Earlier this year, on July 13, Trinidad and Tobago’s Keshorn Walcott was engaged in a tooth and nail battle for World Junior javelin throwing supremacy with his talented Argentinian arch-rival Braian Toledo inside Barcelona’s historic Olympic Stadium. After trailing for much of the highly anticipated duel, he managed to hurl his 800-gram implement a gold medal-winning distance of 78.64 metres on his sixth and final attempt. With the coveted title securely stowed away in his gunny sack, the 19 year old immediately shifted focus to preparing for his debut Olympic performance in London.
The cast of competitors in the Men’s Javelin Throw event changed markedly from Barcelona to London. Himself apart, no other athlete who had competed in Barcelona managed to make the 12-man final of the event in the English capital. The names of javelin throwing neophytes such as Bugallo and Al-Mahamid had been replaced on the startlist by those of men who had already reserved their places in the discipline’s pantheon – including two-time Olympic champion Andreas Thorkildsen. However, though so much had changed, one thing remained constant for the soon-to-be Olympic javelin champion: the expert tutelage of his Cuban coach Ismael Lopez Mastrapa. The rest, as they say, is history. Walcott went on to record a personal best throw of 84.58 metres to become one of the Games’ most surprising gold medallists.
Mr. Lopez Mastrapa, who is employed as an Athlete/Coach Development Officer with the Sports Company of Trinidad and Tobago, contributed significantly to Walcott adding the critical metres needed to add his name to a long list of outstanding World and Olympic champions conditioned by Cuban coaches. The roll call reads like a veritable who’s who of all-time great field eventers. 1992 Olympic Men’s High Jump champion Javier Sotomayor and 2000 Olympic Men’s Long Jump champion Ivan Pedroso are but a few. All things being equal, the likes of reigning World Junior 110-metre Hurdles champion Yordan O’Farrill seem set to continue reaping the golden fruits borne from the seeds planted by a new generation of exceptional Cuban coaches.
Recently, Mr. Lopez Mastrapa was rewarded with the North America, Central America and Caribbean Athletics Association (NACAC) Coach of the Year accolade for overseeing Walcott’s richly successful transition into the professional ranks.
The Sports Company of Trinidad and Tobago’s mandate is similar to that of our own Sports Development Foundation (SDF). The provision of technical support to that country’s various sporting organizations is among the responsibilities entrusted to it. Why can’t a number of Cuban field event coaches be similarly contracted to our SDF? Instead of allocating scarce resources to construct often underutilized sports complexes in virtually every nook and cranny of the island, we would be better served – as I have heard suggested in some quarters – establishing one fully-equipped National Centre for Sporting Excellence in each parish. At least one Cuban field event coach could be employed to each to train athletes and coaches alike in these non-traditional disciplines.
Alternatively, if the resources do not permit, the G.C. Foster College of Physical Education and Sport could serve as the forum for the aforementioned interaction. Let’s make that venerable institution the Cuban gift that truly keeps on giving.
The historically strong ties that have existed between Jamaica and Cuba would seem to naturally lend itself to the fostering of a vibrant exchange of expertise that could enable both countries to gradually build the coaching capacity required to sustainably address their respective failings on the track and in the field. After all, it can be argued that Cuba has not produced a world-class short sprinter – whether male or female – in over two decades. 1980 Olympic 100-metre silver medallist Silvio Leonard might well have been the last. Surely, this is an area in which there should be greater collaboration between ourselves and our other great neighbour to the north.
The answers to many of our problems in the technical events might lie just 90 miles away. As for our middle and long distance woes, they will likely require something much more difficult to accomplish – a paradigmatic cultural shift.
It was heartening to hear the Jamaica Athletics Administrative Association’s recent announcement that the arrival of a Kenyan distance coach is imminent. However, as any promise-wary Jamaican will tell you, there is often many a slip between the cup and the lip.