Leadership in action -- and a call to action, too

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — In September, Hurricanes Irma and Maria ripped through the Caribbean. Only one word describes the two storms: catastrophic.

There is the financial toll. In Puerto Rico, estimates are it may cost as much as $95 billion to recover. That’s billion with a b. 

The structural. It’s already three months-plus since September. Yet basics such as electricity and internet service, for instance, are hardly a given in many of the string of islands lashed by the storms. The first time Steve Augustine, president of the British Virgin Islands track and field federation, had seen a working television since September was Sunday night here in San Juan, when he arrived for a Monday meeting.

The emotional. Godwin Dorsette, from Dominica, broke down in tears at that very meeting. “I’m a brave man. I’m a very strong person,” he said. “But I was afraid.”

 Post-storm: surveying the damage at the track at the British Virgin Islands // IAAF

Post-storm: surveying the damage at the track at the British Virgin Islands // IAAF

 When the skies cleared: in Roseau, capital of Dominica // IAAF

When the skies cleared: in Roseau, capital of Dominica // IAAF

Across the Caribbean, track and field is unquestionably a — if not the — leading sport. With that in mind, the sport’s global governing body, the International Associaton of Athletics Federations, on Tuesday announced a $500,000 “solidarity fund” aimed at helping those member federations that were pounded by Irma and Maria and, as well, by Hurricanes Harvey and Jose.

In comparison with numbers such as $95 billion, $500,000 is, as IAAF president Seb Coe said time and again here Monday, “modest.” 

Even so, it is leadership in action.

It is also, to be clear, a call to action.

The Olympic world likes to call itself a “family.” This is particularly true within track and field — extending beyond to cross-country, marathon, fun-running and even slow-go jogging.

What is the No. 1 rule of family? It’s obvious: when someone needs help, who steps up, and first? Family.

Yet for these same several months, apart from this developing IAAF initiative, who has taken significant action to help in the Caribbean?

So what is it — overall disaster fatigue? 

Is it little to no press or publicity of the full reach and extent of what happened way out there in the Atlantic? Or willful disinterest in finding out?

Kudos to Seiko for contributing to the $500,000. How is it, though, that the several other corporate concerns who claim to be so thoroughly invested in track or the broader running scene have themselves not announced similar fundraising initiatives?

If not in precisely this sort of context, what does “corporate social responsibility” mean?

Several of these American companies are based in blue states and, given the combative stance the White House has taken in connection with Puerto Rican recovery, would seemingly have been handed an easy political and marketing score with a willing consumer base. But — what?

“Sports represents a way of therapy to release all the stress we are going through,” Betito Márquez, the mayor of Toa Baja, a western suburb of San Juan, said Monday afternoon, projecting to be heard over the drone of whirring fans at a community center that had been converted into a FEMA outpost. 

 IAAF president Seb Coe surveying roof damage at a track and field stadium in the San Juan suburb of Toa Boa

IAAF president Seb Coe surveying roof damage at a track and field stadium in the San Juan suburb of Toa Boa

Speaking before a demonstration put on by a local track and field club at a nearby stadium named for one of Puerto Rico’s renowned 1970s and 1980s sprinters, Marie Lande Mathieu, the wind from the storms having peeled sections off the venue roof as if from a sardine tin, the mayor also said, “Track and field is the base of all sports. Baseball, volleyball, basketball — the training everyone does is track and field.”

And, he said, "When you compare with other sports, track and field is way more cost-effective."

With leadership comes opportunity. Too, responsibility. What about track and field’s stars, including its biggest, who is of course based in the Caribbean. Where has Usain Bolt been for these several months? What about other top stars, from the region or around the world?

Look to the NFL and the All-Pro defensive end J.J. Watt of the Houston Texans, whose fund for Hurricane Harvey victims raised $37 million. “If there is one thing that I have taken away from these last few weeks, it is the reassurance of how much good is out there in our world,” Watt wrote in a message on his fund’s page at YouCaring.com.

How have track and field stars not volunteered — if not money — time and effort? Where are the sport’s leading agents? Managers? Coaches? 

The often-vocal activists who love to assert that the suits in charge of the governance of track and field pay lip service only to the interests of athletes? Where are their initiatives, their campaigns that could have sprung up to help Caribbean athletes, elite or developmental, who assuredly are in need? 

“You know your communities are in a large part defined by what you do on the track,” Coe said at Monday’s meeting, adding “This is deep, deep here in your lives … this is about engaging and enabling local people in their own communities to keep this extraordinary story going.”

In attendance at that meeting the presidents of the federations of six island federations: Dominica, Turks and Caicos, Anguilla, the U.S. Virgin Islands, British Virgin Islands and, of course, Puerto Rico. 

caribbean islands map   Google Search.png

In the United States, as the country’s clearinghouse of high school sports reported in the summer of 2016, track and field is the nation’s No. 1 and fastest-growing high school participatory sport: just over 1 million student-athletes. What if every one of those kids could scrape together $20 to help? Even $5 or $10? 

What if every high school in America with a track and field program held a bake sale, or a car wash, and contributed another $20 — really, just $20? 

Again, to be forthright, this $500,000 is seed money — recognition that sport is a key piece of the fabric of society, and precisely the sort of thing a top-tier federation such as the IAAF ought to be doing to reach out to its members while spurring others to action, too.

There naturally will be cynics, and critics, those tempted to suggest that the IAAF — beset for months by Russian doping-related inquiries while awaiting the fallout from a French-led corruption investigation involving the former federation president, Lamine Diack — will have thrown together a $500,000 fund as a feel-good to deflect attention from those matters.

No.

That’s not the truth. Not even close. 

There is nothing cynical about this. This is about decency, humility and humanity. This is about, genuinely, trying to do the right thing.

The truth is that, almost from the first hours of the storms, Coe and Victor Lopez, president of the North American, Central American and Caribbean track and field confederation, which goes by the acronym NACAC, have been deeply involved — personally and professionally — in wanting to know what had happened, and wanting to help.

“Philosophically,” Lopez said in an interview, “for me it is a humanistic situation. Sport is perhaps one, or maybe the only, factor in society that — no matter what party you belong to, what religion — it brings people together.”

 Coe at Monday's meeting at a San Juan hotel conference room with presidents from six island federations // Fernando Neris

Coe at Monday's meeting at a San Juan hotel conference room with presidents from six island federations // Fernando Neris

As he opened Monday’s meeting — in a conference room at the Hyatt Place hotel, the location chosen because indeed the site had electricity and WiFi — Coe said, referring to the hurricanes, “I don’t think I’ve ever had a responsibility where I ever felt so responsible for something I had no control over.”

The respected coach Xavier “Dag” Samuels died as Irma whipped through the British Virgin Islands. He coached Kyron McMaster, who ran the world’s leading time in 2017 in the men’s 400-meter hurdles and who also emerged as the IAAF’s Diamond League champion in the event.

 NACAC president Victor Lopez at that meeting // Fernando Neris 

NACAC president Victor Lopez at that meeting // Fernando Neris 

“What in the C.V. of [IAAF] president,” Coe asked rhetorically to those assembled, “prepares you to speak to his daughter when we’ve just lost one of the great coaches of our sport?”

Seven weeks after Samuels died, they held a memorial vigil, Augustine said. The island had no power. No lights. Military patrols occupied the roads. “We had a vigil on the track,” Augustine said. “It’s the best that we could do at the time. We walked him around the track.”

Augustine said, “It’s tough. It’s still tough.”

 Steve Augustine, president of the British Virgin Islands track and field federation // Fernando Neris 

Steve Augustine, president of the British Virgin Islands track and field federation // Fernando Neris 

The six presidents who came Monday nominally arrived to deliver updates to Coe and Lopez about the status of repair — or disrepair — to tracks, facilities, office equipment and the like. What emerged instead were tales that quickly turned to survivor testimony verging on the spiritual.

“Try to describe wind,” said Augustine, who ran in the 4x400 relays in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and who has since gone on to earn two master’s degrees.

“Think of the hardest wind. As hard as your imagination can take you. Then multiply that by 10.” That, he said, was what it was like being in the midst of Maria: “I sat and kept my eyes on my windows,” waiting for them to explode, “thinking of my wife, my son and my daughter,” the boy 13, the girl nine, “and I have to be ready to protect them.”

He said, “In a hurricane, you need a Plan A, a Plan B, a Plan C and a Plan D.”

Even then, it doesn’t matter. 

“You were just screaming, praying to God to live,” said Edith Skippings of Turks and Caicos.

“You feel that physical loss of control,” said Lorna Rogers of Anguilla. “How do you survive this?” At 62, Rogers has been through many hurricanes. ‘We could not have imagined an Irma,” she said, at another point adding, “You could feel the pressure build in your ears, just like when you are flying.”

In the British Virgin Islands, that wind blew a stock of 16-pound shot put balls clear away. The same thing happened in Dominica. In Turks and Caicos, every single hurdle was mangled. Some were found two miles away.

Skippings’ office equipment? All gone. “We don’t have a printer,” she said.

The equally mundane stuff no one thinks about but is hard reality? 

Mosquitoes. After the storms, so many, many mosquitoes. Because, of course, of so much standing water. A truck would come by and spray a commercial repellent once a week, Skipping said. That lasted two days, maybe three, she said, and then the mosquitos would start hatching again. She said she and the others in her house — the roof blew half-off — went through so much mosquito-repellent spray that she, for instance, developed a nasty rash. 

The clean-up of the remainder of soggy, oozing roof material, dripping white-clay like material into the house — that gunk impossible to clean off furniture? 

“There’s no complaining,” Skippings stressed. “We are just happy to be alive.”

The idea, meanwhile, that the wind or storm surge would pick up a 16-pound iron ball? It picked up fully loaded 40-foot containers. And yachts. And cars. And tossed a 130-foot tree around like it was a twig. 

 Dominica track and field federation president Godwin Dorsette // Fernando Neris 

Dominica track and field federation president Godwin Dorsette // Fernando Neris 

“I lost my computer. My phone. All these things. It has been hard. Very hard. No electricity. No communication,” Godwin Dorsette said. 

“We need the help. I cannot say more than this. For me, as a president, as a person who has been in the field for more than 30 years, dealing with the minds of our people is the most critical factor.”

In this spirit — also because of damage to his house — Dorsette slept in his car, a black 2000 Toyota Rav4, for “quite a few weeks.” He said, “When you are out in the rain, you work harder.”

He also said, trying without success to hold back tears, “I love athletics,” calling track and field what it goes by everywhere outside the United States. “Sorry about that.”