Our Readers' Opinions
August 10, 2012
Track, field and then stadium

by G E M Saunders Fri, Aug 10, 2012

The recent success of our Caribbean neighbours at this year’s Olympics not only shows the importance of sport to a nation’s development, but also highlights the need for improved sporting facilities, and better administration and coaching in most of our sporting disciplines.{{more}}

In track and field in particular, there has been a recent call by some Team Athletics SVG (TASVG) officials for Government to lay down a 400m track on the Sion Hill playing field, separate and apart from any future stadium development. The main objective was that this would provide the young athletes near the urban capital Kingstown with world class facilities to train and develop into international standard athletes.

On the surface and in particular having to wait on the stalled stadium project, this call may be an understandable one; however, it is essential for all concerned to be in possession of all the relevant facts and information to place the present situation into its true context.

The first fact is that the design for the proposed national stadium at Diamond was completed as far back as 2006. This design included a soccer field, 400 metre track, cycle velodrome and ample parking and circulation space. The construction of this facility was, however, temporarily shelved by the Government, in the context of the scarcity of development funds in the international, regional and local economic environment.

Secondly, the choice of Diamond as the National stadium site was determined by the Donnie DeFreitas National Olympic Committee and their planning and engineering advisors, as far back as 1993. The final location was, however, shifted slightly after the original site was re-assigned as the Diamond landfill in 1997. In 2002, an additional 22 acres was allocated to the original site and the entire site was cleared of all encumbrances over the subsequent three years.

The third and very important fact for consideration is that the cost of the first phase of the national stadium, including track and soccer field, and reduced facilities for officials, players and spectators, is estimated at $10 million. However, interestingly enough, the Mondo official who visited SVG recently indicated that at least $2 million would be needed for the synthetic rubber surfaces ONLY for the track at Sion Hill. A further $3 million will also be required for the construction of the base, sub-base, in-field and outfield drainage and concrete works.

Fourthly, the physically planning constraints at the Sion Hill playing field were regarded as very serious, with the immediate presence of a closed landfill, the LIME technical operations facility and the Sion Hill Government School. If we add to that the traffic congestion and narrow access roads, it should be clear that there would be no chance of ever hosting even regional events at that location.

However, once we agree that a fully developed stadium, at some point in the future, with all its potential opportunities and benefits is the most desirable outcome for SVG, then serious consideration should be given to phasing the development of the total facility at a location than can easily accommodate all components at an affordable cost and at appropriate times. This was the approach used successfully at the Arnos Vale Playing field.

Consider also the fact that Jamaica, with a population of 2.8 million, served by one track for almost 50 years, churned out world class athletes and sprinters on an annual basis. Why then should a population of 100,000, with limited land space and financial resources suddenly have access to two such tracks?

The argument that a track is needed urgently at Sion Hill, closer to the athletes in the Kingstown area and also to get them to train away from the grass must also be carefully examined. The fact that our young athletes have to train on grass cannot seriously be put forward as the reason for SVG’s low profile on the regional and international athletic stage. With proper coaching, finances and administration, we should, at the very least, be continuing to produce enough raw talent, ready to be fine-tuned on the international stages.

A lot of Jamaica’s success over the years has generally been attributed to the fact that, unlike most other international sprinters who train on synthetic surfaces made of rubber, the Jamaicans runners train predominantly on grass and move to the track for performance and competition. Usain Bolt, for example, did a lot of his training on grass at the University of the West Indies, Mona Bowl, while Asafa Powell and Shelly-Ann Fraser mainly utilised the grass surface at the University of Technology.

Some medical experts and coaches believe that the soft grass surface, much like sand, makes it harder to train on and more effective as well. It is felt that sprinting on a soft surface requires muscles to work harder than on a hard surface. It is also felt that the soft surface demands that the body must work harder to stabilize itself and over time leads to stronger muscles and more advantageous muscle and tendon development. Clearly training on grass cannot be replaced by training on a synthetic surface.

In advancing the proximity argument for selecting Sion Hill over Diamond as a choice for a track or even the full stadium, we should consider the following: Jamaica’s North Western parish of Trelawny is situated over sixty miles from the National Stadium, but that parish has still managed to produce many world class athletes including Veronica Campbell-Brown, Usain Bolt, Michael Green, Michael Frater, and Marvin Anderson. Why then are SVG’s athletic officials and coaches concerned about the plans for building a stadium at Diamond, a mere seven miles from Kingstown?

The final issue for consideration has to do with the centrality of planning and development. Unlike athletic coaches, Governments and rural and urban planners have an obligation to widen their focus when it comes to development planning. This demands that when national facilities are planned and located they are accessible to most if not all citizens.

In this regard, we need to consider the schools and the young budding athletes from Calliaqua to Georgetown, who over the many decades have been denied access to at least one proper sporting facility; after all, the traditional facilities in Kingstown and Arnos vale will still be around. Maybe this is the opportunity for us to decentralize and widen the catchment, because with such a small population, we can ill afford to be exclusive.

So while it is clear that we need a track urgently, the Sion Hill Playing field cannot be an option if we do in fact have a scarcity of development funds. One facility, properly located, planned and phased is all that is required.