The eastern Caribbean island nation of St Lucia is set for the XXXVIII CARIFTA Games, 10-13 April in the southern town of Vieux Fort, and given that the 6th IAAF World Youth Championships take place in Bressanone, Italy later this year (8 to 12 July 2009) results from the U17 category events in St Lucia will be of particular importance.
It’s the first time the Helen of the West Indies will host a major international athletics event, and thousands of athletes, officials and fans will descend on the George Odlum National Stadium from across the region, from the Turks & Caicos Islands in the north, from Suriname in the south and of course from Jamaica in the west.
In total, some 26 English- Dutch- and French-speaking territories are expected to be part of this meet. According to Local Organising Committee chairman Donovan Williams, notwithstanding that St Lucia is a first-time venue, they’re in for “the best Games ever.”
National Stadium is ready
St Lucia’s George Odlum National Stadium was completed in mid-2002, a gift from the People`s Republic of China. But the 8000-seat facility, modern as it is in terms of layout, seating, fixtures and amenities, was not equipped with an IAAF-certified competition surface. That necessitated a commitment from the Government to tear up the existing track before the local athletics federation could bid for CARIFTA. The past four months or so have been spent doing just that, with Williams and Minister of Sports, Lenard Montoute – a former CARIFTA athlete himself – working closely with local contractors and of course Mondo, IAAF Official Supplier since 1987, to bring the facility fully up to international standard.
As far back as September 2008, Jamaica's IAAF Council Member Neville 'Teddy' McCook, President of the North American, Central American and Caribbean Athletics Association (NACAC), had expressed his confidence that all would be in place for an excellent meet.
"I am assured that Mondo is on track as far as the work to be done here is concerned, and I am very happy about this," he said during a visit to St Lucia, and specifically the Stadium, at that time. "This is an excellent facility," continued McCook. "I see nothing in the region that compares in terms of availability of rooms and the way you can use those rooms. This is an important stadium with available rooms for medical, media, accommodation, that's excellent."
The refurbished Stadium includes, as described by Williams, "a warm up facility, two High Jump areas, four Triple Jump and Long Jump runways, two Pole Vault runways, one Discus Throw circle, two Shot Put circles and two Javelin Throw runways."
Attention was paid to the support systems and infrastructure as well, with Government spending over EC$5 million (US$1 = EC$2.7) to restore the electronic scoreboard, install a new photo finish apparatus, repair damaged seating, upgrade the lighting, drainage and plumbing, fix the roof and purchase new equipment. Total expenditure on the Stadium came to over EC$10 million. Last weekend, St Lucia’s CARIFTA team had their first run on the new track.
The Stadium is set in the south of St Lucia, with the bulk of accommodation available in the north, about an hour’s drive. Normally held over three days, the Games will be staged over four this year so as to enable shorter sessions and to minimize the impact of having to travel daily.
Williams also notes that because of the structure of the competition facility there is room to house athletes during their off periods. “One advantage we have with the stadium in St Lucia,” he said, “is that we have quite a bit of space especially on the eastern side. We have arranged the rooms so that the athletes can go in there just to relax. Even if you come in the morning and you are competing at 11 you can go in there and rest.”
CARIFTA venues growing in number
St Lucia is now the 11th CARIFTA Games host nation. The CARIFTA Games began in Barbados in Easter 1972, but until the past few years the venue allocation has been fairly predictable. In the first 11 years, the Games were shared between Barbados (which has hosted CARIFTA on a record seven occasions), Trinidad & Tobago, Jamaica and Bahamas (six each), and Bermuda (three).
In 1983 the Games went to the French Caribbean for the first time, Martinique playing host for the first time, though the French overseas department has since caught up with Bermuda, whilst Guadeloupe has been host twice. But since the turn of the century, four new venues - including St Lucia - have been christened.
In 2000, Grenada had the Games at what was then the Caribbean's newest stadium. The Spice Isle was set to host again in 2005, before the September 2004 passage of Hurricane Ivan destroyed that country's stadium and forced a switch to Trinidad & Tobago. In fact, that year (for the first time) the Games went to the smaller of the "twin" islands, as the Dwight Yorke Stadium in Bacolet, Tobago was upgraded within a matter of a few months. After a return to Guadeloupe in 2006, the Games were awarded to the northern Caribbean territory of Turks & Caicos, at their new stadium on the island of Providenciales. And yet another new stadium was built in Basseterre, St Kitts-Nevis, the Bird Rock Stadium hosting CARIFTA Games XXXVII.
Jamaican dominance anticipated
As has been the case for a quarter of a century, Jamaica should top the medal table. Despite some injury concerns coming out of the recently held Boys’ and Girls’ Champs, the team is impressive, including IAAF World Youth Champions Ramone McKenzie and Dexter Lee, the latter also a World Junior Champion, alongside eight-time CARIFTA champion Natouya Goule, distance running star Kemoy Campbell and Pole Vault record holder K’Don Samuels.
The next generation of stars is already emerging, with Jahazeel Murphy threatening a record formerly held by triple Olympic champion, Usain Bolt, whilst Chris-Ann Gordon and Dianna Johnson should be more than a handful for their regional counterparts.
Jamaica won’t have it all their own way though. IAAF World Youth and World Junior 400m silver medallist Kirani James makes his much-anticipated under-20 debut against fellow Grenadian and returning one-lap champion Rondell Bartholomew and Fabian Norgrove, bronze medallist in St Kitts-Nevis. That event should offer up some great competition.
In the men’s 1500m, Jamaica’s Campbell will renew hostilities with Gavyn Nero, former Austin Sealy Award winner as the most outstanding athlete at CARIFTA, whilst it’s conceivable that the Caribbean’s two leading junior middle distance runners could clash in either the 800m or 5000m races. Last year, the men’s 1500m came down to less than a second.
Kierre Beckles of Barbados surged to a CARIFTA record for the 100m Hurdles last year in St Kitts-Nevis. This time around, the World Junior Championship finalist will go up against some very familiar opponents, but she will also be going up against the clock, having run two hundredths of a second outside her CARIFTA-best time less than a month before travelling to St Lucia. Another athlete who could be chasing the record books is Nivea Smith of the Bahamas. She will seek to join Debbie Jones (Bermuda 1975-77) and Aleen Bailey (Jamaica 1997-99) as the only women to win CARIFTA under-20 gold in the 200m dash three years in a row, and could take aim at Veronica Campbell’s 2001 meet record.
The home team’s best medal chances will come in the horizontal jumps, where they had two fourth-place finishes last year, as was the case in the women’s open Pentathlon. Former under-17 Long Jump champion Lenyn Leonce missed out on under-20 bronze in St Kitts-Nevis by a centimetre, and is favoured for gold this year.
Sandisha Antoine, a 2007 double silver medallist in the under-17 ranks, will be confident that she can take the under-20 Triple Jump title and ought to be a Long Jump contender as well.
Makeba Alcide’s main challengers for the combined events crown could come from the French Antilles, in 2008 silver medallist Audelia Da Veiga of Martinique and Maily Nicar of Guadeloupe.
Shane Brathwaite of Barbados should become the third man to win back-to-back titles in the open Heptathlon. Last year he won four of the seven events en route to victory, and having improved by over 500 points to surpass the 5000-point barrier in 2008, he could be casting covetous glances at Maurice Smith’s 1999 record of 5623. Brathwaite and Beckles are two of the few experienced athletes on a young Barbados team that includes Akela Jones, who will be hard pressed to overcome defending champion Petagaye Reid on Jamaica in under-17 High Jump, where Ash Nalty of the Cayman Islands will also figure.
Terry Finisterre for the IAAF
Click here for the official 2009 CARIFTA Games website