by Emma Sharp Dalton-Brown
Our country is full of talent, but there is one field in which Jamaicans more than excel: athletics, most notably track and field. “Sport’s Day is a huge deal from pre-school days. There is no other sport like track and field, and we (Jamaicans) dedicate Sport’s Day to track and field,” says Colleen Montaque, who is the principal of Wolmer’s Girls School. Montaque is also the chairman of the ISSA (International Secondary Schools Sports Association) Boys’ & Girls’ Champs Committee, which is responsible for pulling off the most extraordinary event on Jamaica’s calendar.
Established in 1910, the ISSA/GraceKennedy Boys’ & Girls’ Athletics Championships is a track and field meet between Jamaican high schools. It has grown exponentially, with up to 30,000 spectators, “Even people of the Diaspora plan their vacation to coincide with the competition,” George Forbes, Director of ISSA Competitions, tells Made in Jamaica Catalogue. “This competition is a feeding ground for the Olympics: 99% of all Jamaican track and field olympians participated in Champs. 2,800 athletes out of roughly 167 schools participate, and some 30 athletes make it to the Olympics.”
And this is why so many Jamaicans feel connected to our sprinters who compete in the Olympics. Everyone knows someone who entered Champs, and many went to the same high school as an Olympian. “When a fellow teammate makes it to the Olympics, the association is a huge ego booster,” says Ms. Montaque. “It motivates them to know that: ‘I too can become a famous athlete. This guy was on my team, this guy was at my school.’ So another’s reality can become their dream also.”
The reality is that the professionalism, pressure and fierce rivalry at Champs prepares athletes for all future inter-national meets, including the Olympics. According to Mr. Forbes, “Even the President of the International Committee, Jacques Rogge, said he was impressed with the turn out at the IAAF World Juniors Championships in Kingston in 2002, and when told that the Champs phenomenon was responsible, he could hardly believe it.”
Champs has reached such critical acclaim, that the most successful schools, such as Kingston College, Holmwood Technical High, Munro College, St. Elizabeth Technical High School (STETHS) and Vere Technical High get their kit from the likes of international companies like Nike, Puma, and Adidas, who are always hoping to sign athletes. And each year, at least twenty scouts from US universities attend Champs, ready to offer scholarships to the most promising athletes.
Champs represents the present of track and field, while the Olympics represent the future. All Jamaicans, wherever they may be now, will know that what they see at London 2012 began at Champs.