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October 2000

100 Years of Caribbean Participation



FOR the Caribbean nations participating in the Games of the 27th Olympiad in Sydney, it was the celebration of a century. For one hundred years, the Olympics have brought glory to a select group of countries, and which have seen the rise of many great athletes who have earned the right to be grouped with the best there ever was and, in the process, have gained recognition for their native lands.

It all started when Cuba and Haiti traveled to Paris for the 1900 Games. At the time they were anomalies: two independent nations in a region still marked by colonialism .It was, therefore, only just that these nations shared the honor of representing the Caribbean in France. It was not a fruitless occasion by any means, with 16-year old Cuban fencing sensation, Ramon Fonst, winning the individual epee event. Fonst was outstanding among his competitors here and, when it came to the open epee class for amateurs and fencing masters, the only person who had an edge over him was his French instructor, Albert Ayat, who beat him into second place. Four years later, in St. Louis, Fonst continued his mastery with a gold medal in the individual epee competition and triumph in the individual foil competition. This time, however, he had a capable compatriot in Manuel Diaz – winner of the individual sabre gold medal. Fonst and Diaz then linked up with American Albert Van Zo Post, to win the team foil event.

Another Cuban who stood out at the 1904 Olympics, was marathon runner, Felix Carvajal. A mail carrier from Havana, Carvajal financed his trip to St. Louis through a series of exhibitions. He then proceeded to lose all of his money during a craps game in New Orleans and was forced to hitchhike the rest of the way to Missouri. Carvajal arrived at the marathon starting line looking more like a spectator than a competitor; he was clad in heavy shoes, long trousers, a long-sleeved shirt and topped off with a beret. Martin Sheridan, the American discus thrower was on hand to lend Carvajal assistance by cutting his trousers at the knees. The Cuban’s running tactics will probably not figure in any modern coaching manual. He spent much of his time chatting with by-standers and even took a detour through an apple orchard where he helped himself to some of the produce. Despite all of this, Carvajal still wound up fourth in the race!
Cuba then withdrew from the Olympic Games until the 1924 event in Paris. That was where Haiti made its mark, literally, in the shooting competition. The team of Ludovic Augustin, Astrel Rolland, Ludovic Valborge, Destin Destine and Eloi Metullus scored a total of 646 points in the free rifle competition, to finish in a tie with France behind the United States (676 points). The French eventually won a play-off, leaving Haiti to settle for bronze. Four years later, Silvio Cator, who also served as captain of the Haitian national soccer team, took the long jump silver medal in track and field with a leap of 7.58 meters. This was to be the last Caribbean medal-earning performance for the next 20 years.

The 1948 games saw the Olympic debuts of Puerto Rico, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago and British Guiana (later Guyana). With the exception of the latter, all finished in the medals table. Juan Venegas earned a bronze for Puerto Rico in the bantamweight boxing competition and Trinidad and Tobago’s Rodney Wilkes was a silver medalist in the featherweight category in weightlifting. It was at these games that the Jamaican quartet of George Rhoden, Leslie Laing, Arthur Wint and Herb McKenley would lay the groundwork for their country’s distinct prowess in track and field. Over the course of two Olympics, they captured a total of eight medals, including three golds. The highlight was the world record victory in the 4x400 meters relay in Helsinki in 1952, with anchor Rhoden finishing a yard ahead of his American counterpart, Mal Whitfield to bring his team victory in 3 minutes, 3.9 seconds.

In 1958 the West Indies Federation was formed in the spirit of fostering greater regional unity and, in conjunction, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago and Barbados sent a unified team to the 1960 Rome Olympics, competing as the British West Indies. Two medals were won in track and field: Jamaican George Kerr took the bronze in the 800m and then figured in another bronze medal effort in the 4x400 relay. The team – which comprised Jamaicans Kerr, Malcolm Spence and Keith Gardner, plus Barbadian James Wedderburn – finished behind the USA and West Germany in a time of 3:04.0. But the West Indies Federation did not last long and was dissolved in 1962, leaving Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago (which both won Independence that year) to compete in Tokyo, in 1964, as separate teams once again. The Trinidadians claimed three medals in track and field: a bronze in the 200m (Edwin Roberts), a silver in the 400 (Wendell Mottley) and a bronze in the 4x400 relay. Enrique Figuerola, meanwhile, became the first Castro-era Cuban to medal in the Olympics when he finished second to American Bob Hayes in the 100 m.

Even with all the famous records that were established in the rarefied confines of Mexico City, Caribbean athletes still managed to play a role in track and field in 1968. Lennox Miller finished second in the men’s 100 m to the USA’s Jim Hines, who set a world record of 9.95 seconds. There were also silver medals for Cuba in the men and women’s 4x100 m relay events. In addition, the Cubans made some inroads into boxing with Enrique Regueiferos and Rolando Garbey winning silver medals in the light-welterweight and light-middleweight classes, respectively. But, it wasn’t until four years later that the Cubans’ status as the region’s sporting powerhouse started becoming evident. The Munich games saw them earning two medals in track and field, five in boxing (including three golds) and a bronze medal in basketball, with Cuba falling to the eventual gold medallists, the USSR, in the semi-finals. In addition, Cuba also finished sixth in the women’s volleyball competition.

However, the region’s finest track and field hour came in the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, with the men’s 100 m going to Hasely Crawford of Trinidad and Tobago and the 200 m to Jamaica’s Don Quarrie. Perhaps the greatest achievement was that of Cuban Alberto Juantorena. One of the favorites in the 400 meters, he duly won the event in 44.26. But he immortalized himself when, in an event in which he was a virtual unknown, the 800 m, he won the gold medal in a world record time of 1:43.50. It was one of two great doubles achieved in Montreal: the other came from Finland’s Lasse Viren, who repeated his 5,000 and 10,000 meters triumphs from 1972.

Amidst the western boycott of the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow, some Caribbean nations still decided to make the trip to the Soviet capital. Again, it was Cuba that made the biggest impact, with 20 medals (8 golds) and a fourth-place finish in the medal standings. Among the gold medallists was Teofilo Stevenson, who became the first boxer to win three heavyweight titles. Jamaica had three bronze medals – with cyclist David Weller becoming the country’s first non-track and field medalist - and Guyana got its first ever Olympic medal when Michael Anthony achieved the bronze in the bantamweight boxing division.

Four years later, Cuba decided to show solidarity with the Eastern Bloc in boycotting the Los Angeles Olympics. Still, Caribbean nations were able to do well, particularly in track and field. Thirty-three year old Don Quarrie, earned a silver medal in the 4x100 m relay. Meanwhile, Merlene Ottey-Page, who had earned a 200 m bronze medal in Moscow four years earlier, collected further bronze medals in both the 100 and 200 m. In addition, the finals of the relay events saw appearances by Jamaica (men’s 4x100m, women’s 4x100m), Barbados (men’s 4x400m), Trinidad and Tobago (women’s 4x100m) and the Bahamas (women’s 4x100m). In the boxing ring, Luis Ortiz (lightweight) and Aristides Gonzalez (middleweight) earned silver and bronze medals for Puerto Rico, while Pedro Nolasco of the Dominican Republic was a bronze medalist in the bantamweight division.

In 1988, Cuban president Fidel Castro decided that his country should show solidarity with North Korea in boycotting the Seoul Olympics. The rest of the Caribbean did have a marginal degree of success. Jamaica’s Grace Jackson was a silver medalist in the women’s 200 m. There were also Jamaicans in the finals the men’s 100 m, 400 m and 400 m hurdles. In the relays, Jamaica earned a silver medal in the men’s 4x400 m event, and placed fourth and fifth in the men’s 4x100 m and women’s 4x400 m relays, respectively. Outside the track and field arena, two Caribbean nations earned their first Olympic medals. Suriname’s Anthony Nesty became the first black medalist in swimming when he won the men’s 100 m butterfly in an Olympic record time of 53 seconds. In yachting, Peter Holmberg of the U.S. Virgin Islands got a silver medal in the Finn class with 40.4 points.

Twenty Caribbean nations participated in the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona. Among these was Cuba, returning to the fold, after a twelve-year absence. The period of isolation from this level had virtually no effect on the Cubans, as they proved themselves to be stronger than ever – amassing 31 medals and finishing fifth in the medal standings. Among the country’s 14 gold medal winners were world-record high jumper, Javier Sotomayor, the formidable baseball team and the talented women’s volleyball team. Seven gold medals came in boxing, while there were also gold medalists in the disciplines of judo, Greco-Roman wrestling and freestyle wrestling. Jamaica achieved four medals in track and field (three silvers and a bronze), with the Bahamas, Puerto Rico and Suriname each claiming a bronze medal.

The last games in Atlanta, four years ago, saw the continuation of the same trend: Cuba proving itself to be adept in a variety of disciplines, with the rest of the region enjoying success in the track and field arena. Cuba's baseball and women’s volleyball teams repeated as Olympic champions, as did boxers Felix Savon (heavyweight), Ariel Hernandez (middleweight) and Hector Vinet (light welterweight). Other medals came in track and field, weightlifting, wrestling (Greco-Roman and freestyle) and fencing. On the track there was a gold medal for Jamaican Deon Hemmings, who won the women’s 400 m hurdles as well as silver medals for her compatriots Merlene Ottey (women’s 100 and 200 m) and James Beckford (men’s long jump). Trinidad and Tobago’s Ato Boldon was a double-bronze medalist in the men’s 100 and 200 m. In the relays, there was a silver medal for the Bahamas in the women’s 4x100m, as well as a pair of bronze medals for Jamaica (men’s 4x400m, women’s 4x100m).

So, what were things like in Sydney 2000? The answer : More of the same. For certain, the Caribbean was well-represented in track and field: Boldon was one the major favorites in both the men’s 100 and 200 meters; Obadele Thompson of Barbados was also a favorite in the 200 m, while compatriot Andrea Blackett has been making her mark in the women’s 100 m hurdles over the last two years; Deon Hemmings sought to repeat her 400 m hurdles triumph, while 40-year old Ottey made her sixth Olympic Games appearance. Cuba was expected to do well overall, with three gold medalists from last year’s world championships in Seville on show: Ivan Pedroso (men’s long jump), Yoelvis Quesada (men’s triple jump) and Ana Quirot (women’s 800 m). In addition, Cuba entered the Sydney Games with the stated intention of sweeping all twelve boxing divisions, with Savon seeking to emulate Stevenson as a three-time heavyweight champion. Cuba, once again, was among the favorites to win the baseball and women’s volleyball titles for a third consecutive time.

Whatever the results, Caribbean athletes at Sydney Olympics 2000 continued the tradition of excellence set in motion a century ago by Ramon Fonst.

Ramon Fonst