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T&T’s first Olympian dies in poverty

Published: 
Tuesday, March 25, 2014
Family members of the late Rodney Wilkes, visited the Guardian's South office yesterday, to inform the public that the former T&T Olmypic weightlifter, died while waiting to be warded at San Fernando General Hospital, yesterday. In photo are Patrick Laurence, stepson, from left, daughter, Grace Wilkes, and Marion Wilkes, grandson. PHOTO:TONY HOWELL

T&T’s greatest weightlifter and first Olympic medallist, Rodney Wilkes, has died.

 

Wilkes, who lived in poverty, after putting T&T in the international sporting hall of fame, passed away at the San Fernando General Hospital around 11.30 am on Monday from prostate cancer.

 

He was 89. At age 23, Wilkes lifted a combined 700 pounds and won a silver medal at the 1948 London Games and the bronze four years later at Helsinki, in 1952. 

 

His grandson, Mario Wilkes, was at his side when he died. He leaves to mourn his children, Grace, Rodney Jr, Dave and Marlene and step-son Patrick Laurence.

 

His eldest daughter Grace, said her father, who is still considered this country’s greatest weightlifter was rushed to the hospital on Sunday night by ambulance after complaining that he could not breathe.

 

She said Wilkes, who turned 89 on March 11, wanted to die at his Bertrand Street, San Fernando home, but when he had problems breathing, she had no choice but to take him to the hospital.

 

Grace spent the night with him, as doctors successfully resusciated him. She praised the medical team at the Accident and Emergency department, saying they did everything to save him.

 

“I want to thank Dr Edward Hai Ting, Dr Boodram, Dr Cummings and all the other doctors who made sure daddy was well taken care of. They fought with him and brought him back, when he got there last night. Because of their excellent care, I am not crying today,” she said. 

 

While thankful for the care afforded him, Grace said she was saddened that over the years, they were not able to give him the kind of care he deserved.

 

She said she always had to hold back, because the money was never enough, especially in the past eight months when his wife died and he was diagnosed with prostate cancer.

 

“We wanted to take him abroad for further treatment, but we did not have the money to do so. I always felt I was short changing him and it hurt.’

 

“People knew my dad was ailing, but no one came to visit him. All of the upper echelons stayed away.”

 

Grace said some help came from the Sportt Company, First Citizens and Mark Mungal, an individual who provided a bed and washing machine for Wilkes.

 

“We are very grateful for all of these people who reached out,” Grace said.

 

She recalled that as a child, she always wanted to be famous like her dad.

 

“He was my hero. As a girl, growing up, every morning when he would leave to go to work in the oilfields in Point Fortin, I would stand by the door and say, ‘bye-bye daddy,’ and he would say, ‘good-bye.’ And he would rub my back and my chest when I had the cold, until I got better”

 

When he got ill, she was the one, at his bedside, trying to nurse him back to health.

 

“In the final analysis, I was a little estranged from him, because I was a little own way and he tried to keep me in line. But in the end, his illness brought us closer together and I was able to say a final good-bye to him”

 

Wilkes’ stepson Patrick Laurence, credited the former Olympian for the man he had become. He said the job he held as an electrical foreman at the San Fernando City Corporation was due to Wilkes, who also held the same position after the Olympics.

 

“After my father died, my mother met him, and then I went to live with them. My mother had two other children with him. He was not my biological father, but he was my father in every other way.”

 

Laurence said he believed a man of Wilkes’ stature, who put this country on the world map, deserved better.

 

About Wilkes

 

Wilkes nicknamed the “Mighty Midget” or “Midget Atom” for his strength feats in the featherweight division, first came to international notice when he won gold at the 1946 Central American and Caribbean Games. 

 

He followed that with his silver medal at the London Olympics, and then defended his title at the 1950 CAC Games. In 1951 Wilkes added another gold, winning at the Pan American Games, before adding an Olympic bronze medal in 1952 at Helsinki. 

 

In 1954,­ he won the featherweight title at the British Empire and Commonwealth Games, and would win bronze at that tournament in 1958 in Cardiff, Wales. Wilkes was injured in 1955 and unable to defend his title at the Pan Americans and he just missed the podium at his third Olympics in Melbourne, placing fourth. He continued competing through 1960 but was not chosen for the West Indies Federation team for the Rome Olympics and then retired.

 

Wilkes was named to the National Sports Hall of Fame in 1984 and was also awarded the Hummingbird Medal.

 

 

About Wilkes

 

Wilkes nicknamed the “Mighty Midget” or “Midget Atom” for his strength feats in the featherweight division, first came to international notice when he won gold at the 1946 Central American and Caribbean Games. 

 

He followed that with his silver medal at the London Olympics, and then defended his title at the 1950 CAC Games. In 1951 Wilkes added another gold, winning at the Pan American Games, before adding an Olympic bronze medal in 1952 at Helsinki. 

 

In 1954,­ he won the featherweight title at the British Empire and Commonwealth Games, and would win bronze at that tournament in 1958 in Cardiff, Wales. He was injured in 1955 and unable to defend his title at the Pan Americans and he just missed the podium at his third Olympics in Melbourne, placing fourth. He continued competing through 1960 but was not chosen for the West Indies Federation team for the Rome Olympics and then retired.

 

Wilkes was named to the National Sports Hall of Fame in 1984 and was also awarded the Hummingbird Medal.