The World's Greatest all Round Track Coach
Published: Sunday | August 23, 2009
Kevin O'Brien Chang, Contributor

ONCE UPON a time a Jamaican gold medal at the Olympics or the World Championships in Athletic was a rare event, and a medal of any kind was reason for celebration. Between 1964 and 2004, we won only four Olympic golds, and an average of three medals per Games. Between the first World Championships in 1983 and 2003, we won three individual and three relay golds, and an average of under six medals per meet.

Dramatic change

That changed dramatically in Bejing 2008 when Jamaica won six gold medals and 11 in total. The sharp improvement has continued with this year's World Champion-ships in Athletics, where up to press time on Friday afternoon Jamaica had won five golds and nine medals in total, with expectations for probably two or even three more golds and 13 medals in all.

Once, gold medal-winners like Donald Quarrie, Deon Hemmings, Bert Cameron and Merlene Ottey became almost folk heroes. Now we can hardly keep track of them. It used to be that any medal was greeted with loud cheers. Now, if we don't get two in an event, we hiss our teeth in disappointment.

Proper development

There are numerous reasons for the turnaround. The 2003 Balco drug scandal in the United States (US), for instance, probably levelled the playing field for less technologically advanced countries like Jamaica. Then, there are the special talents of Veronica Campbell and Usain Bolt. Furthermore, our most promising athletes no longer go mainly to US colleges and get burnt out on the cutthroat NCAA circuit, but stay at home and develop properly.

Yet quantitatively, the single largest factor in our medal count spike, and especially with the golds, has been MVP track club coach, Stephen Francis. In Bejing 2008 his athletes won two individual golds - Shelly-Ann Fraser and Melaine Walker, made up three-fourths of the men's 4x100 relay gold, and earned three silvers. So far in Berlin 2009 they have earned three individual golds - Fraser, Walker and Bridget Foster - a silver and two bronzes. If MVP were a country, it would be second on the current World Champs medals chart to the United States of America!

Now, Glen Mills, whom Stephen Francis and others call the sprint guru, is widely acknowledged as the best sprint coach in the business. No one has been more responsible for Usain Bolt's development into the finest sprinter of all-time. But the multi-discipline record shows that Francis is unquestionably the greatest all-round track coach in the world.

Based on all I've seen and heard, my view is that Stephen Francis' success as a coach is simply due to a man with a very high IQ working extremely hard at something he loves. Samuel Johnson called genius "an infinite capacity for taking pains". Thomas Edison said it was "one per cent inspiration and 99% per cent perspiration". Francis certainly qualifies on these counts. He is also, like all great coaches, almost a father-figure to his athletes, and always puts their interests first.

He is not everyone's cup of tea, and reportedly rubs a lot of people the wrong way. But then an extreme, and to some an excessive, sense of self-belief and even arrogance is perhaps necessary in pioneers. Certainly only an iron belief that he was right and all his critics wrong, could have kept him going in the early MVP days. After quitting his highly paid executive job with a multi-national for full-time coaching, he found himself almost down and out financially, had his light and water cut off, and had to sell his car. Many were no doubt laughing at his folly, but so far he has had the last laugh.

A lot of criticism

There was a lot of criticism before these World Championships about his decision to keep his athletes at his normal base in Italy, and not join the supposedly 'mandatory' main camp organised by the Jamaica Amateur Athletic Association. Well, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. And the superb performances of his charges so far, with nearly all of them producing season's best performances when it counts, should have silenced all detractors.

Frankly, the Jamaica Amateur Athletic Association's (JAAA) my-way-or-the-highway attitude was just plain stupid. Rules are after all made to serve people, not people to serve rules. When a man is the best in the world at what he does, you don't try to tell him how to do his job. If it aint broke, don't fix it. As far as the public is concerned, the JAAA's main purpose is to make sure Jamaica gets as many medals in major championships as possible. Their attitude should be Franno, do what have to do. Just bring home plenty gold and make us look good!

Arrogant ego

But, sadl,y the JAAA's high-headed attitude is quite prevalent among authorities in Jamaica, and indeed the region. The plantation owners are gone and the colour of those at the top may have changed, but the do-as-you-are-told-and-shut-up-boy! mentality still lingers on among those in charge. Too often we see arrogant egos getting in the way of even self-interest and forgetting what their real job is.

A classic case is the West Indies Cricket Board deciding to send a third-string West Indies team to the upcoming Champions Trophy in South Africa, despite the top players making themselves available for selection after Sir Shridath Ramphaul offered to mediate the impasse between the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB) and West Indies Players Association. The board's only possible motive could be to spite players, who had the temerity to withdraw their services for the recent Bangladesh tests because their constant complaints were being ignored. But in the process the WICB is damaging, perhaps beyond repair, the West Indies cricket they are supposed to be nurturing.

What a plan

Can you imagine if the JAAA management team, led by former top athlete, Trevor Campbell, and technical director, the legendary Don Quarrie, had not been prevented by the International Amateur Athletic Federation from withdrawing Asafa Powell, Shelly-Ann Fraser, Bridget Foster, Melaine Walker and Sherika Williams from these World Championships? That would be three individual golds and a silver and bronze right there, plus probably the men's and women's 4x100 relay golds and a woman's 4x400 medal. Talk about wanting to cut off your nose to spite your face!

Our track authorities have muttered about sanctioning Stephen Francis' charges after the World Championships. If they had any brains, they would instead hold a ticker tape parade for all our athletes, including the MVP stars responsible for most of our success so far. They should also nominate Francis as coach of the year. Because he is the main reason Jamaica is on target for the record medal count that these same JAAA officials will no doubt boast loudly about when our athletes come home in triumph.

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