Thu | Aug 16, 2018

Ewart Walters | The value of the National Stadium

Published:Sunday | August 12, 2018 | 12:00 AM
Ewart Walters

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 Campbell-Brown, Asafa Powell, Shelly-Ann 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 free-education policy of 1973 threw the gates wide open.

 

CREDIT TO MANLEY

 

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.

 

MERCILESS OPPOSITION

 

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@gleanerjm.com and spectrum@storm.ca.