Honoring many firsts in 60 years of Bahamian international track and field competition
Published: Jul 11, 2014
The Bahamas Amateur Athletic Association, now Bahamas Association of Athletic Associations (BAAA), was founded in 1952 and its founders hoped to have Bahamian track and field athletes participate in the 1952 Helsinki Olympic Games. That did not happen.
On July 31 1954, a team of Cyril ‘Peepsight’ Johnson, Irrington ‘Rinky’ Isaacs and Leonard ‘Skeeter’ Dames marched into the stadium in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, for the opening of the British Empire and Commonwealth Games. The Chef De Mission of the team was BAAA President Cyril ‘Cap’ Richardson, who at the time was a sports reporter at the Tribune.
Tex Lunn was also selected to the team but was unable to travel due to illness. On their maiden voyage these athletes competed well but none advanced to the second round.
Two years later, the dream of the founding members of the BAAA came true when Richardson took an 18-year-old Tommy Robinson to the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne, Australia.
The first international medal was won by Robinson in 1957 at the West Indies Federation Games in Kingston, Jamaica. Robinson won a bronze medal in the 100 meters. The team increased its haul with Enoch Backford, Tom Grant and Oscar Francis joining Robinson to capture a bronze medal in the 4x100 meters (m) relay. Hubert Dean, George Shannon and Ulrick Whyly joined Francis to capture a bronze medal in the 4x400m relay.
On Top of the British Empire
The next significant first in Bahamian international track and field competition was at the 1958 British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Cardiff, Wales, when as a one-man band, Robinson won a silver medal in the 100 yards and then shocked the world by winning a gold medal in the 220 yards. These performances by the boy from St. John’s College and Hawkins Hill put The Bahamas on the map in global track and field.
New Firsts in Kingston Again, this Time the 1962 CAC Games
Four years later in Kingston, The Bahamas participated in the Central American and Caribbean (CAC) Games for the first time. Robinson won the gold medal in the 100m defeating several world record holders in the 100 yards and 100m.
Two other significant things happened for Bahamian international track and field competition in Kingston. The first was that Bahamian women participated for the very first time. Gail North Saunders, Elaine Thompson and Althea Rolle-Clarke participated in the 100m. None of them advanced out of their heat, but Christine Jones-Darville joined them to participate in the 4x100m relay.
If you thought that was extraordinary, at those same games and on the same day, August 21, Perry Gladstone Christie celebrated his 19th birthday by winning a bronze medal in the triple jump. This was the first ever field event medal by a Bahamian, and one in a long line of triple jump medals for The Bahamas on the world scene.
Unfortunately for Christie, his rival Hartley Saunders was competing also, and the Tribune had on front of the sports page that he had won the gold medal. This was not so as Jamaica’s Mahoney Samuels captured the gold. When it was announced that Christie won the bronze, it was anticlimactic. So enthusiastic was Christie, now Prime Minister Christie, about this event that he had a jumping pit erected in his yard on Montrose Avenue.
First Olympic Track and Field Final, First Field Event Participation
In Tokyo, Japan, at the 1964 Olympic Games, two firsts happened for The Bahamas in international track and field competition. Firstly, the world was on its heels about an American sprinter from Jacksonville and Florida A&M called Robert Hayes. Our own Tommy Robinson finished second to ‘Bullet’ Bob Hayes in the semi-finals of the 100m, and there was great hope for an Olympic medal. This was not to be though. Our hopes went up when Robinson made the Olympic final in the 100m. In the final, Hayes set a new world record and Robinson suffered one of his muscle pulls, finishing eighth in the final. Another “first” happened when Hartley Saunders competed in the triple jump, a first in a field event for the country who had earned Internal Self-Government from Britain.
Christie and Saunders were chief rivals in the triple jump but after Christie went to school in Britain he turned his attention to his studies. All of our accomplishments in Tokyo were small in comparison to that of one sailor Durward Knowles who had already won a bronze medal in Star Class sailing at the Melbourne Olympics in 1956 with Sloane Farrington. In Tokyo he teamed up with Cecil Cooke for the gold medal.
The Golden Boy Wins First Field Events Gold
The CAC Games in San Juan, Puerto Rico in 1966 saw another first in our sport internationally. An 18-year-old super talented Timothy Barrett, still in Government High School (GHS), took on the very best the region could bring and won a gold medal, in the triple jump of course. This was the first field event gold medal for the country. He was called “Golden Boy”!
First Woman to Participate in Olympic Games
Fast forward to 1972 when another athlete from GHS, Claudette Powell, would compete in the Munich Olympic Games, a first for Bahamian women.
From Bimini to World Hurdles Record
A young man from Bimini dawned upon the track and field scene in 1972. Danny Smith attended school in Florida and participated in an unusual event for The Bahamas. This was the 120 yards and 110m high hurdles. He came to the notice of Bahamians when the Miami Herald ran an article on him running one of the best times in the world in May of 1972.
At the Toronto Star-Maple Leaf Games in February of 1973, Smith tied the world record of 5.8 seconds in the 50 yard hurdles. In that race, he defeated 1972 Olympic 110m hurdles champ Rod Milburn, 1968 Olympic champ Willie Davenport, and to be 1976 Olympic champ Guy Drut.
First CAC Senior Championships Gold
The Bahamas participated in its second CAC Senior Championships in 1975, this time in Ponce, Puerto Rico and talented all-around sprinter Mike Sands became the first Bahamian to win a gold medal in the CAC Senior Championships. It was in the 400m.
First Olympic Field Event Final
At the Montreal Olympic Games, Grand Bahamian Fletcher Lewis, one of the most talented all-around athletes ever, made the final in the long jump, becoming the first Bahamian to advance to a final in a field event at the Olympics.
A Great Leap from Mexico to Dusseldorf, Germany
In 1977, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) held its first world event, the IAAF World Cup. ‘Fox Hill Gal’ Shonel Ferguson went to the World Cup Trials in Mexico and leapt all the way to Dusseldorf, making another first in international competition. Shonel had won the long jump, clearing more than 20 feet, for the first time for a Bahamian the year before at the CARIFTA Games, the first international event ever hosted in The Bahamas.
Can Bahamians Race Walk?
The Bahamas hosted the CAC Junior Championships in 1980, and this time Philip McKenzie, a middle distance runner, won a medal in a walking event, the first and only time a Bahamian had done such a thing. The BAAA made a decision to bring in two experienced coaches in the hammer and race walk. The race walk coach was Elliott Denman, a 1956 US Olympic walker.
First World Championships Finalists
The IAAF held its first World Championships in 1983 in Helsinki, Finland, and both Bradley Cooper and Steve Hanna made the finals of their respective events, Cooper in the discus and Hanna in the triple jump.
First Olympic Relay Team Finalists
At the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games, the team of Eldece Clarke, Pauline Davis-Thompson, Debbie Greene and Oralee Fowler finished sixth in the 4x100m relay, making them the first to make a final in a relay at the Olympic Games.
First IAAF Medal
It was at the inaugural IAAF World Indoor Championships in Indianapolis, Indiana, in 1987 when Frank Rutherford etched his name in Bahamian international track and field history when he won the bronze medal in the triple jump.
Five years later, in Barcelona, Spain, javelin ace Laverne Eve won a bronze medal, making her the first Bahamian to win an individual medal in the IAAF World Cup.
Finally a Dream Come True in Barcelona
It was Barcelona again in 1992 when Frank Rutherford, in the triple jump, of course, won the first track and field medal for The Bahamas at the Olympic Games. Rutherford won a bronze medal. This was a dream of the founders of the BAAA 40 years earlier.
World University Games Success
At the 1993 World University Games in Buffalo, Grand Bahamian Daphne Saunders won a bronze medal in the long jump. No other Bahamian has won a medal in the University Games
First and Second IAAF World Outdoor Championship Medals, Ten Minutes Apart
By 1995, the IAAF World Outdoor Championships was celebrating its fifth edition, this time in Gothenburg, Sweden. The Bahamas had never won a medal in this world competition but on Tuesday August 8, 1995, Troy Kemp defeated the great Javier Sotomayor for the gold in the high jump and Pauline Davis-Thompson won the silver medal in the 400m, both, first medals for Bahamians in the world outdoor championships.
First Olympic Relay Medal
At the Atlanta Olympic Games, the team of Eldece Clarke, Savatheda Fynes, Debbie Ferguson and Pauline Davis-Thompson won the first Olympic relay medal for the country, a silver in the 4x100m relay.
The Golden Girls Arrive
Three years later, at the dawn of the new millennium, The Bahamas captured another gold medal in the world championships, this time in the women’s 4x100m relay. Eldece Clarke, Debbie Ferguson, Chandra Sturrup, Pauline Davis-Thompson and Savatheda Fynes were in fine form. The same team repeated that victory at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia with Davis-Thompson being upgraded to the gold in the 200m many years later after Marion Jones was stripped of her Sydney gold due to doping infractions.
The Pot of Gold
Finally, in 2004, Tonique Williams-Darling captured the women’s 400m title at the Athens Olympics. Tonique also was a Golden League winner that year. She had not been defeated in any of the Golden League events in the 400m. Only one other athlete could claim that in 2004. That was Sweden’s Olympic and World Triple Jump Champion Christian Olsson in the men’s triple jump. Williams-Darling and Olsson had to share half of the million dollar pot.
Let’s Celebrate and Give Thanks
The BAAA and Bahamians have much to celebrate. Over 20 years ago, The Bahamas became known worldwide as ‘Small Country, Great Athletes’! The thank-you celebration will be held at a luncheon on Sunday July 13 at The Balcony in Pompey Square at 2 p.m. The event is under the patronage of Prime Minister Perry Gladstone Christie and his wife Bernadette.
At the luncheon, a movie by videographer Stanley Mitchell will be shown of Bahamian international track and field competition, including much of these firsts.
Donation for the luncheon is only $50, but participants can donate more since the event is a fund-raiser to take Cyril ‘Peepsight’ Johnson and Leonard ‘Skeeter’ Dames and their wives to this year’s Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, Scotland, 60 years since they participated in Vancouver. The 20th Commonwealth Games is set for July 23 to August 3, in Glasgow. For Johnson and Dames, it is felt that this thank-you gesture is not too much to give.
Sir Orville Turnquest is the only living founder of the BAAA. He surely appreciates and understands the trail marks made by Johnson and Dames. Tickets for the luncheon can be purchased at the BAAA office at the old Thomas A. Robinson Stadium and any other donations can be made there also.
This luncheon will enable both athletes and fans to mingle and get to know each other. It will also permit the younger athletes to be able to get to know the veteran athletes and vice-versa. We invite all patriotic Bahamians as well as residents to attend this luncheon.
It is an event you will not soon forget!