I EXPERIENCED déjà vu last Monday, a feeling of "been there, seen that" as I watched the Prime Minister and her Cabinet colleagues milk golden boy Keshorn Walcott for all he was worth, and then some. Politicians can be merciless in extracting their mileage from achievers. Walcott, having endured two extensive world-class sporting events with all the in-built tension, not to add energy- sapping hours of travelling, was forced into an ultra-marathon homecoming to satiate the political appetites of the powers-that-be. In what should have been his hour of glory, I felt sorry for the boy.
Déjà vu it was because I was witness to the political Carnival 36 years ago, in August 1976, when Hasely Crawford returned home, having won the country's first gold medal at the Montreal Olympics in Canada. From the week before, the moment he raised his hand in victory over Jamaica's Don Quarrie and Russia's Valeriy Borzov, Trinis were bursting with pride. We couldn't wait to give this national hero a grand welcome home.
If the citizens wore an air of excited expectancy, prime minister Dr Eric Williams was licking his political chops. The general election was mere weeks away, so how fortuitous it was that "Crawfie" would win gold on the eve of that political battle. The PM immediately announced that a BWIA DC-9 aircraft would carry Crawfie's name. By the time the sprinter landed at Piarco to a rapturous welcome, Williams, buoyed by oil dollars that had begun flowing like water from late 1973, went into an offerings stupor.
I do not recall full details of all that he promised Crawfie, but I remember the plane and the commitment to build an international standard stadium. The Government paraded him across the country, but especially so in constituencies that looked marginal. I remember, too, the PNM (People's National Movement) using Crawfie's name on its political platforms (he may have been present at certain meetings), seeking to extract votes from his gold medal as if the party had trained and manufactured the champ with a balisier imprint.
Well, the elections came, the PNM won comfortably (24-12), after which, it was business as usual. Many years later, Crawfie was given a job at the NGC (National Gas Company), which he held until recently. The stadium was delivered in 1980, probably the lone sports benefit to come out of that gold medal. As for a house, I think that did not come until Basdeo Panday was prime minister, sometime around 2000.
The "political blight" that struck Crawfie was a precipitous drop in his performance as an athlete. He had won gold in the 100-metres with a blistering 10.06 seconds. He was 26 years old at the time, and he would never come close to that time again. The only gold medal he won afterwards was at the 1977 CAC Games; in that same year, Ephraim Serrette (current National Association of Athletics Administrations president) beat Crawfie at the National Championships. He would bag silver at the Commonwealth Games (CG) in 1978. But at the 1980 Moscow Olympics in Russia, Crawfie was eliminated in the 100-metres early o'clock.
I am not suggesting that Dr Williams and the PNM were to blame for Crawfie's decline as an athlete when they laid their political claws on him, milking him much the way the current Government is exploiting Walcott. But consider this: Don Quarrie, who won gold in the 200-metres in Montreal, continued his winning ways until 1984. He beat Crawfie at the CG in 1978, won bronze in the 200-metres in Moscow, and silver as a member of Jamaica's 4x100 relay team in Los Angeles, USA, in 1984.
Now, back to the present and the future. I don't think there is any Trini-to-the-bone who was not overjoyed when young Walcott, against all odds and expectations, struck gold in London, England. Several generations will never have heard this country's National Anthem play at an Olympic Games. So they, and we, who exulted in the achievements of Wendell Mottley and others in the 1960s and Ato Boldon's exploits in the 1990s, have every reason to feel proud, to celebrate.
But there is a very visible line that demarcates national pride from political exploitation. And the sheer torture that Walcott was subjected to on the day he returned home is unforgiveable, even if he is too polite to complain. The boy had attended the gruelling World Junior Championships in Barcelona, Spain, two weeks before the London Olympics. He won gold there. Then he was off to London, no rest, to compete again at an even higher level. The physical and mental stress of competition at the Olympics is unimaginable to those who know nothing about sports.
Add to all of the above, a closing ceremony that ran until midnight on Sunday (London time). Walcott and his colleagues might have managed two hours rest before being roused to prepare for departure. A nine-hour, energy-sapping flight followed. When he landed at Piarco, he expected some kind of official reception (according to what he told the media).
But never in his worst nightmares could he foresee the torture he would be subjected to. Didn't the PM, as a mother, consider all that the boy had been through, how exhausted he might have been, before planning and executing their 20-hour Carnival? It might have been better if they had asked him to walk to Toco! She and Jack Warner were concerned not about Walcott's welfare but about rekindling their political stocks that seem to diminish every day.
And don't tell us about the gifts bestowed on Walcott. When you throw millions of dollars at "tatah soca" and "chutney crap", you should cede all of Toco to Walcott for his years of hard work that produced a gold medal. I can only hope, for the boy's sake, that political blight does not smite his immense potential.