Very few organizations or events last 100 years and retain their relevancy as Jamaica’s interscholastic track and field championships, commonly known as CHAMPS, which celebrates its centenary this weekend.
Launched in 1910 with the boys’ high school competition, the girls’ championship became part of the series in 1957 before the meets merged 11 years ago.
Beginning with former Premier Norman Manley’s record run in 1911 when he sprinted the 100- and 220-yards races in an impressive 10 and 23 seconds respectively and the Jamaica College athlete’s six victories on one day a year later in the 100-, 220- and 440-yards, the long jump, high jump and the hurdles, CHAMPS has produced a remarkably high quality of athletic brilliance in Jamaica’s schools that has translated into the country’s dominance globally.
The statistics are startling.
Jamaica has won 13 gold, 27 silver and 21 bronze medals since making its summer Olympic debut in 1948, and 14 gold (seven in Berlin last year), 33 silver and 32 bronze medals at the World Track and Field championships that began in 1983. In addition, Jamaica swept the sprint gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, winning 11 medals overall and finishing third out of 204 countries in track and field.
“CHAMPS is at the centre of athletic excellence in the school system which is itself really at the heart of Jamaica’s athletics,” International Criminal Tribunal president Patrick Robinson, the author of Jamaican Athletics: A Model for 2012 and the World, told Share while in Toronto recently. “If you want to understand why Jamaica has done so well in global athletics, you really have to begin with CHAMPS.
“There is no athlete who has done well for Jamaica at the global level who has not taken part in this meet. They might not have done well at CHAMPS because the standards are so high. In fact, many of the athletes who have gone on to do well at the international level were only moderately good at CHAMPS where the level is very high. Also, some athletes grow into stardom at a late stage.”
Robinson was a member of the Jamaica College team that clinched the CHAMPS title in 1959. He won the discus event.
“CHAMPS is the most important event of its kind in its age group in the world,” he said. “It generates a great atmosphere and the athletes’ competitive spirit and preparation are unrivalled. When I attended high school, we started training in September of the previous year. Now, the athletes start almost a year in advance and they seldom take part in any other sport. Another main feature is that from around December until just before CHAMPS starts, there are developmental meets every Saturday across Jamaica where the athletes test their mettle.”
Robinson said CHAMPS provided him with some lasting memories, including the often-discussed keen rivalry between Anthony Matthews of Wolmer’s and Mabricio Ventura of Kingston College (KC) in the sprint events, and Calabar’s Dennis Johnson’s 220-yard victory over Ventura in 1959.
“As Dennis came around the curve in the lead at Sabina Park, he put up his arms to signal victory and waved to the KC supporters to let them know he had their man,” recounted Robinson. “I remember that well. It was a great moment.
“We need to find out why we excel in CHAMPS and translate some of those practices that have made CHAMPS so successful into other areas of Jamaica’s national life. Some of those practices, such as discipline and volunteerism, are not difficult to identify.”
Share columnist Errol Townshend also ranks the Matthews-Ventura rivalry as his favourite CHAMPS highlight.
“That was a classic,” said Townshend, who is in Jamaica for the centenary meet and celebrations. “That was like the Ali-Frazier super boxing matches. Everything else is blurred in comparison to that.”
The co-author of Herb McKenley: Olympic Star, Townshend also vividly remembers Donald Quarrie’s first appearance at CHAMPS as a 14-year-old in 1965. The Camperdown High School student won the Class Three 100-yards dash despite suffering cramps after becoming the first boy in his age category to run under 11 secs. (his time was 10.9) in the heats.
“Don was like poetry in motion and you knew that he was going to be a superstar,” added Townshend.
Ajax resident Clive Bariffe, who attended Kingston College, will be among the thousands of spectators attending the five-day meet that ends on Saturday at the National Stadium.
He represented KC in the 110-metre hurdles, the high and long jump events and the 4 x 400-metre relay.
“There is nothing else like CHAMPS,” said Bariffe, who attended the University of Florida and won a gold medal in the 400-metre hurdles at the 1978 Central American & Caribbean Games in Medellin, Colombia and a silver medal in the 4 x 400-metre relay (the team also comprised Bertland Cameron, Colin Bradford and Floyd Brown) at the Commonwealth Games that same year in Edmonton. “The preparation was not close to what I was exposed to when I attended college in the U.S. CHAMPS is like our high school Olympics.”
Former Jamaica College deputy headmaster K.V. Donaldson, who resides in Whitby, left here last Tuesday to attend the meet. He won the 800-yards and one-mile events back-to-back in 1951 and 1952, setting a new mark for the mile in his final year in high school at Cornwall College.
“I developed a love for sport when I entered Calabar in 1946 before transferring to Cornwall,” Donaldson said. “In addition to breaking the mile record, one of my fondest CHAMPS memories occurred in my last year also when Frank Hall (Jamaica College) broke Manley’s 41-year-old 100-yard record with a 9.9 secs. run.”
Kingston College has won seven of the last nine boys’ titles while Holmwood Technical High is aiming for its eighth straight girls’ crown.