Saturday, April 1, 2017

Athletics: Kampala to Kingston; Why Ari Rodgers - and Champs - matters

"the greatest track meet in the world"

So said analyst and MVP Track Club prez Bruce James at the culmination of another successful Boys and Girls' Athletics Championships - to many, simply "Champs" - at Kingston's now iconic National Stadium. And, as one whose track club lists several Olympic gold medallists on its past and present roster, he ought to know.

Indeed, there's no doubt that "Champs" is the greatest sporting spectacle in Jamaica, an event with partisan local support and an increasingly interested global audience, both at the stadium and on pay-per-view, via the Web.

Defending champions Calabar High eked out a narrow (3pts) victory over arch-rivals Kingston College (in Jamaica, many secondary schools are branded as "colleges") for their 6th straight hold on the championship trophy while, on the girls side, it was yet another cruise for Edwin Allen High (named for a pioneering former Education Minister), making them five-time winners and champions now for four consecutive years.

Indeed the Edwin victory shines a spotlight of interest on central Jamaica. Three schools (Edwin, arch rival Holmwood, and longtime titans Vere Technical) within a radius of no more than 20 miles, account for a total of 38 victories on the girls' side, a dominance made even greater by the fact that only  4 other schools have repeat victories (Vere leads the all-time list with 22, 15 of those consecutively)

Beyond the results however, lies the real story(ies). Champs is not only big sports, like so many big sporting events, is big business. Firstly, the sponsorships: title sponsor Grace Kennedy and associate sponsors FLOW, KFC and COURTS (1st Global Bank is a GK subsidiary) have poured in well over J$100million this year alone, and that figure increases exponentially when one factors in the man-hours at the Stadium and incidentals.

Then there is the school teams: all week long, the papers have featured testimonials from happy Kingston hoteliers welcoming Champs competitors, coaches, attendants and supporters from across the island. There is the kit costs, medical and nutrition bills, transportation and logistics, and a bunch of contingencies.

Then there is the media. Though sponsorship money encompasses media placements and coverage, and the newly formed RJR/Gleaner Group (RG) is the dominant fixture at Champs, there are other radio stations present, not mention the huge contingent of overseas journalists and agents, some pressmen coming over form as far as Japan. Such is the power of Champs lore - and with good reason.

There was heightened drama this year coming the controversy surrounding the inclusion, by Kingston College of Ugandan teenager Arriayana "Ari" Rodgers as part of their team. The addition of Rodgers, a late registrant with an interesting claim of extenuating circumstances, angered Clabar officials and the green-and-black faithful. When Rodgers delivered 1st place for KC in 5000m, helping "the Purples" to gain a lead they would hold until the very last event - the 4x400m relay- saw them falter in Calabar's favour, it was considered poetic justice.

Beyond that, it confirmed that the stakes are indeed sky-high. Kingston College was willing to bear the ire of its rivals and stir up controversy to bring a middle/long distance runner from a vaunted East African nation to help it make up the stagger. It wasn't enough in the end but for a moment, KC were oh so close (309 to305 at the start of the ultimate event).

What does this development mean for the meet and for Jamaican athletics over the next three years? Hard to call, but one can safely say we may well see more foreign teens entering the Jamaican school system - and not just for top schools - in the years t come. The governing body ISSA, and the sponsors will certainly have to knock heads and see how to deal with this new development.

One thing for sure, just about NOTHING can knock Champs off the perch that James has so eloquently placed it on. Its outgrown the National Stadium for sure, and there is still the possibility of adding sporting disciplines beyond track and field (swimming is a strong possibility), bringing it to near Junior Olympics status.

In the minds of many high schoolers - and their parents - "Champs" is Jamaica's Olympics.

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