They say sport mirrors society. And few events have so sharply reflected Jamaican reality as the Peta-Gaye Dowdie / Merlene Ottey Olympics controversy.


The JAAA management’s immorality, arrogance and incompetence were sadly typical of our authorities. First they broke their own rules and deprived a National Champion of her legal right to represent her country. It was depressing to see an innocent young girl psychologically crushed by her supposed guardians intent on carrying out an obviously predetermined agenda.


Then they disregarded the other athletes’ vocal dissatisfaction with this blatant injustice, leaving them no way to express their disgust but by demonstrating publicly. Those who bemoan Jamaica’s ‘roadblock’ mentality should focus on its real cause - an officialdom that ignores verbal complaints and pays attention only to physical protests.


The JAAA then began spin-doctoring away its blunders in the “old-boys, lodge-brothers network” style so characteristic of Jamaican authorities. Of course it will work. No one accepted responsibility for the unplayable Sabina Park pitch, the Street People incident, or the ‘Fat Cat’ salaries scandal. Why should anyone accept responsibility for the Sydney disgrace?


The media also let the country down. True the JAAA shamefully acted like fourth world country officials with something to hide and held no press conferences. But that did not justify the raft of stories attributed to unnamed “sources”. Reports kept saying Dowdie was injured until it became almost an accepted fact. Yet Dr. Glenton Smith, part of the JAAA team in Sydney, says “I comprehensively examined Peta-Gaye Dowdie twice and at no time was she diagnosed with any injury”.


Ottey’s and Bev McDonald’s insistence on running the 100 showed a lack of logical self-interest which is all too common in Jamaica. The energy McDonald wasted in the 100 likely cost her a medal in the 200. Ottey had little chance of beating Marion Jones. Had she focused on the relay she might now have an Olympic gold. Dowdie’s absence plus a poor baton change on a disunited team – a tired Ottey and McDonald never practiced together - all combined to deny Jamaica victory. Poetic justice some say, and proof that God doesn’t sleep.


The reactions of our newspaper columnists were revealing. These are in theory our most reasoned public commentators. Yet few supported Dowdie’s legal right unconditionally.


Hartley Neita commented that “… Miss Dowdie basked in her glory propped up by an unequivocal statement made by the JAAA president that she was the national champion and could not be removed. Not even “by a tractor”. Merlene arrived in Sydney waiting for the crown to be returned. And it was clear… from the… bobbing and weaving of the management team in Sydney, that Miss Dowdie’s reign was over… Obviously she has to learn that mental toughness is as important as fleet feet.”


Obviously she also has to learn that in Jamaica who you know matters more than the rule of law, personality is more important than principle, and that only the foolish expect people to keep even their publicly given word.


Mark Wignall blamed the JAAA and the JOA and Merlene Ottey but also wrote “I am also willing to blame young and naïve Peta-Gaye… did she really expect that … she would get the nod to run over queen Ottey?… She has been wronged but she also allowed herself to be led down a garden path.” Jamaica is in a sad state when someone can be chastised for expecting publicly stated rules to be adhered to.


According to John Maxwell “I can not understand how anyone can argue…  that to run Merlene Ottey in the Olympic 100 metres would be unfair because it would be “at the expense of” somebody else. Everyone on the team is there at the expense of somebody else… Is there anyone else on the Jamaican team who better deserves this moment, to run in the Olympics 100 metres…?”


Does he see no difference between making a team at the expense of others by beating them in fair competition, and making a team at someone else’s expense due to an arbitrary official decision?  Did Peta-Gaye Dowdie not gain the right to represent Jamaica by winning the National Championship? Mr. Maxwell seems to place little store by due process and clearly believes winning is all.


Alfred Sangster also took the “Ottey should run because she has the best chance” line, and went on to criticize “Peta-Gaye’s attitude to the team management… her coach had instructed that after her last meet on August 7… she was not to participate in any meet prior to the Olympics…  a US based college coach cannot dictate to the National coaches and team management. That coach must answer to the JAAA and the Jamaican people for messing up Peta-Gaye.” In reality it was the JAAA who asked her highly respected coach Dennis Shaver to rest her after August 7. Is it not irresponsible to make such xenophobic charges without first checking the facts?


Dr. Sangster also advises the JAAA president not to “be frightened by the adverse publicity. If you bring home medals the waggonists will clamber to congratulate the medal winners.” Does success then justify everything, even injustice?


Wayne Brown came down unconditionally on the side of justice. “I wonder how many realize the extent of the ugliness of what has been done – not only to Dowdie, but to the athletes protesting on her behalf… the protesting Jamaican athletes were naive and perhaps ill-advised but their scandalized reaction to Dowdie’s dumping upheld civilization.”


And he is right. The absolute sovereignty of the law and the equality of all before the law are the foundations of civilization. The British or US athletic associations could never summarily replace a National Champion. Universal condemnation would force the government to intervene and sponsorship would dry up if the perpetrators did not resign. Officials are only as good as those they serve.


As our commentators showed, Jamaica’s response to this affair was mixed. Had Ottey won her race and a Dowdie-less team the relay, Peta-Gaye might have been forgotten in the acclamation of “queen Merlene”. Perhaps Jamaica really is only a semi-civilized country.


The most telling insight into a nation’s mindset may be rumour, for hearsay reflects what people consider important and what experience has taught them to expect. And in the women’s 100 metres controversy much speculation centred on possible government involvement and romantic attachments between some of the athletes and coaches concerned. Maybe the cynics are right and everything in Jamaica eventually boils down to politics and sex? changkob@hotmail.com

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