BitDepth#847 - August 14

Did we succeed at the 2012 Olympiad? I think so and this is why.
Misunderstanding the Olympics
Artist and designer Warren Le Platte was inspired by the Olympic effort and created a series of digital paintings, of which this image of Njisane Phillip is one. View the series and backstory here.

Sports have never been my thing. But the bosslady has a big thing for tennis and the Olympics, so I’ve been slowly understanding of the motivations, challenges and the meaning of success for athletes at the top of their form.
It’s been surprising, then, to hear the way people respond to the performance of our athletes in the 2012 Olympiad.

It’s as if all the talk of “medal hauls” and “precious metal” has somehow eroded what it means to not just compete in the Olympics, but to participate in the finals and semi-finals of these intense athletic competitions.
In that misunderstanding, it seems that there’s something we still need to understand about the words “work” and “success.”

When a country has as many participants in the semi-final and final rounds of an Olympiad as we’ve managed in 2012, it’s worth considering exactly how these young men and women got there and how we can encourage more superlative performance from our children.
The size of our country has a lot to do with such considerations. Trinidad and Tobago has just 1.5 million people, less than the populations of most cities and even some towns in the developed world.

For nations competing in the Olympics, part of the process is a game of numbers. If a country can sift through its human capital using orderly methods of evaluating athletic potential then it can muster larger numbers of competitive individuals for its teams.
Beyond sheer numbers, the efficiency of the process of identifying talent plays a significant role in building the cohort of athletes necessary for a truly successful Olympic presence.

That’s one of the reasons why the medal leaders by a significant margin in this year’s competitions are America and China and why the now fragmented Russia is so much less of a threat. Visit
medals per capita to see it summed up nicely.

Jamaica has built a remarkable track and field team by choosing a single funnel and focus for its efforts. Trinidad and Tobago is running on the fumes of enthusiasm and raw talent, scattered across sailing, track and field, cycling and sharpshooting to name a few. Our best contenders use the training systems of the American collegiate system and they let us, hoping that our best will choose to play for the bigger team.

Our biggest asset in the Olympics, then, is patriotism.
The working life of an Olympic athlete is short. Most qualify for just one Olympiad, far fewer get to two and it’s rare to find an athlete qualifying, far less competing at the top of their game for three gatherings of the world’s athletic elite.

Such is the focus on success as medals at this level that two of our finest athletes, Richard Thompson and George Bovell, felt moved to apologise, yes, to tell Trinidad and Tobago that they were sorry, after challenging the world, beating dozens of exemplary athletes to get to the final lineup and robustly representing this country.

What should we learn from this?
To truly succeed in global competition, you need to marshal the human capital of a nation and prepare systems and training to identify specific talent and aptitude and press it to beneficial use.
The thing is, we already know this. This is how we’ve found oil and gas here for more than a hundred years. We’ve just never applied the principles to refining people.
Our most amazing successes have been those of individuals, the sui generis marvels like Vidia Naipaul, Hasely Crawford, Brian Lara, Winnifred Atwell and so many more.

Trinidad and Tobago’s Olympians in 2012 taught us another lesson. That many of us rising into the global top ten of our craft can be as motivating as the brilliant uniqueness of singular shooting stars.
Suppose we all woke up tomorrow and decided to work to make it into the finals of the thing that we do?

What if our education system abandoned the nurturing of mediocrity and coached, improved and challenged students to aspire to such a goal.
Being in the top ten. How much more attainable being number one must seem once you get there.

Addendum: Since this column was submitted to the Guardian, the landscape of our Olympic achievements has fundamentally changed. What was once a resigned weariness with our effort at this Olympiad has since changed into jubilation and even a national holiday for the gold medal won by Kershorn Walcott in the Javelin throw.

That celebration, as justified as it is, has only muddied the way we handle sport in Trinidad and Tobago and may actually make it harder for us to get back to the central issues that remain to be addressed before we can make the most of our athletic and human potential.

Our real Olympics performance...
6th fastest woman - 100M sprint
7th fastest man - 100M sprint
9th fastest man - 100M sprint
7th fastest man - 50 M freestyle.
4th fastest man - men's cycling sprints
7th fastest man - men’s Keirin
6th fastest man - men's 400M hurdles
8th fastest woman - women's 200M sprint
13th ranked - women’s shotput.
37th ranked - men’s Laser Class sailing
3rd fastest man - men’s 400M sprint
3rd fastest team - men’s 4 x 400M relay
3rd fastest team - men’s 4 x 100M relay
1st place - Javelin throw
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