One of the most colourful characters on the Cayman sports scene has to be Bernie Bush.
Former star in a bunch of sports, he is now more an administrator and coach, but still very high profile as the treasurer of the Cayman Islands Olympic Committee and the architect and manager of the national Under-17 girls football programme.
Bush’s resume is long and varied; he is especially proud of being a founder member of the Special Olympics in Cayman, Scholars International football team and Future Sports Club. He was also president of the athletics association and vice-president of cricket.
He owns a Digicel telephone shop and internet café on Walkers Road and intends to open a flight school with son Hakeem, who at 17 must be one of the youngest qualified commercial pilots in the region. He’ll have to wait till he turns 18 in July to fly for Cayman airways. Daughter Shakeina, 19, is studying engineering in the US when not turning out for Cayman’s national women’s football team. Bush is happy that they are well adjusted, independent youngsters. ‘God has blessed me with my kids.’
A proud Caymanian, that theme recurs throughout the interview in his office at the back of the shop. A bundle of hyperactivity, he fields cell calls, office calls and staff enquiries as we talk. An outspoken man on many issues in his formative years, he has not spoken to the media for years but feels the time is right.
As treasurer of the CIOC he keeps track of all the money coming in from various entities. For example, when receipts come in from specific associations, they have to be recorded and collated before they’re refunded. He has great help from people in the Olympic office.
Interest in the Olympic set up was sparked in 1989 when he came back from two years university in Leeds, England. The president of the Olympic Committee at that time, Ernest Foster was getting a lot of flak for trying to ‘Caymanise’ the administration. He sat Bush down and said he was going to give him a chance to pave the way for other Caymanians. ‘He told me he was getting heat from certain people every time he talked about that. I was thrown in at the deep end to be in charge of the Pan Am Games in Cuba and the CAC Games in Mexico as the chef de mission (team manager). The pressure to not fail was unbelievable. But I must say a special thank you to Elsmer (Ted) Gray who refused to let me give up or fail.
‘There are four things in my life that I will always hold dear to my heart; seeing my two children being born, being responsible for having Beloved Isle Cayman played when we walked into the stadium at a Games in Cuba instead of God Save The Queen. I was heavily criticised for that by the powers at that time. The fourth was the tour we just came off with the young girls in the World Cup qualifiers in Antigua. To see how much they improved and how well they played in that tournament was great. They had a lot of people here who wanted to see them fail.
‘Now I see that Isle Cayman is played for nearly every association and feel good to know that I played a part in that.’
His father is Cuban and mother Caymanian. ‘I’m not anti-anyone but I am pro-Caymanian. You see Bermuda walk in, England walk in, British Virgin Islands walk in and you’re hearing God Save The Queen. I want the crowd to know that we’re the Cayman Islands, we’re unique and special. There were two athletes who actually came to the frontline where I was carrying the flag that first time and they, like myself had water in their eyes and kissed me on my cheek. I could see the love for their country and level of pride.’
Sports was his childhood focal point in West Bay, representing Cayman High School in football and cricket. Besides the usual stuff, he did some sailing with the Boy Scouts and at 13 played volleyball with the big guys from Prospect. ‘If you asked me what was my favourite sport, it was hard to say because it depended on what I was playing at that moment. I just loved all sports.’
Tony Virtue, a tennis pro, took him under his wing. At 14, Bush won a mixed doubles. ‘I wasn’t good enough to win the singles, I needed someone to help me!’
He played for Scholars after leaving school until his football career was thwarted by knee injuries. So coaching was a new passion and playing cricket for West Bay took over. Bush also discovered racing cars and even got rookie of the year in that. Before Hurricane Ivan, the racing car scene was thriving here. ‘At least once a month there was around 20 cars racing. I drove a front wheel drive four cylinder Mitsubishi. I was in the B group and missed being promoted to the A group by one point.
‘The satisfying thing is that even though I just missed on getting promotion, in an international race, against people from overseas, I finished fifth overall which is fantastic for a rookie driver.’
Bush has not always been involved in the Olympic Committee since his initial introduction. A few years ago after a series of issues, he was blacklisted ‘for attempting to get elected. I was a little boy trying to get into the old boy network’.
Initially, it had a disheartening effect for someone so patriotic. ‘From doing two good jobs as chef de mission to Mexico and Cuba I was not asked to do anything. Not even carry water. This is the first time I’ve actually talked about it. Being blacklisted was okay, I had no problem with that because the Olympic Committee has emerged from the old boy network. They had their time. A lot of things they did was done the wrong way and I know my present president (Donald McLean) will chew me out for saying that but that is a fact. The facts are all there.
‘After Gerris Miller we made some strides and under Donald we’re not striding no more, we’re actually leaping by bounds. He is a good president. He allows the Olympic movement here to include everyone. I think he is one of the best things that’s happened to the Olympic Committee.’
At the recent Olympic Committee annual general meeting they updated the constitution. They do not, as was speculated, have any lifetime members yet. The next elections are after the Beijing Olympics next year. The rest of the Olympic Committee consists of Lori Powell, vice-president, and Carson Ebanks, secretary-general.
‘We all get on okay. We go at each other strongly but it’s never anything personal and we take it to the members and vote on it. I’m surprised actually how well we get on. Donald and I had a major disagreement recently but the next day we’re the best of friends. That’s what I like about him. I would also vote for him to remain president and have great respect for him.’
Surprisingly, Bush will not be going to China for the Games. ‘I don’t like planes, I don’t like to travel. Wherever the Olympic Movement meeting is within four or five hours away then I’ll go. I’m not fond of aircraft. I went to Antigua for the young children. For the Olympics, it’s all big people going, there’s no kids there where their parents are putting their trust in me. There have been cases where parents have told me that if I don’t go then they won’t send their child. And I would hate to see a child missing on an opportunity because of me being chicken on an aircraft. I don’t get sick, I’m just not comfortable. And my son is a pilot, isn’t that something!’
Bush hopes that the achievements of the Under-17 girls football will be a catalyst for other youngsters to succeed in other sports. Swimming and track and field has great potential, he feels.
‘In track and field, when I became president, the cupboard was bare and I had to start from scratch. You will see what coaches Tyrone Yen and Kenrick Williams are working with now. Track and field and swimming has shown that if you start them young, you’re going to get results. They’ve also shown that you can’t run programmes just for two or three months. It has to be a year long thing. The problem is getting the parents, the children, the coaches and the associations all on the same page.
‘Here in Cayman which is so small, what happened to me still happens. Kids want to play all sports instead of specialising. Some of the coaches too are very selfish. They know within themselves that certain athletes will not go far in their sports, but the fact that they make up the numbers. The coaches instead of saying: ‘Looking at your body type you may be better at football or looking at your skills you may be better at track and field and be a shot putter or something.’ A lot of coaches don’t do that. Regardless of anything they want to keep the kids in their programme. So they hold them up instead of directing them elsewhere. And then you find that the children, at times when you try to discipline them, they get upset with you and run to another sport and that other sport accepts them. The new coach doesn’t tell them to go back to their first sport and sort out their discipline problem first, he just accepts them. And these are the sort of things that have held us back over the years. There is not enough discipline and co-ordination between them.
‘I see various associations now going the youth way, building from the bottom. To get to the next level in sports you have to have the fundamentals first. When a kid has the fundamentals, when he makes a move, it’s almost like breathing, he just does it. That’s where the repetition comes in. It’s a problem with this generation because they want everything instantly. That’s why in a game like cricket the younger generation is not crazy over it. They prefer basketball because you’re on the move all the time and scoring points. That’s why 20/20 cricket is so exciting, compared to regular cricket. Something is always going on.
‘Even a sport like football where you might only get one or two goals in a game, unless you’re participating, can be boring to some people.’