The rest of the world should come to the Caribbean to learn about developing young track and field athletes. This is according to Lamine Diack, president of the International Association of Athletics Federations.
Diack has been attending the CARIFTA Games since just after he became president of the IAAF in 1999, viewing it as one of the most important youth athletics competitions in the world.
The CARIFTA Games, which brings athletes from across the Caribbean together each year, reminds Diack of an event he used to participate in during his youth in Senegal.
“We had in my capital city Dakar eight different colonies who were coming every Easter holiday in Dakar, the best to compete under 15, under 18, and senior. And the best were selected to go to the French championships,” he recalls.
During that time, the colonies involved produced great athletes. However, independence spelled the end for the competition as each country went its own way.
“I was keen to discover that in Caribbean you have this kind of event since ’72 going on and I said I will come to it every year to be part of that,” he says.
It is not only the top class performances by regional athletes that attracted Diack to the event. According to him the event also sets a standard for broad-based involvement in event organisation.
“It involves everyone – government, national Olympic Committee, federation, sponsors, all together,” he notes.
As the youth is the future of any sport, Diack believes events like CARIFTA should be more common.
“We should seek to have this kind of event even in each of our areas. Then there will be top athletics,” according to Diack.
“We have this event only in Caribbean, nowhere else. Europe is saying ‘We do not know how to maintain our athletics’ and we say ‘Go and see what is going on in the Caribbean and you will see that it is possible to push track and field.”
The great equaliser
Unlike many other sports, track and field shows little regard for the wealth or even size of a country.
“There are great countries putting a lot of money in sport and so on not able to achieve one world record, one world champion or one Olympic champion,” according to Diack.
Yet countries like Ethiopia can achieve world records and Olympic medals, even though the country is desperately poor.
“You go there and they have no water, they have to walk 10 kilometres to find water, but they are achieving things with someone like [Haile] Gebrselassie or [Kenenisa] Bekele,” says Diack.
Not even the size of a country will necessarily help it produce top athletes.
“In our sport, any country can achieve. You can have a country of 40,000 inhabitants that can have a better result than a country of 60 million,” says Diack.
A culture of sport
According to Diack, the most important step any country can take is to build a culture of sport.
“I was taught that sport is ‘know yourself, control yourself and improve yourself’ and the best to demonstrate that is athletics,” he says.
Growing up, Diack credits his brother with helping him along his path.
“He said, ‘I can see you very much like sport, but you have to be the best in the classroom too. I don’t want you to be the last in mathematics – you cannot be the champion in football and do nothing in mathematics’,” recalls Diack.
This focus allowed Diack to achieve in both academics and sport.
“You learn how to run your life. There is no other activity in which you have this motivation, only in sport. It must be part of your education system,” he says.
The need for heroes
According to Diack, athletics suffered from a lack of heroes prior to the emergence of Usain Bolt.
“From time to time you have one very special athlete, very gifted by God and achieving very good performances,” says Diack.
In previous generations, there was Carl Lewis or Michael Johnson, but Bolt is the first major star to emerge since.
However, Bolt brings more than merely his world record breaking performances to the sport.
“He is creating an atmosphere. Look what happened even in the Jamaican team – Asafa (Powell) used to be very quiet, but now the start of a 100 metre is like a fiesta. They used to be everyone concentrated, but it has changed, so he’s not only achieving great performances but his personality is attracting people,” says Diack.
Although some have criticised Bolt exuberant finish line celebrations, Diack believes it actually helps the sport.
“When he celebrates he keeps the mind of a young man, and that is very great. The youth will follow him immediately, they will run after him.”
Building the future
The Caribbean is already the dominant force in world sprinting. Yet through youth programmes like the CARIFTA Games, the region may well develop into a powerhouse for other track and field disciplines as well.
“It was a good idea in ’72 to say we will have CARIFTA and because they keep on doing it there will be great achievement in athletics in this part of the world,” says Diack.
Although the middle distance events and field events like pole vault did not feature strongly in earlier editions of CARIFTA, these form part of the programme now and over time could lead to Caribbean athletes dominating these events on the world stage as well.
“I think in the Caribbean you are completing the spectrum,” says Diack.
The Caribbean is moving and it is up the rest of the world to learn and catch up.