The 2019 Pan American Games and World Athletics Championships were the best indicators for Trinidad & Tobago’s fortunes at next year’s Olympics. How did our athletes fare at these events, and will it mean more medals in Tokyo or fewer? Sheldon Waithe begins our Tokyo2020 Countdown
Published in Parkite Sports Magazine
So what went wrong? Indeed, did anything actually go wrong, or was the dearth of track and field medals at the 2019 Pan Am Games and World Athletics Championships simply due to T&T athletes fine-tuning themselves for the biggest one of all, Tokyo 2020? Perhaps a medal-fest was the expectation of a success-hungry public eager for the annual injection of international sporting success that makes people thump their chests and evoke patriotism.
The Pan Ams were the precursor, followed by the World Championships that were supposed to instil confidence a year ahead of the Olympics. This was the chance to confirm that T&T’s 400m relay team was the best in the world, evidenced by its scintillating victory at the World Relays in May in defence of its world championship title from 2017. This was the opportunity for Jereem “The Dream” Richards to live up to his nickname with a medal in the 200m and continue the trajectory that picked up Commonwealth gold in 2018. With her recent form, this was to be Michelle Lee-Ahye’s global elite affirmation with a place on the 100m podium.
But at the Worlds’ conclusion, T&T were nowhere on the medals table, because they won no medals. Cue criticism from some quarters, genuine concern from others. These were after all the nation’s elite sportsmen and women, funded to a certain extent by the public purse, honing their form in athletics’ prestigious Diamond League, with the expectation that they would peak at the Worlds in Qatar.
Sub-par Peru performance
T&T has been spoilt of late, counting success at regional and hemispheric Games in terms of gold medals, which can blur the success leading to the other two steps on the podium. So when the team secured four silvers and a bronze at Peru’s Pan Ams, fans winced, with good cause.
Relatively speaking, and with all due respect, the Pan Am track and field competition has become a second-tier event. It’s where nations send a mixture of first team members as medal bankers and eager substitutes to blood for the future. So T&T’s own bankers such as Machel Cedenio were expected to cruise round the track at 90% capacity, secure gold and warm up for Qatar.
Cedenio, Keshorn Walcott and Richards all got medals, just not gold. There is an argument for trying to avoid peaking twice over eight weeks, but Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce’s performances over the same period (gold Pan Am 200m, gold World Championships 100m) made a mockery of that. Truthfully, with the exception of Lee-Ahye – who met stiff competition from the Jamaican powerhouses present in Peru – and given the level of their opponents, T&T should have won at least two gold medals from track and field.
A closer look at the overall results shows that T&T athletes made it to five of the Worlds finals (men’s 200m, 400m, 4×400 relay, javelin; women’s 4x100m relay). That’s not a bad return for a country with 1.5 million people, but not for one with an excellent athletic pedigree.
We can be fickle and harsh in equal measure with our stars, quick to espouse hypotheses of doom and gloom, eager to say where it all went wrong – and of course jump to the conclusion that maybe they’re past their best, or worse, spoilt. Lack of hunger was not the reason for the failure to get a medal at the Worlds. It may have been peaking too early or too late, or exhaustion from long seasons on the international circuit. We just do not know. But it certainly was not for lack of hunger.
Looking towards Tokyo
This current crop of athletes has seen Walcott’s Olympic gold, Jehue Gordon’s victorious dip across the line in 2013, and the aforementioned 4×400 relay success. They want that success as well. They have not lost their potential overnight: some form maybe, but not the class to go out and medal.
The relay squad will bounce back, especially with former stalwarts Lalonde Gordon and Jarrin Solomon knocking on the door for inclusion in that Olympic team. Lee-Ahye is now at the sprinter’s prime age of 27 and will take all the troubles of the past year and convert them into speed in 2020. Cedenio and Richards simply have too much talent to not eventually add an Olympic medal to their wares (they have medals from all the other relevant championships). And Walcott has medalled at both Olympics that he has attended.
There is the view that it is better to get it wrong now, correct the mistakes, and taper plans perfectly for Tokyo. If you think about it, the last time T&T performed this poorly at the World Championships was in 2011 (1 bronze, Kelly-Ann Baptiste), one year before its most successful Olympics ever. Keep the faith.