondary level we will continue to underperform at Carifta. The inter-schools championships are among, if not the most, popular events on the local calendar in Jamaica, Barbados, the Bahamas, and Grenada. These countries are, if not the top medal winners, among the top five on a consistent basis.
This popularity allows them to be competitive for top local sponsorship dollars. The outstanding thing about schools athletics in each of these countries is the quality of the administration both on the days of the final competition and in the lead-up to same. I say final competition because what is lost generally is the fact that in all cases there is prior competition leading to the national schools championships.
The good quality administration allows for the performances of the individuals and the schools to be compared, contrasted, and reported on in the national press. This creates the expectation of excitement and good competition at the championships. I would make bold to say that the existence of the regional secondary schools championships is unknown to most of the population of this country. The national press is unable to report on same because of the unavailability of the results from those championships.
The inter-schools championships at the secondary level in this country are conducted between zones rather than schools. Just thinking about this in the context of the previous paragraph should demonstrate that there is a problem. It is very difficult to create any excitement and loyalty to a zone (save Tobago) as compared with a school.
The old boys and old girls networks have no interest in a zone. The same applies to current pupils. I cannot see school children turning out to support a zone but I do see them turning out in numbers to support and cheer the star athletes from their schools. The competition needs to be restructured so that the emphasis is placed on champion schools rather than zones. Think secondary schools football and cricket where the competition is between schools!
There are over 80,000 pupils in secondary schools in this country. That is the pool from which the inter-schools championships can draw. The National Association of Athletics Administration (NAAA) which is the governing body for athletics in this country can build on this but there needs to be a working relationship. This should include the use of experienced NAAA technical officials in the planning for the championships and on the actual days of competition.
The outcome will be better competition, a deeper pool of quality athletes, more access to information by the general public, better appreciation of the championships by that public and, ultimately, more talented international representatives for this country. I am aware that the NAAA has been trying for the last ten years to engage with the administrators of inter-schools athletics at the secondary level to no avail. They have been told that they are not needed. The quality of the inter-schools championships speaks for itself in response to that statement.
I have issues with the Carifta team selection this year but that should not take away from the deeper issues I have tried to highlight here. The NAAA have tried a tough love approach. Next year we will see if it has worked. There are outstanding athletes in the lower age groups who will become available for Carifta and other international competitions over the next few years. The deeper pool of athletes accessible through a better structured inter-schools championships will smooth the performance highs and lows created by our relatively small population.