Sportsmen and women,
Sports lovers all,
I am very honored and pleased to welcome you to this Sports Conference. In particular, let me extend a warm St. Martin welcome to our guests from Santiago de Cuba, Cuba. They have come to be with us to share their experience in developing sports, an experience we can surely learn from, given the admirable level of international acclaim Cuba has achieved in this field. Bienvenidos a San Martin! Espero que estan disfrutando de la hospitalidad acqui en San Martin. Nuestra casa es su casa!
We are gathered here today to put our heads together and discuss how we can raise the bar in sports, as the theme for today's conference clearly states. In other words, our collective mission, which kicks off today, is to come up with ways to take sports in St. Martin to a much higher level of achievement. To do that, we obviously need a dynamic, realistic and workable sports policy. But what use is a sports policy if it does not aim to produce champions?
We cannot continue to compete for competing sake, as we have done for the most part until now. We must compete to win in order to get recognition on the international podium. I know you will remind me that the Olympic motto stresses participation. That is true. But may I draw your attention to the standards set by the same International Olympic Committee for that participation. You just don't wake up one morning, put on your track suit, and head for the Olympics. You have to go through a qualification process. And what is that if not a process to choose winners? The point is to be an Olympian, you have to be a winner already!
For Sports to receive the due attention it deserves, I have made it a priority to split the current Department of Youth and Sports into two separate departments, each with its own head and accompanying staff. That process is nearing completion as I speak.
But then, the question could be asked: What need do we have for a Sports department if it is not set up to guarantee results on the field? That is precisely the reason why we are proceeding in this manner: to guarantee results on the field. In other words, the idea of establishing a Sports department on its own, separate from any other department, is to ensure that it does nothing else but guarantee that we have sports programs whose effectiveness is measured by the performance of our athletes.
I strongly believe that the love of sports is the beginning of a healthy nation that is competitive not only in sports alone but in all other areas of human endeavor as well. I have no doubt that all of you here today love sports. But sports is about young people, and I mean physically young people, not those of us who are young at heart but no longer in the body. To develop sports to world class level, we have to catch them young. This is why it is imperative that we have a vibrant sports program in our schools.
When we consider the average age of many world-class athletes in various fields, we realize that they seem to peak in their mid-twenties, and thereafter begin a steady decline. By the time they reach the youthful age of 30, a lot of them are considered past their prime. Of course, some of them might still be able to continue competing at the topmost level, but usually they do so for a few more years and by 35 or so, they are forced into retirement.
This is certainly the case with soccer. Pele was a teenager when he played his first World Cup with Brazil. Lionel Messi, Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, et al, have blossomed in late teens and early 20s. In fact, Real Madrid was reported to have signed on a 7 year-old phenomenon recently. If he grows into his potential, you can expect that he would be in the first team by the time he is 16!
Look at the average age of world class tennis players, for example. Serena and Venus Williams burst on the world stage when they were still teenagers. Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, the top two tennis players in the world are in their mid-twenties.
In swimming and gymnastics, you may even be considered "too old" once you are past 25. In athletics, the world's fastest man, Jamaica's Usain Bolt, turned pro at 18 and won three gold medals at the Beijing Olympics when he was just 22. Alberto Juantorena, the pride of Cuba, who was born in Santiago de Cuba, took part in his first Olympics when he was not yet 22. In 1976, at the Montreal Olympics, he won gold medals in 400 and 800 meters when he was just about 26. And just last week, Kirani James gave Grenada its first championship medal at the age of 18.
I give these examples to show how important it is for us to nurture our athletes and sportsmen and women from an early age. Of course, I am aware that there are exceptions to this general picture I am painting. You still have boxers holding world titles in their late 40s and even in their 50s. You have baseball players in their 30s and some in their 40s and you might find some world-class cricketers in that same age bracket. Of course, we're not going to talk about golf and sailing.
But even in these so-called exceptions, these athletes hit the international sport-lights when they were much younger. So, let me stress again that there is no alternative to catching them young. The school is a good place to start. In fact, it is the best place to lay the foundation for a sports program that will produce champions. It is an integral part of my policy to introduce sports as a mandatory subject in our elementary and secondary schools. The new curricula we are working on will reflect this.
In fact, as I have already stated in several other fora, it is part of my goals as minister with responsibility for Sports to ensure compulsory physical education instruction in all schools and to establish school teams in all sports, with participation in an annual Sports Festival or Olympiad. This would mean creating school teams in various sports, if they do not exist already, with the aim of participating in inter-scholastic competition not only on the island, but also in the region. This should lead to national youth teams that can compete regionally and internationally.
We cannot expect to build a sports program without trained coaches and all the other necessary amenities and incentives that are needed to make such a program successful. We will place emphasis on the training of coaches at all levels–an area in which, I am sure, we would be able to benefit from the expertise of our Cuban brothers and sisters.
With regards to sports facilities, there are perhaps more of these per square mile here on St. Martin than in any other island in the Caribbean. In my humble view, it is not just the numbers that matter; managing and maintaining them is a serious issue, and ensuring that they meet international standards is another.
Our main sports arena, the Raul Illidge Sports Complex is in a disgraceful state of disrepair. A structural and sustainable approach to its upgrading and upkeep is being studied. Several other facilities need repairs and proper maintenance. It is my intention to establish one entity that will be charged with the upkeep of all our sports facilities.
However, we must make better use of the facilities we have both at our schools and in our districts. It is pure wastage to have our school gyms, for example, locked up after school hours, when our youth could make use of them, with the necessary supervision, when there is no school. I am convinced that with the number of basketball courts we now have all over the island, we should be able to produce some of the best basketball players in the region.
Sports facilities cost money; and we must admit that the return on investment will continue to be meager if we do not make the best use of them, and certainly if we do not stamp out the acts of vandalism that destroy them faster than we can get to properly use them. In this regard, our young people must become co-responsible for the upkeep of these facilities.
At this point, let me emphasize that no real development of sports can be possible if we do not change our mentality towards it. While I do not deny the recreational aspect of sports, we cannot continue to see sports as something we do just for fun; as a hobby, a pastime. And even at that, our support for the sportsmen and women leaves a lot to be desired in many cases.
I am referring in particular to attendance at sports events. Although some sports have a sizeable following on the island, it is unacceptable that a table tennis tournament involving over 30 children held at the Sports Auditorium all day Saturday, attracts less than 10 people in the stands. Where are the parents, the friends, family and schoolmates of these budding table tennis, basketball, and baseball stars?
Granted, table tennis may not be a very popular sport here, so maybe we should get more of the Chinese in our midst involved. But what I am talking about goes beyond table tennis. If the Sports Auditorium could be filled to capacity with AND-1, why can't we have it so when we have the district competition going on, even when admission to this is free? It is common knowledge that athletes perform better when they have a crowd urging them on.
We also know that, in general, a healthy body houses a healthy mind. Obesity has been identified as a growing problem among St. Martiners of all ages. We lead a sedentary lifestyle, with as little physical activity as possible. Coupled with a diet that is fast becoming less and less balanced, it is no surprise that we are becoming prone to diseases our forefathers never knew.
A district based sports development program, with the full and active participation of the Community Councils, will be established to engage the young and not-so-young in sporting activities. This would increase community consciousness, foster unity among neighbors, and a healthy competition that would strengthen feelings of national pride and contribute to nation-building.
Our sports organizations need to take note and incorporate this idea into their programs. I am well aware that they too need a lot of assistance; however, this cannot be only in the area of funding. Reports reaching me indicate that there is too much bickering, too many personality clashes, too much duplication of efforts among some sports groups on the island.
Our sports organizations need to set aside their differences and come together in a serious manner to establish an umbrella entity that would permit St. Martin to speak with one voice in approaching regional and international sporting bodies to facilitate our participation in games that these organize. They also need to improve their statistical and data collection and documentation of individual and team performances, which are often needed at the international level to determine if we are meeting the required standards.
Adequate funding is, of course, necessary if we are to meaningfully raise the bar in sports on the island. Unfortunately, I cannot tell you that government has enough money to pour into sports development. To the contrary, we are going through a period of budgetary austerity, and for the 2012 budget which we are working on right now, my ministry has to cut Naf.18 million. Considering that sports are already under-funded, this would further tax our creativity in the allocation of funds for sports. Consequently, the new subsidy policy we are putting in place will focus very much on performance, accountability, and planning of the various sporting organizations, associations, clubs, foundations, etc. that may be seeking government financial support for their programs.
One of the distinguishing features of sports organizations on St. Martin used to be their spirit of self-help. In other words, they very seldom wait on government to give them money so they can travel to participate in competitions outside the island. I am certain that spirit still exists and can be reinvigorated, especially during these tough financial times for government.
A public-private partnership, where the private sector – and by this, I don't mean just a few companies who usually sponsor sporting activities – but the business sector at large, would do its part to supplement government efforts. This is not a question of charity, but a corporate duty to contribute to the development of the society in which these businesses operate.
Let me say a few words about Sports tourism, which many organizations seem to claim is part of their goals. I'm sure some of you would remember the glory days of boxing on the island, with regular boxing matches that drew spectators from all around the neighboring islands, including Puerto Rico. In fact, I understand that the youngest world boxing champion ever, the Puerto Rican Wilfrido Benitez, had fought here on St. Martin in the early days of his career.
St. Martin had also hosted a world boxing championship fight that was broadcast live on HBO featuring Pernel "The Sweet Pea" Whitaker. The fight was held at the Atlantis Casino shortly after Hurricane Luis, and was meant to show the world that the island was back in business.
Several other sporting events have attracted hundreds of visitors from far and near. However, it is clear that for us to continue in this direction, we would have to do the following: ensure that we have venues that meet international standards, build up our own athletes so that they can compete favorably against their counterparts from other countries and focus on targeted marketing, especially within our region.
We have a lot of work to do. Our sports legislation needs to be brought up to par. St. Martin has to ratify the Anti-Doping conventions that govern international sports, as well as the International Charter of Physical Education and Sport, which will enable us to host international championships and tournaments.
We have already indicated our interest to host the 2013 Kingdom Games. We must therefore roll up our sleeves and go to work immediately.
Before I conclude, I wish to draw attention to an area that should be of concern to all of us involved in sports, and that is the apparent decline in the active involvement of women in sports. From the heydays of Florencia Hunt, women have progressively given up competitive sports, it would appear.
As a "former" volleyball player myself and trainer/coach of a volleyball club, I realize that more needs to be done to attract young girls to participate in sports. This is in spite of the fact that a growing number of us go to gyms to shape up. However, I am encouraged to note that women basketball is on the rebound and would like to urge all the young girls to get involved in a sport of their choice.
In closing, I want to thank the staff of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, and Youth Affairs, in particular the department of Youth and Sports, for organizing this conference and all of you for attending. Consider my presentation to you this morning as food for thought as you break out into groups to discuss the various aspects of the Sports policy we have to fashion together. Your input will be most appreciated and all your ideas would be most welcome. I understand that you might have some questions for me. I would be most happy to answer them to the best of my ability.
I thank you once again for your attention.