The value of the Na­tional Sta­dium

Jamaica Gleaner - - IN FOCUS -

THE NA­TIONAL Sta­dium was the cen­tre­piece of our first In­de­pen­dence cel­e­bra­tions in 1962. Since then, thou­sands of girls and boys have com­peted there, more than a hun­dred have be­come Olympians, and some have be­come wealthy.

Built to seat 35,000 and pro­vide a na­tional fa­cil­ity for cy­cle rac­ing, foot­ball, and ath­let­ics, the sta­dium has be­come a launch­ing pad for es­cap­ing the per­sis­tent poverty at­tend­ing Ja­maicans for the 180 years since Eman­ci­pa­tion. It was also be­set by pol­i­tics. More on that later.

The Na­tional Sta­dium is more than a Mecca for school­boys and girls at Champs, the an­nual in­ter­sec­ondary schools ath­let­ics com­pe­ti­tion. Like a record­ing stu­dio and singers like Jimmy Cliff and Bob Mar­ley, Champs at the Sta­dium glit­ters with the al­lure of es­cape from ob­scu­rity, penury, and hope­less­ness into the world of money earn­ers like Mer­lene Ottey, Nov­lene Wil­liams-Mills, Elaine Thomp­son, Veron­ica Camp­bel­lBrown, Asafa Pow­ell, ShellyAnn Fraser-Pryce and, of course, Usain Bolt

In­de­pen­dence brought free­dom from colo­nial­ism. How­ever, it did not bring em­ploy­ment. It did not bring hous­ing. It did not bring land. (In­deed, Ja­maica had to buy the sta­dium land from the British gov­ern­ment – which could not have taken it with them when they left a few months later).

Peo­ple soon fig­ured that they had to cre­ate their own fu­ture. Many tried mu­sic and crowded the record­ing stu­dios that had be­gun to ap­pear. All they needed was their voice and a tune. Many of their early lyrics were Bi­ble-re­lated or nurs­ery rhymes. Our in­stru­men­tal­ists were only too glad to help them along. So­cial com­men­tary was to come later.

The per­for­mances of ath­letes like Don­ald Quar­rie, Bert Cameron, Mer­lene Ottey, and Grace Jack­son be­gan spread­ing the flame that had been lit by Cyn­thia Thomp­son, Hy­acinth Wal­ters, Herb McKen­ley, Arthur Wint, Les Laing, and Ge­orge Rho­den. But it was when the sec­ondary ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem was opened up that things re­ally be­gan hap­pen­ing. There were three lead­ers be­hind this.

First was Pre­mier Nor­man Manley, who opened up 2,000 free places in high schools where there had only been a dozen schol­ar­ships be­fore. Then came Prime Min­is­ter Hugh Shearer, who built 50 ju­nior sec­ondary schools, mainly in ru­ral ar­eas, which would re­duce the need for board­ing fees. He was fol­lowed by Prime Min­is­ter Michael Manley, whose freee­d­u­ca­tion pol­icy of 1973 threw the gates wide open.


So, from six schools com­pet­ing when Champs be­gan in 1910, well over a hun­dred schools are now send­ing ath­letes to the Na­tional Sta­dium ev­ery Easter. But the credit for the Na­tional Sta­dium it­self goes to Nor­man Manley, who suf­fered abuse for his de­ci­sion to build it.

Nor­man Manley had been a leg­end at school­boy sports, es­pe­cially in ath­let­ics, achiev­ing times as a school­boy that would have qual­i­fied him for Olympic fi­nals. Later, in the 1930s, he founded and nur­tured na­tional sports or­gan­i­sa­tions – the JAAA, the Ja­maica Box­ing Board of Con­trol, the Ama­teur Swim­ming As­so­ci­a­tion of Ja­maica, and the Ja­maica Olympic As­so­ci­a­tion. He had been in­volved with al­most ev­ery sport­ing body in Ja­maica, in­clud­ing bi­cy­cle rac­ing and horse rac­ing, and was a stew­ard of the Jockey Club.

As a school­boy sprinter who had wit­nessed young Ja­maicans in the Olympics of 1948, 1952, and 1956 with­out proper per­form­ing fa­cil­i­ties, he was de­ter­mined that Ja­maica should have a sta­dium. And so when Benny Machado and Her­bert Mac­Don­ald came back from the 1959 Cen­tral Amer­i­can and Pan-Amer­i­can Games in Cara­cas, Venezuela, and told him that they had com­mit­ted to stag­ing the next one in Ja­maica, the thought of a sta­dium be­came word. It was to be at Briggs Park, Swal­low­field. It was to have a run­ning track, a cy­cle track, and a foot­ball field. And be­cause it would be the scene of so many events mark­ing In­de­pen­dence, Briggs Park would now be named In­de­pen­dence Park.

Word of the sta­dium gen­er­ated ex­cite­ment among the crick­et­ing fra­ter­nity, which now ex­pected that there would be a cricket field. They had long been an­gered by the treat­ment ac­corded Ge­orge Headley and other black peo­ple at Sabina Park, the home of Kingston Cricket Club and the site of all Test matches in Ja­maica.

Pre­mier Manley took the pro­posal to the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives. Per­haps in his mind, this man of vi­sion, this na­tion builder, he fore­saw the pos­si­bil­i­ties when he inked in­struc­tions to build the Na­tional Sta­dium. He never named it af­ter him­self; never sought to name it the Nor­man Manley Sta­dium. The Na­tional Sta­dium it was, and that was in full keep­ing with his goal of build­ing the Ja­maican na­tion.


But JLP voices op­posed it mer­ci­lessly, con­demn­ing him and the sta­dium idea, and voted against it. How­ever, with the PNP ma­jor­ity, it was passed. Her­bert Mac­Don­ald was as­signed to take the word and make it flesh. Nev­er­the­less, abet­ted by strikes, and per­haps over­sen­si­tive to the con­tro­versy in the House, Mac­Don­ald dithered, and the ur­gency faded from the na­tional radar.

The strikes only ceased when A.D. Scott took over the con­tract. On Fe­bru­ary 5, 1962, six months be­fore In­de­pen­dence, A.D. Scott Ltd joined C.J. Fox Con­struc­tion Com­pany to com­plete the build­ing on time. Shortly af­ter, the con­trac­tors sus­pended the work fol­low­ing an ar­bi­tra­tion award of height pay to the work­ers. Fox with­drew and Scott took over re­spon­si­bil­ity for fin­ish­ing the build­ing. The Na­tional Sta­dium was com­pleted in time, but the grand­stand’s can­tilever roof was un­painted.

When the sta­dium was fi­nally opened, it was only to dis­cover that no pro­vi­sion had been made for cricket. But there it was, a Na­tional Sta­dium, thanks to Nor­man Manley’s de­ter­mi­na­tion. It is well worth ask­ing what might have been the fate of count­less ath­letes if the Na­tional Sta­dium had not been built to be­come the Mecca of ath­let­ics in Ja­maica.

By 1962, af­ter the PNP losses in the ref­er­en­dum and the gen­eral elec­tion that Manley called to de­ter­mine lead­er­ship in In­de­pen­dence, Ja­maicans had summed up their two lead­ers: Bus­ta­mante, they said, was “a politi­cian”, while Manley they de­scribed as “a states­man”. He was no longer their pre­mier, but he was al­most uni­ver­sally re­spected.

I say al­most. In Par­lia­ment for the three months be­tween the JLP elec­tion vic­tory in April 1962 and In­de­pen­dence, the Gov­ern­ment front bench, ex­cept Bus­ta­mante and Sang­ster, hurled hate­ful, vi­tu­per­a­tive degra­da­tion at the for­mer pre­mier. Prom­i­nent in this griev­ous as­sault was a gang of four: D.C. Tavares, Her­bert Eldemire, Vic­tor Grant, and Ed­ward Seaga. Now Seaga took it fur­ther.

It was In­de­pen­dence Day 1962 and ex­cite­ment was in the air all across Ja­maica. Up at the spank­ing new Na­tional Sta­dium at In­de­pen­dence Park, you could feel the ex­cite­ment. It came in waves as no­table af­ter no­table en­tered and sat down. Ev­ery­one was ex­ult­ing in the mo­ment of free­dom. Ea­gerly, they watched to see the VIPs take their place in the Royal Box, among them Prime Min­is­ter Sir Alexan­der Bus­ta­mante and Op­po­si­tion Leader Nor­man Manley (who had de­clined of­fers of knight­hood).

Now here he was, walk­ing into his sta­dium, ac­cept­ing the re­spect­ful greet­ings of the peo­ple nearby and tak­ing a seat in the Royal Box. This was not to last. Seaga had to colt the game. “What is that man do­ing there?” The sharp, loud, dis­re­spect­ful ques­tion was di­rected to the se­cu­rity of­fi­cers. It came from

the young min­is­ter of de­vel­op­ment and wel­fare, Ed­ward Seaga. It was per­haps, the first big, pub­lic con­tro­versy of his rep­re­sen­ta­tive life.

When the se­cu­rity peo­ple reached him, Nor­man Manley got up. “Well, I will go and sit with the peo­ple,” he said and started mak­ing his way down, the grand­stand crowd watch­ing in as­ton­ish­ment.

But Sir Alexan­der in­ter­vened. He quickly huffed Seaga by invit­ing Manley to sit with him in the Box. The re­lieved grand­stand was freed once again to ab­sorb the ex­cite­ment of their Na­tional Sta­dium at In­de­pen­dence.

So it is that to­day, we can look back with pride at the past glo­ries at the Na­tional Sta­dium and for­ward with ex­pec­ta­tion to the daz­zling ex­ploits of the wor­thy suc­ces­sors to our record-set­ting Shelly-Anns and Usains. And we can re­mem­ber to thank Nor­man Manley, man of vi­sion.

Ewart Wal­ters is a for­mer par­lia­men­tary and ed­u­ca­tion reporter and was present at all the events at the Na­tional Sta­dium in its first week. Email feed­back to col­umns@glean­ and spec­

In this 1961 Gleaner file photo, crew­men work on con­struc­tion of the main drain in the ex­cess-wa­ter and sew­er­age dis­posal sys­tem of the Na­tional Sta­dium. The sta­dium was com­pleted in time for the Ninth Cen­tral Amer­i­can and Caribbean Games set for Ju­lyAu­gust 1962. The wooden frames seen in this pic­ture will be re­moved af­ter con­crete has been poured to form the walls and floor­ing of the drain.

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