Paris triumphs could illuminate Grenada’s centenary
The Grenada Athletic Association celebrated its centenary earlier this week, with 11 January 1924 inscribed in the annals of World Athletics as the day the island’s federation was founded, Phil Minshull reports for World Athletics Heritage.
However, in the cricket-loving country of barely 124,000 people in which athletics always struggled for public attention until the ascent of global superstars and world champions like Alleyne Francique, Kirani James, and Anderson Peters, there was little fanfare and not a little déjà vu with the way the federation quietly came into being a century ago.
The founding of the Grenadian federation took place against a backdrop of social and political change in what were then the British colonies in the Caribbean during the early 1920s; although this was mainly more representation for the local aristocracy in the colonial administrations and, as has been noted by various historians, unemployment and poverty were rampant.
However, as a corollary to these changes, many sports federations were also formed by the colonial leaders of the time, and it is no coincidence that the Grenada Football Association was also formed in 1924.
However, Grenada joining any major international federations was still decades away.
Athletics competitions allowing any talent to be identified were also severely limited for many years owing to poor facilities, including rudimentary grass tracks.
Gittens becomes Grenada’s first athletics hero
The first Grenadian athlete to make any impact internationally, albeit on a regional basis, was the multi-talented William ‘Pablo’ Gittens in the 1950s.
As noted by Renold O’Neal in his highly informative treatise on the history of athletics in the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States, which includes Grenada: “Gittens was an exceptional sportsman who also represented his county in cricket and football and in the latter sport just missed being chosen for the West Indies combined team that toured Great Britain in 1959.
“Gittens lived for a while in southern Trinidad and became a constant at the Texaco Southern Games, for many years the most important athletics competition for athletes from the British Caribbean.”
The versatile sportsman competed in these Games from 1953-58, and he twice won high jump and long jump doubles and, on another occasion, took the 400m hurdles crown.
At the British West Indies Championships – which existed from 1957-65 – Gittens also shone, and he won Grenada’s only medals: a 400m hurdles gold and high jump silver in 1958 and a 400m hurdles bronze in 1959.
Sadly, Grenada didn’t send a team to the 1958 British Empire and Commonwealth Games – it would be another 12 years before they participated in this competition – but Gittens would have had good chances of making the finals in Cardiff in both the high jump and 400m hurdles.
In 1960, the British West Indies sent a combined team to the Olympic Games in Rome, but no Grenadian was included in any sport, and by now, Gittens was also more focused on cricket.
The 1960s saw no one else of the stature of Gittens come to the fore. Still, the more significant opportunities for international experience started to be provided when Grenada finally sent a team to the Commonwealth Games in 1970 – joining what was then the IAAF the same year – and the following year made its debut at the Central American and Caribbean Championships.
At the latter championships, Dunstan Campbell became Grenada’s first medallist when he took a decathlon bronze, a precursor to the country’s recent prowess in producing multi-event exponents, including 2014 Commonwealth Games bronze medallist Kurt Felix and his younger brother, the 2023 World Athletics Championships bronze medallist Lindon Victor.
In 1972, the first edition of the now-famed Carifta Games, the showcase for Caribbean teenage talent, took place in Barbados, and Eros Rapier – who would go on to greater recognition as a member of the Grenada football team – took the javelin gold as well as a silver in the shot put.
It would be another nine years until Grenada’s first Carifta Games gold medal on the track was won by Maurice Williams. Still, in 1981, he memorably became the first U20 runner from the region to go under 15 minutes for 5000m, and, amazingly, it is still a national record almost 43 years later.
The early 1980s saw a blossoming of Grenadian athletics talent, with long jumper Jacinta Bartholomew becoming her country’s first female Carifta Games gold medallist in 1983.
After also competing at the inaugural World Athletics Championships later that year, Bartholomew – who would go on to have an impressive US collegiate career as a sprinter – made Grenadian sporting history in 1984 as the first woman from her country to compete at the Olympics.
Olympic debut in Los Angeles
With the Grenada National Olympic Committee formed in 1982, the country sent a seven-strong team – two athletes and five boxers – to the Games for the first time.
Bartholomew, the only woman on the team, just missed out on the final and produced the best result from a Grenadian athlete until two-time world 400m indoor champion Alleyne Francique was to fall short of a medal with fourth place over one lap of the track in Athens 20 years later.
Grenada continued to have a production line of medallists at the Carifta Games and Central American Championships. Still, one needs to fast forward until the start of the new millennium before the feats of Francique rightly earned him the status of being the island’s first internationally recognized athletics star.
Francique’s potential was realized once he started studying at the famed athletics hothouse of Louisiana State University in 2001, running under 45 seconds for the first time that year.
At the 2004 World Athletics Indoor Championships, he took the lead in the 400m final just before the bell and was never headed, crossing the line in 45.88 to become Grenada’s first global athletics champion.
However, the Olympics later that year saw him come home behind a US medal sweep, a disappointment that lingers today. “[Having] the whole country cheering you was challenging. I wanted to win so badly that I put a lot of pressure on myself, and I ended up coming fourth,” he reflected recently.
Francique bounced back, though, and in 2006, he retained his world indoor title in Moscow two years later, retiring and subsequently becoming a renowned coach, including guiding USA’s Fred Kerley to the 2022 100m world title.
Not surprisingly, Francique was a role model for his successor as the island’s 400m record-holder, Kirani James.
James gets global acclaim
James first came to attention in 2007 when he broke the world age-14 400m best and won a silver medal at the World Athletics U18 Championships against athletes up to three years older.
After that, his rise was meteoric.
He won world U18 and U20 titles in 2009 and 2010 before triumphing on a senior stage at the 2011 World Athletics Championships – with compatriot Rondell Bartholomew also making the final and finishing sixth – to become one of just a handful of athletes to have won world titles in all three categories, amazingly in successive years.
The prodigious talent then flew to gold at the London 2012 Olympic Games, getting his country’s first Olympic medal of any color. He won in 43.94 to become the first non-US runner to go under the milestone of 44 seconds.
James described his win at the time as “A huge step for our country in terms of stepping up to the plate in track and field, just going out there and putting us on the map.”
Although London was to be his last global title, James has gone on to take two further medals at both the Olympic Games and World Athletics Championships and, showing that age has not dulled his talents, he was the 2022 and 2023 Wanda Diamond League winner.
James will only be 32 this year by the time of the Olympic Games and should still be in the battle for medals in the No.1 Olympic sport in Paris, as will the two-time javelin world champion Anderson Peters.
Peters showed he was ready to make an impact on the international scene when he won at the 2016 Carifta Games on home soil in the Grenadian capital St George’s – with the Games returning to Grenada for just the third time this year from 30 March-1 April at the Kirani James Stadium – with a championship and national record of 78.28m.
He improved later in 2016 to 79.65m when taking the bronze at the World Athletics U20 Championships in Poland.
Nevertheless, Peters was a slightly surprising winner of the 2019 world title but showed it was far from a fluke in the first year back to post-pandemic normality when he retained his crown in Oregon in 2022, part of a halcyon year in which he had four meetings over 90 meters topped by a vast 93.07m at an early season outing at the Doha Diamond League.
The year 2023 was a difficult one for Peters as he struggled to recover from injuries, but, like James and Victor, he will be expecting to be in contention to make the podium in Paris.