Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham; a strong willed man who fought immensely for nationalism as well as for African liberation as a former President of this nation.
Only recently did Guyana celebrate the late President’s birthday on February 20 and while personal opinions on Burnham’s rule as President might vary, there is one particular year that comes to mind that I believed changed the course of history for athletics and maybe even sports in Guyana altogether.
That year is 1976; the year of the XXI Olympiad or the Montreal Summer Olympics.
For those that might not know or recall, most sovereign African and a few other nations boycotted the Montreal Games because the International Olympic Committee (IOC) did not support the banning of those countries whose athletes and teams competed in South Africa as long as apartheid continued.
One of those other nations was Guyana.
During that 1976 year; Guyanese sprint great James Gilkes was a medal favourite to win the men’s 200 metres.
However, because of Burnham’s decision to boycott the Olympics that year, Gilkes could not participate despite campaigning to run as an individual under the IOC’s flag; a campaign that proved futile.
Nevertheless, Jamaica’s sprint great Don Quarrie went onto win the final of that 1976 Olympics in 20.22s, a time that Gilkes was running comfortably at the time according to historian and statistician Charwayne Walker.
Trinidad’s sprint great Hasely Crawford at that very Olympics would go onto become the first man from the Caribbean to win Olympic gold in the men’s 100 metres ahead of Quarrie who was second even as Gilkes earlier in the year was highly competitive with both over the 100 metres distance.
Now imagine what if Burnham did not boycott that Olympics and Gilkes went onto win that 200 and medal in the 100 or even just medal in both… imagine the long term effect that would have had on Guyana’s athletics landscape or maybe even Guyana’s sport landscape.
Since then Trinidad and Tobago have produced multiple Olympics champions and medalists such as Ato Bolden, Richard Thompson just to name a few.
The Twin Island republic even renamed a stadium after Crawford which is used as Trinidad’s main stop in Athletics on big occasions.
Jamaica on the other hand, since then well let’s just say Usain Bolt happened.
Both islands receieved significant endorsement deals, Trinidad Tobago with Adidas and Jamaica with Puma.
There is no question that at that 1976 Olympics a seismic shift for sport in the Caribbean especially for those two countries occurred which resulted in Jamaica taking over the USA as the sprint capital of the world some 35 years after.
The success of Quarrie and Crawford had such an impact on the athletics landscape in the Caribbean that only Grenada and the Bahamas to date have produced Olympic gold medalists in athletics.
Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago however, have gone onto have multiple medalists.
Guyana on the other have only one Olympic medalist; Michael Parris (boxing) who claimed bronze at the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, Russia… four years after a missed opportunity.
Simply put one small change to detail can cause a huge difference in the outcome of fortunes.
Guyana’s Olympic campaigns since have been fruitless with no signs of turning around and it really begs one to question what if?
Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham a strong willed man that generates various opinions by those young and old but regardless of one’s opinion when it comes to sport and the 1976 Olympics one question will always stand out in the minds of sport fans and in the mine of James Gilkes…what if?