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Respecting our sporting heroes
Had Rodney “Mighty Midget” Wilkes, this country’s first Olympic medallist won his medals within the last 25 years, he would have been a celebrated hero. His funeral would have attracted the who’s who from both the sporting and non-sporting fraternity. He would have been known by politicians, the business community and the general public. The State would have awarded him large sums of money among other forms of recognition. He would have been a popular face in the media endorsing various forms products and would have been a household name with everyone knowing his accomplishments.
However, his accomplishments came at a time when sport was only important to those who had a vested interest in it. Those who resided outside the sporting arena viewed sports more as leisure activities and spectacle events such as friendly rivalry and a space to have a lime and a good time.
Sports was not seen as an important vehicle for sustaining a livelihood, achieving economic development through the establishment of a sport industry and or social development as in building social capital and correcting some of the social ills in the society. Sports was definitely a secondary institution in society. All athletes had to work to ensure that they had a livelihood.
Wilkes worked as an electrician. Training came after work. Facilities were not of the standards as they are today especially the ones that are made available to elite athletes. There was no elite athlete programme where funding is provided to meet the costs of training and other related expenses. Public and private sector organisations did not provide the same level of financial support as is provided today. Against this background, one cannot help but ponder over the greatness of his accomplishment.
There was a lot of outpouring of sympathy on the passing of Wilkes, especially the unfortunate conditions under which he resided. It was commendable that the Ministry of Sports provided a monthly stipend for him to meet his living and medical expenses in the latter part of his life as well as assist in his funeral expenses. The question we have to ask ourselves is how we respond to similar situations in the future. Should we return to our state of disinterest, wait and then go through the same ritual of lamenting that nothing tangible was ever done for our sporting heroes of the past? Or do we become proactive and find creative efficient ways to recognise our sporting heroes of yesteryear.
It is hoped that the latter is adopted and a working group is established comprising members of the Ministry of Sports, the Sports Company, Tobago House Authority, The Ministry of the People, Ministry of Social Development, First Citizen Sport Foundation, TTOC and the private sector. The purpose of this committee is to establish the way forward on providing assistance and service to these former national athletes.
For starters a registry and social status of all athletes who have represented the country across all sporting disciplines should be established. Such a registry should not be difficult as the respective national sporting bodies (NSB’s) and national sporting organizations (NSO’s) should be able to provide such information from their own records. Such a registry should not be limited to persons who have medalled. One of the major philosophical cultural challenges we face is that our society focus solely on winners. Therefore, persons who represent but do not medaled are shortchanged in their recognition if they receive any at all. Once a person represents the country she/he is a winner and that must never be underestimated or forgotten.
Once their social status have been identified, using the existing arms of the State, measures can be taken to ensure that the basic provisions that are offered are available to them. So for instance the registry would give data about the number of persons who are pensionable age, persons who may be employed, unemployed, suffering from any physical disability etc. Coverage of funeral expenses should be a given.
Sporting heroes can be skillfully marketed to their communities through local sporting clubs, community centres and schools. For instance, a national sporting quiz and or essay writing competition can be established challenging schools, parents and students to know their sports, sports history and sporting personnel. This can forge an academic sporting culture. The media can provide blurbs of sporting heroes from all disciplines so that their names become etched in the minds of our population.
The aforementioned are just suggestions as to how we can ensure that the sporting community is kept alive during and beyond their living years. It may not see the light of day but a vivid imagination is needed. Rodney Wilkes was promised a gym to be named after him, it can still happen posthumously. Let us make every effort to ensure our sporting heroines and heroes have a dignifying life to the best of our capabilities. It is time for the sporting community to become proactive.
Editor’s Note: Minister of Sport Anil Roberts commissioned The National Sporting Archive in 2013, a website that pays tribute to all the athletes who have represented T&T over the years. The archive is a work in progressed and can be accessed at: www.sportarchivestt.com