The $82m ques­tion: Is it worth it?

Jamaica Gleaner - - OPINION & COMMENTARY - Orville Hig­gins is a sports­caster and talk-show host at KLAS ESPN Sports FM. Email feed­back to col­umns@glean­

THE JA­MAICAN Gov­ern­ment has come up with an $82-mil­lion pack­age to re­ward our Olympians. Al­ready, there is a lot of dis­cus­sion about it. Eighty-two mil­lion dol­lars is a lot, and for a cash-strapped coun­try with all the so­cial ills that we have, one can un­der­stand when some will ar­gue that this money could be much bet­ter spent.

There are com­mu­ni­ties in Ja­maica with­out elec­tric­ity, with­out run­ning wa­ter, with­out proper roads. There are hos­pi­tals in Ja­maica lack­ing key equip­ment. There are po­lice sta­tions in Ja­maica where the ve­hi­cles are se­verely in­ad­e­quate. As we were painfully re­minded a few weeks ago, there is a se­vere short­age of am­bu­lances in Ja­maica.

There are schools in Ja­maica that need up­grad­ing. I could list to in­fin­ity the num­ber of ar­eas where an $82-mil­lion in­jec­tion could be viewed as pro­vid­ing greater good to Ja­maica than giv­ing money to ath­letes and hold­ing a tri­fecta of events cel­e­brat­ing their achieve­ments.

Not only are there se­vere in­fras­truc­tural im­prove­ments needed that $82 mil­lion could go a far way in ad­dress­ing, but it could also be ar­gued that there are other mem­bers of the labour force who de­serve this kind of fi­nan­cial in­jec­tion far more than our Olympians.

I can think of sev­eral teach­ers and nurses and po­lice­men who would be qui­etly grum­bling that Gov­ern­ment would be spend­ing $82 mil­lion to hon­our and re­ward Olympians, while they strug­gle to get a mar­ginal pay in­crease.

Those civil ser­vants have a point. A lot of those who are go­ing to be com­pen­sated by the Gov­ern­ment are al­ready earn­ing a de­cent liv­ing. Usain Bolt, for in­stance, will be earn­ing $2.6 mil­lion from this deal. If you should put that in Bolt’s ac­count di­rectly, chances are he may hardly no­tice. Peo­ple like Shelly-Ann and Elaine Thomp­son could al­ways use the money they are get­ting, I’m sure, but it’s go­ing to be hard to prove that they ‘de­serve’ Gov­ern­ment’s fi­nan­cial help more than a nurse or doc­tor who works a 48-hour shift to save lives on a pal­try salary.


The Gov­ern­ment is run­ning the risk of being a lit­tle soft on th­ese Olympians. Re­mem­ber, it was only a few months ago that they an­nounced a $60,000-a-month pack­age for those preparing for the Rio Olympics. It was a ges­ture that the ath­letes wel­comed, but other peo­ple who are in­volved in other sports must have been won­der­ing why ath­letes were get­ting di­rect fi­nan­cial as­sis­tance from Gov­ern­ment while they were not.

I know for a fact that there are high­qual­ity per­form­ers in other sports who felt that it was un­fair for track and field ath­letes to be ben­e­fit­ing in this way while they were not. As I said at the time, the Gov­ern­ment has to be care­ful that it does not ap­pear to be favour­ing one group above the next.

The ar­gu­ment has been made that the Gov­ern­ment has to treat ath­letes bet­ter be­cause they are our best per­form­ers as a sport­ing group and they do more than any other sport­ing dis­ci­pline to put Ja­maica on the map. That may well be the case, but it can lead to other sports dis­ci­plines feel­ing un­duly left out.

The trick here is that while track and field may well be our best sport, it doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily mean that all ath­letes are bet­ter at their sport than oth­ers in theirs. I would ar­gue, for ex­am­ple, that Romelda Aiken is a far bet­ter net­baller than sev­eral of the ath­letes are in track and field. Yet oth­ers are com­pen­sated and given money to ben­e­fit their train­ing, while some­one like a Romelda is not.

As a sports broad­caster, I can, of course, un­der­stand the other side. Sport brings a kind of feel-good vibe to the coun­try that is in­cal­cu­la­ble. Dur­ing the Olympics, there is a one­ness with Ja­maicans, a kind of pa­tri­otic fer­vour and spirit that is cru­cial to any na­tion.

Our Olympic stars also bring recog­ni­tion to us from all over the world that we oth­er­wise couldn’t pay for in ad­ver­tis­ing dol­lars. I re­mem­ber read­ing once that dur­ing the 1998 World Cup qual­i­fiers on the days when Ja­maica played at ‘The Of­fice’, the crime rate tended to be lower. How much is that worth in dol­lars and cents to the foot­ballers at the time? When thou­sands of ju­bi­lant Ja­maicans (es­pe­cially those that gather in Half­Way Tree to watch our ath­letes per­form) for­get their prob­lems for a while, how much is that worth in dol­lars and cents? How much are the ath­letes worth merely to cre­ate that feel­ing of ca­ma­raderie and friend­li­ness among Ja­maicans, if noth­ing else, even if only for two weeks? There are good ar­gu­ments on both sides.

The Gov­ern­ment may well be say­ing, damned if we do, damned if we don’t.

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