PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad and Tobago — When Jehue Gordon bursts from the blocks this summer at the Rio Olympics, he will be trying to help his country outrun the leggy shadows of its higher-profile rivals, Jamaica and the United States.
Trinidad and Tobago, a twin island nation of 1.3 million people off the coast of Venezuela, is known more for high-intensity soca music and blowout Carnivals. But it is slowly building its Olympic presence through elite athletes such as Gordon, a 400-meter hurdler.
Of the country’s 18 Olympic medals since 1948, 14 are in track, including six in the past two Summer Games. In London four years ago, the men’s team became the first in 20 years to medal in both the 4x100 and 4x400 relays. Ato Boldon, NBC’s lead track analyst and a four-time Olympic medalist for Trinidad and Tobago, predicted his country will win at least four medals, in the 400 hurdles, 4x400 men’s relay, women’s 4x100 relay and women’s 100.
ESPN track analyst Larry Rawson tempered Boldon’s assessment, judging that only the men’s 4x400 relay seems certain. “They have a terrific chance to challenge the U.S. for gold,” Rawson said. He noted, however, that Trinidad and Tobago lacks the team depth of Jamaica and the United States. “Everyone will need to stay healthy. When you are a country the size of Trinidad, the margin of error is slimmer.”
Trinidad and Tobago — or T&T, as the natives call it — has excelled despite a disparate training system. Some elite athletes stay home to train in family-oriented youth programs, while others go to the United States on track scholarships to compete at the NCAA level. Runners on the men’s relay team, for example, train separately across three time zones from New Mexico to Florida but mesh at competition time.
T&T’s nucleus of elite track and field athletes includes approximately 20 men and women and ranges in age from emerging 100 star Khalifa St. Fort, 18, to 33-year-old veteran Marc Burns, who won medals with the 4x100 relay teams in Beijing and London, and includes a handful with potential to see the podium in Rio.
Michelle-Lee Ahye should qualify in July’s Olympic trials in the 100, 200 and 4x100 relay. Ahye, like many in the cohort, has been on an Olympic trajectory since early childhood when coach Kelvin Nancoo spotted the ungainly 7-year-old while scanning talent at Hasely Crawford Stadium in Port of Spain, T&T’s capital. “I knew when she got the mechanics right, she’d be a champion,” he said. Now 24, Ahye — who trains in Houston — was part of the 4x100 team that won a bronze medal last year at the world championships in Beijing.
Gordon, 24, should have a bright Olympic future. Before the 2012 Games, after a landslide turned his family’s home into a one-room, open-air mud hut, he kept up his rigorous training. “I was angry at the whole world,” Gordon said, “But I used the anger to fuel me.” Though he finished sixth in London, he won gold in the 400 hurdles a year later at the world championships in Moscow. Gordon dropped out of the 2015 world championships because of a torn lower abdominal muscle, which required surgery, but if healthy, he will be among the favorites in Rio.
All the runners from the islands, including Gordon and Ahye, began by joining one of 58 private clubs, which become like clans that bind them for life. When Ahye returns to Trinidad for meets even now, she runs under the Rebirth club banner, while Gordon represents the Memphis Pioneers. When he began drinking after his disappointing showing in London, Gordon recovered by mentoring young Pioneers. “I connected to the person I was,” he said. “We forget why we fall in love with the sport in the first place.”
The journey toward Rio began for many Trinidad runners in Hasely Crawford, the country’s hallowed track epicenter named for the 1976 100-meter gold winner. On a scorching March afternoon, Edwin Skinner — a 4x400 relay bronze medalist from 1964, shouts a signal, and four 9-year-old girls lying parallel on their bellies leap to a crouch and take off. Four more quickly replace them. On the grassy area inside the track, Skinner’s protege Gordon stretches. Skinner has coached Gordon on Hasely’s practice field since he was 13.
Despite T&T’s outsize success, it has not been able to catch Jamaica. Both nations fire their sprinters in the Caribbean crucible, highlighted by the CARIFTA Games, a regional Olympics equivalent that began in 1972. Through 2015, Trinidad was second all time in CARIFTA medals with 560 — but Jamaica topped the list with more than double that number, 1,559.
Jamaica uses a rigorous school system rather than the clubs of Trinidad, and its domestic training infrastructure allows stars such as Usain Bolt and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce to develop at home rather than accept NCAA scholarships. Many T&T runners have excelled at top-level U.S. schools. Kelly-Ann Baptiste, who runs the 100 and 200, starred at Louisiana State, and 400 specialist Deon Lendore stood out at Texas A&M.
Elite schools offer top-level coaching, state-of-the-art facilities and rigorous competition. But they also require young islanders to leave home at 18, often to live in very different environments. Some say they would ideally prefer to remain home near their roots. Lendore doesn’t regret leaving for Texas A&M but said, “At home, every day I walk outside and someone asks me about track. You feel a sense of connection.”
Gordon’s decision to remain in Trinidad is unusual. He had no inkling he would even get such a choice when, at age 15, a teacher saw him leaping school benches in a PE class. Within two years, he had won the 110 and 400 hurdles at the CARFITA Games. Before he turned pro at 18, top NCAA schools recruited him, including Texas A&M and Florida. But Gordon stayed with Memphis Pioneer coaches Skinner and Ian Hypolite. He contrasted their mentoring with a sometimes impersonal attitude he perceived in a corporatized NCAA. “At the end of the day in those schools, they’re just studying points and looking at the check. I trusted Coach Hypolite with my life.”
Hypolite did not discourage Gordon from taking a scholarship but assured him he could take the hurdler as far as any top U.S. coach while Gordon could still “eat his mother’s food.” Hypolite emphasized the value of their Trinidadian ties and his ability to individualize and modulate Gordon’s training the way a large-scale NCAA program might not. At home, “There’s support for any and all circumstances,” Hypolite said. “We best understand our athletes.”
The T&T National Olympic Committee has developed a 10-year plan to train sprinters domestically that includes bringing in top training programs such as Michael Johnson Performance, run by the American who still holds the world record in the 400. The goal is to challenge Jamaica. “We need to keep our best talent here so the NCAA system doesn’t burn them out,” committee president Brian Lewis said. “I’m tired of Jamaica busting our [butt].”
Boldon, who is grooming several current Olympians in Miami, including St. Fort and Baptiste, foresees that T&T ultimately will establish a distinctive NCAA-domestic training hybrid. “When Trinidad figures that out, we’ll be a real force,” he said.