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Death of a strong man

By Garth Wattley garth.wattley@trinidadexpress.com

“Trinidad is a country, same crowd that hail you today, same crowd that boo you tomorrow.”

In his three score, ten, plus a further nine years, Rodney Wilkes had come to that firm conviction. On the one occasion on which I had the privilege to chat with him, he gave me that line.

It was indeed a privilege to talk with Trinidad and Tobago’s first Olympic medallist. He didn’t give many interviews. The sentiments behind that opening line had come from bitter experience which stayed with Rodney his whole life. 

Rodney Adolphus Wilkes did not die well-off. But now that he is gone, his achievements will be duly recounted: Olympic wightlifting silver medal, White City, London, 1948 and bronze, Helsinki, Finland, 1952; CAC Games golds in Baranquilla, Colombia, 1946 and Guatemala City 1950; Pan American Games gold, Buenos Aires 1951 and Commonwealth Games gold, Vancouver 1954.

It is an impressive list of accomplishments for which Wilkes was awarded Humming Bird Silver in 1972 and entered the Sports hall of Fame in 1985.

In our chat about 10 years ago, there was an element of caution in his speech. You got the sense of someone who had much to say and many stories to tell but who preferred not to dredge up a lot of hurt that he had bottled up about real and perceived treatment during and after the time his career had ended. As is the T&T penchant, true appreciation did come for the likes of Wilkes and so many others.

But because of the time he operated in, Wilkes was a pioneer, but also a trailblazer who excelled. So while weightlifting is not a sport in which Trinidad and Tobago competes internationally nowadays, it was the discipline that allowed the country to make its first significant mark on the Olympics. All of that was on the shoulders of a short but very strong man, distinguished by his long arms. 

However, when one listened to Rodney Wilkes speak, it was also obvious that he was not just a man who used his brawn, but his brain as well. I found him something of a philosopher.

 “The key to being a successful lifter is your mode of living,” he told me. “You must live with plans, set goals, and work diligently towards your goals. I trained myself to plan for every Games.”

Speaking of training, Wilkes made the most of very little to prepare for his foreign conquests. Raised on Bertrand Street in San Fernando, the son of a garbage collector, Wilkes did not have the support systems or the financial assistance of today’s elite athletes. After work he would bicycle over to the backyard of one of his few benefactors, businessman Balo Nandlal in Gomez lane to train.

It was in that setting that Wilkes developed both his strength and technique. But clearly, Wilkes also possessed a different kind of strength. 

In 1947, he went to the World Championships in Philadelphia, USA  and placed last. Wilkes only arrived a day before the competition began. Worse, he had to borrow  a pair of lifting shoes from his Guyanese counterpart, Kevin Daly. The whole outworking of events galled Wilkes, especially the fact that the eventual featherweight class winner, Bobby Higgins of the United States, won with a combined total that was five pounds less than what Wilkes lifted to win the CAC gold in Baranquilla, Colombia in 1946.

Here, though, was fuel to succeed, not a source for future discouragement.

“Obstacles and barriers, when they confront you...you override those obstacles with the help of the Almighty, because he is the strength of your life,” he said to me.

Besides that inner strength, Wilkes also had going for him a shrewd ally in his coach and friend, the former attorney Lionel Seemungal, the father figure who helped to turn the Philadelphia failure into a silver medal a year later in London.

Wilkes’ main competition for the gold was to be the eventual winner Mahmoud Fayad of Egypt. But Rodney did not put pressure on himself thinking too much about the competition.

Coach Seemungal’s advice was, according to Wilkes: “Relax yourself and lift just as how you lift in Bal Nandlal backyard in Gomez Lane. You have nothing to lose by losing to (Mahmoud) Fayad but you have a lot to gain by beating Fayad.”

The pocket powerhouse followed Seemungal’s suggestions, first in the press and then the snatch, which the experts thought was his strongest event because of his long reach. But the in the end, the top medals would be decided in the clean and jerk.

 Wilkes’ first attempt was at 250 pounds, lower than the weight at which he failed at the World Championships. He made the weight with an adjusted grip because of a thumb injury. Imagine that. Here is a man whose success in an event depended so much on using his hands, and here he was, in the hunt for gold with a damaged thumb.

Wilkes’ second attempt was at 275, which he also made. But Fayad would produce a world record lift to win gold.

Thoughtful Rodney was not downcast.

“I had redeemed myself...From the time I realised that I was in a position where only one man could beat me, I concluded that I had redeemed myself (from the World Championships failure).”

If you think back to this snapshot of the Rodney Wilkes experience, there is a blueprint for success that aspiring athletes can copy.

A lack of the best facilities is not an immediate reason for failure. Neither are setbacks in competition or even injury. 

With good handling, the discipline to do the hard work and a strong desire to overcome, even the downtrodden can rise to the top.

That is what we can learn from the death of a very strong man.

garth.wattley@trinidadexpress.com

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