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Oba: It made no sense


Obadele Thompson

Oba: It made no sense

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The following is Part 3 in a series in response to an article written by former Amateur Athletic Association secretary Joyann Clarke in the SUNDAY SUN of August 19, 2012.
Another important constraint was the fact (as a seasoned athlete, Frankie Fredericks, explained to me) that there were only eight lanes in the major European Grand Prix track events, and that there was always fierce competition for those lanes by all but one or two top athletes (usually the defending World, the Olympic and European champions, the world record holder or the person with the world-best performance in that event).
Fredericks further explained to me that the day that I chose to scratch from one of those events might be the day that some other people ran very fast times, and this might exclude me from getting a lane in other Grand Prix and Golden League events.
Therefore, what sense would it have made to me or Barbadian athletics to forfeit an “unsecured” lane in Europe in order to go to the CAC and Pan Am Games which often clashed in schedule with more high level events, or came close to doing so? (see attached letter by my father to the AAA in 1997).
Readers should be informed that I won the Senior CAC 100 metres in 1993 at the age of 17 years, and not only repeated that feat two years later, but also won the 200 metres in a championship record.
Ms Clarke’s suggestion that the AAA wanted me to rub shoulders with more junior athletes and inspire them to reach for higher heights sounds fine, but my own perception was that they would have been much more inspired by seeing one of their nationals performing well at the highest levels of athletics.
What Ms Clarke never tells the public is that Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, and The Bahamas never sent their top-class athletes to the CAC or the Pan Am meets, nor does the United States in respect of the Pan Am meets. They concentrate on the European circuit to sharpen their skills and prepare for the bigger championships.
As regards national championships, at no time did I miss them only to compete somewhere else within a few days. When I was not running at nationals, it was because I was simply injured, recovering from injury, or complaining legitimately about the poor state of the track that threatened to lead to serious injury to me. (See my discussion of this subject on April 12, 2006 in the DAILY?NATION, in response to Ms Clarke’s criticism of me in the same newspaper on March 12, 2006.)
It should be noted that I was injured on the same track while competing at nationals and leading the field in the semi-finals of the 100 metres in June 2008. By that time, the track that had been laid in 2000 had deteriorated once again. (Now, after several complaints by athletes, it is being resurfaced as I write.) That injury ended any realistic hopes of competing in the Beijing Olympics, and also all but ended my athletic career. What irony!
Although I was overcome with emotion and knew that my body had no more to offer, I did not simply quit. I had made a commitment to the BOA to do my best to represent Barbados in Beijing. By 2008, funding by the NSC for me had stopped because I had not met certain standards in the previous year. However, I was a man of my word and the financial support I received from them two years earlier was for me to make every effort to complete the journey to the Games.
I also felt indebted to a few others, such as Sir Charles Williams, who had believed enough in me to provide me with financial assistance to give it one last shot. I purchased a ticket to travel to Canada the day after the injury to see Jeremy Graham, my physiotherapist, in a last-ditch effort to get healthy enough to achieve the Olympic qualifying time.
The deadline was three weeks away and so we worked tirelessly to get me back on track. I knew that I was far from ready – my hamstring would hurt with almost unbearable pain any time that I pushed from the starting blocks and tried to sprint – but I only had one last chance to make the standard.
I competed at a summer track meet in a small town in Ohio, USA, and was beaten badly by “no-name” runners as I muscled through the pain but failed to come anywhere close to the qualifying time. Another US$4 000 had gone (plane tickets, car rental, etc.) at a financially tough time.
I called the BOA to inform the members of that organization that I did not qualify. My professional career, once filled with great achievements, would end at a track meet in the middle of nowhere. For the record, I should state that I did compete one final time, simply for the joy of doing so – winning a 200 metres event in front of my family and some close friends in Austin, Texas in 2009. I am at peace with my career.
About my so-called “US entourage”
Ms Clarke and some others frequently like to refer to my “US entourage.” Given what I have said immediately above and the letters that Coach Pfaff penned to the AAA, it should be quite understandable to my readers why I was “encompassed” with US, Canadian and British personages. They had become an essential part of my training and indeed of my everyday life. They knew me, and understood my personality, hopes, expectations and idiosyncrasies more than any other individuals, with perhaps the exception of my parents.
It must be recalled that I left home at the age of 17 years, and that I had made my international mark under their direct supervision, though I was always in contact with my local coaches (Mr Orlando Greene, Mr Anthony Lovell and Mr Frank Blackman). Indeed, I never entered a major meet without consulting Coach Blackman several times and would sometimes call him in-between the actual rounds of competition.
I always sought him out, and trained with him, on my visits home. To this day, we remain in close contact. I always visit him on my return home, send him pictures of my family and share with him many family secrets. I also try to maintain periodic contact with Coach Greene, and I did the same with Coach Lovell before he passed away.
As mentioned before, I remember with gratitude the loving care that Dr Jackie King-Mowatt gave me whenever I returned home, and my frequent visits to her workplace where she provided physiotherapy for me, free of cost. I knew that all these people, both local and overseas, cared for me, and would go a second and often a third mile to ensure my success. I am also aware that a much wider group of locals, both those who were part of the athletic fraternity and others who simply followed my career, also cared deeply for me, and I am still in touch with some of them.
Returning more directly to the question of my so-called “entourage”, nearly all international Caribbean athletes, including Barbadians, and all Jamaicans until recently, followed the model of engaging foreign coaches and ancillary personnel, a practice established long before my athletic career began.
The primary reason is because these athletes study, train, live and develop their careers largely in the US. A second reason is because the training facilities at home are often sub-standard and the opportunities for sharpening their skills are usually very limited. It was therefore natural that as my athletic career progressed the people who comprised my inner circle would be largely non-Barbadians.
This inner circle consisted of a handful of people, mainly from the US and Canada, some of whom changed over time, including my personal coaches (Bob Kitchens and Dan Pfaff), physiotherapists (mainly David Morin, Jeremy Graham, and Dr Mark Lindsay), and managers (Brad Hunt and Renaldo Nehemiah). These people were top-class professionals in their respective fields and became an important part of my support team for many years.
During my stay at UTEP, under Coach Kitchens, I set three world records: the world junior record, the world 55 metres record, and the record for the fastest 100 metres under any conditions. The second of these records stands up to today. Under Coach Pfaff, I was able to set five national records, including coming within 0.03 seconds of the 100 metres world record. My athletic career would have ended several years earlier without their collective expertise, tireless assistance and devotion to me.
Let me illustrate the level of commitment of these people to me by reference to two incidents in my life. In 1996, when I badly needed a coach and physiotherapist to see me through the Atlanta Olympic Games, after I had injured myself in the NCAA Championships, I asked Messrs Kitchens and Morin if they would be willing to make their services available to me for those Games, which were due to take place about six weeks later. Not only did they agree to do so, but Coach Kitchens also cancelled a holiday trip with his family in order to be there for me.
In 2007, at my request, Coach Kitchens and physiotherapist Jeremy Graham flew to Barbados from El Paso and Canada, respectively, to assist me at the National Championships. They agreed to stay at my parents’ home, instead of at a hotel. On neither of the two occasions did I pay them even one cent for their services, and I only paid for their air fares to Barbados, not to Atlanta. I call their service “NISE”, not entourage.
It must be understood that the designation of national team coach for individual sports at major championships, even for large countries such as the US, France, Germany, Russia and Britain, is usually honorary. Such people usually do not design individual athletes’ last-minute programmes at championships, although they tend to be responsible for coaching the relay teams.
A national team coach is most useful when an athlete’s personal coach is not present because he or she can provide some feedback and guidance to that athlete who may otherwise be on his or her own at a critical time. It should be noted that most of my Barbadian teammates on senior teams to the World Championships and Olympic Games were living in the United States and were being trained by American coaches. However, most of them were unable to afford for their respective personal coaches to accompany them and sometimes had to fall back on national coaches.
I take issue with the implication in Ms Clarke’s article that the “US entourage” inhibited the national team officials from doing their job. Frankly, their jobs were made easier because my support team were all devoted to giving their best to make Barbados proud. Certainly, minimal work was required by the national officials before my arrival at some major athletic events, mainly the submission of information about my coach and physiotherapist, vital for accreditation from the IAAF. My passport number and clothing sizes were constant for most of my career.
Ms Clarke’s comment about sending me first class to the Sydney Olympics Games is erroneous. To the best of my recall, I never requested that the AAA pay for me to travel first class. Let me say that in the first place, it is the Barbados Olympic Association (BOA), and not the AAA, that foots the bill for Olympic athletes.
More important, her statement that that suggests that I was in one of the front seats on the plane while the rest of the Barbados team sat in the back as we headed to Sydney is out of sync with what actually happened.
The fact is that I travelled to the Games from Japan, where I had been competing, and no Barbadian athlete or official was on that flight. Furthermore, the last occasion on which I flew to any major competition with the Barbados team was to the 1995 IAAF World Championships in Sweden, because I always arrived from a different location than my teammates due to my training or competition schedule before the meet.
The only instance that I remember when I flew first class to a meet at the expense of a national organization was to compete in the 2004 Athens Olympics. On that occasion, the BOA (not the AAA) paid the travel expenses for my physiotherapist and me. As far as I can recall, the BOA offered me this perk in recognition of my outstanding performance at competitions for which they were responsible to send local athletes. The AAA might have helped to offset some of the costs for my support team’s accommodation at the 2001 World Championships in Edmonton, Canada, but I am unsure about this matter. If that is so, I would be grateful if Ms Clarke or some other previous or current official could supply written evidence on this matter.
I should also point out here that my coach and physiotherapist were not tethered to me exclusively. Even though I was picking up the tab, my Barbadian teammates were allowed to use them, an offer which several athletes and even some officials took up at various championships.
Dealing specifically with the Sydney Olympic Games, I stayed in the athletes’ village with the rest of the team (and did so for every BOA-associated championship, including the Commonwealth Games and the CAC Championships).
Before and during my competitions, I tended to be in my room, in the dining hall, or at the track. Additionally, the BOA management would have had my cell phone number on file.
I cannot recall exactly where I warmed up for the first round of the 100 metres at the Sydney Games. However, it is likely that because of the crowded situation at the main warm-up venue (more than 100 athletes competed in the first round of the 100 metres), Coach Pfaff moved my warm-up to the secondary warm-up track, located less than three minutes’ walk away, in order to avoid the risk of injury by running into other athletes.
Even if I was at the secondary facility, management should have been able to locate me and my “entourage” (who had an open massage table) within five to ten minutes. My warm-up usually took at least one hour before I entered the call room for processing, 45 minutes before the start of my event.
Mr Tony Jones, who was the athletics coach for the Games and was quite knowledgeable about Coach Pfaff’s expertise and status in the athletic world, never voiced any concern to me at the Games or any other time about where I was or what I was doing. He often saw my pre-competition workouts, and to the best of my knowledge, he had full access to me during the competition. In fact, for many years after Sydney, when I was in Barbados I would go to his house for athletic massages without any hint that he had felt slighted by my actions.
Similarly, Mr Seibert Straughn, coach of the 2004 Olympic athletic team, was present at most of my pre-competition training sessions and warm-ups for my races. I cannot speak about the unnamed officials at meets who claimed not to have seen me, except on the track running.
I do not recall ever being told before or after any competition about officials not being able to contact or find me. I was generally where I was supposed to be and when I was supposed to be there, with a serious and workmanlike attitude.
Allegations about staying away from the team and making other “demands”
The AAA accommodated my four requests to stay outside the athletes’ village at various IAAF World Outdoor Championships (1997, 1999, 2001 and 2005). Often, the athletes’ village at the World Championships can be too unpredictable. You never know where your dorms will be or who or what countries will be your neighbours (serious athletes or partiers?) until you are in the village.
Additionally, when you are from a small country with no clout in the athletic world, such as is the case with Barbados, the organizers can put you out in the middle of nowhere (as happened in Seville, Spain, in 1999) or on one of the top floors (with no elevator) in the furthest dorm from the transportation and dining hall (as happened in Helsinki, Finland, in 2005).
At that stage, you cannot simply change accommodation to another building or seek reasonable and affordable hotel rooms. It would be a logistical nightmare (such as organizing and scheduling transportation, and complying with security concerns), and increase already high anxiety.
The long walks to central locations in the village and being in an unpredictable environment may not concern some athletes or officials, but the ability to focus, prepare, unwind, or even eat on one’s own terms can make the difference between simply reaching the finals and medalling.
I will use the first occasion on which I asked the AAA to allow me to stay outside the Championship Village as illustrative of what usually took place. The event was the 1997 IAAF World Championships in Athens, Greece, which took place shortly after I had become a professional athlete. Mr Brad Hunt, my agent at the time, who was also managing many elite track athletes, including US Olympic champions Michael Johnson and Allen Johnson, had made arrangements for all his athletes at those championships to stay at a hotel outside the village. What should I have done about it? Tell him that I was not going to stay [outside] the village?
Staying outside the village was a common practice for many top sprinters. At that time, I was globally ranked among the top five sprinters in the 200 metres and had also been an Olympic Games finalist in that event. To put this in proper perspective, the winners of all the men’s sprinting events at those World Championships (100 metres, 200 metres, 400 metres, and 110 metres hurdles) stayed that the same hotel, along with their coaches and physiotherapists. These people included Maurice Greene and Ato Boldon.
With only one professional European race under my belt and no sponsorship agreements inked, my parents, agent and I took on the expense of getting my coach and physiotherapist to the championships.
It was an investment in my future. I never asked the AAA to pick up the tab and they did not offer to assist in covering any of my costs, even though I was their top athlete for many years with an exceptional championship history. I have already detailed above how the debacle at National Championships in June of that year materially affected my chances of medalling at the world championships.
Let me say here that requesting to stay outside the village had nothing to do with trying to run away from Barbadian officials or other Barbadian colleagues. I was very intense and extremely focused at major championships ever since I was a junior athlete. I did not play around. I was not interested in trading pins or T-shirts, or taking photographs until my job was done.
When I went to competitions, I wanted to find out three principal things: where I was going to sleep, where I would eat, and what was my competition schedule. Of course, I spoke with people. I spoke with my teammates and sometimes even competitors who were my friends. I ate meals, told jokes, and sometimes even played cards with people whom I really trusted. However, I used to become so zoned in at the Olympic Games and other major championships that even my family members knew not to call me unless it was an emergency. Yes, that was my style, and I see no need to apologize for it.
As regards my statement about Kim Collins, I was simply making the point that he was the kind of athlete who could be trusted not to fool around at such an important event. He was a tried and proven competitor about whom one did not have to worry. Incidentally, this comment was made on my Facebook, and was intended only for my close circle of friends. However, various individuals downloaded it and published it as articles in newspapers and on the Internet.
• Obadele Thompson is Barbados’ first individual Olympic medallist, winning a bronze medal in the men’s 100 metres at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Part 4 of this series will appear in the WEEKEND NATION.

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