Opinion: Creating a legacy for UK sport from London 2012 – lessons from Jamaica

Politicians of all colours are running around to claim credit for Team GBs success at London 2012. Similarly sporting figures are also running around to trying to gain funding for ‘their sports’ from the Government. How can we build on success in 2012 to gain even more medals in 2016?

I want to use the example of Jamaica, a country which has produced some of the best sprinters in the world. Since 1964 (way before Usain Bolt), Jamaica has won a medal in every summer Olympics – all of them but one in athletics.

As some of you know, I was born and spent the earlier part of my life living in Jamaica. Below is my observation of the different approach to sport.

In Jamaica, expertise in sport is focussed on areas where we have the expertise and can win such as athletics and cricket. There is fierce inter-school competition at the primary/prep and secondary level through a series of national ‘Championships’ (Champs).

In addition athletes compete by class (referring to those ‘under’ a certain age group, so Class 1-Secondary referred to under-19 athletes – any athlete up to the age of 19 could attempt to qualify regardless of year group. This system meant that you could be seen as best in your school or country, within your class, for a certain sport and not be limited by year group.

This approach differed markedly to my experience in the UK where ‘games’ and P.E. was seen as part of the curriculum ‘so we have to do it’. Sports day did exist but this was poorly organised and was more of a social than a competition, organised by year group. Inter school competing (my experience is limited to athletics) was more of an afterthought and competition was primarily as an individual rather than as a representative of your school. Only once did I compete and that was based on a whim from a P.E. teacher.

Lessons could be learned from this. We need real national champions for sports we wish to compete in and funding should then be based on a strategy to involve all schools. Alongside this better school, regional and national competition should be promoted in these sports. The dominance of private schools in certain events is, as stated by the BOA chief “one of the worst statistics in British sport”. A more inclusive approach would help to tackle this.

Of course Jamaica being a small island of just under 3 million it is easier to organise, but there would be nothing stopping regional structures behind sport in the UK.

I think this approach raises a wider comment around the difference in educational objectives. In Jamaica you got the feeling that the system was geared up to find the highest common denominator, in the UK the lowest or average is often seen as the target.

Competition in Jamaica is seen as the core to getting the best out of students who are supported in accomplishing their endeavours. The system of not being restricted by year group meant that, until recently, you could take the equivalent of the 11+ in Year 5 and if you were successful head straight to Year 7 (which came as a shock to the Head Teacher of my UK comprehensive, who instantly put me in bottom set for all subjects and even suggested I may want to be kept behind a year as it didn’t fit the ‘system’).

Success breeds champions who in turn become role models and breed future success. Everyone is supported not just to meet their current level but supported by the community to try and achieve the next level if they can. Does this philosophy sound familiar?

Of course Jamaica is by no means perfect (by no means!) but it is always worth looking at what bits work and what bits don’t in other countries.

* Chris Richards was a candidate for the London Assembly in May 2012 and is a Lib Dem activist in London. He blogs at www.chrisrichards.org.uk

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3 Comments

  • Richard Dean 13th Aug '12 - 7:24pm

    Why John Major?

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