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  Track And Field

Farewell, Mr McCook

 
It was 1986 when I first became aware of Neville McCook. A fiendish rain shower was threatening to wash away Boys' Championships. Officials and athletes were scampering to find cover and Champs was grinding to a halt.

Suddenly, in the middle of the chaos, Mr McCook marched on the infield, barking commands that sent officials scurrying back to their posts. In no time, the meet resumed and when the rain stopped shortly afterwards, the schedule was rescued.

This was vintage McCook, driven, determined, and a leader of men. By then, he had already served as a timekeeper, member of the Jamaica Amateur Athletics Association (JAAA), director of big international meets here at home.

The former KC Manning Cup defender and individual Champs bronze medal winner had started a 12-year stint as president of the JAAA in 1984. Among the tasks he took on was making the National Championships compulsory for athletes seeking to qualify for Jamaican teams to big international championships.

It wasn't painless. Sprinters Grace Jackson and Juliet Cuthbert were barred from selection ostensibly for missing the 1987 Nationals without permission. Both were in good form. At the very least, their presence at the World Championships would have bolstered our 4x100m chances, but the point had been made. Now fans are almost guaranteed the presence of all Jamaica's top stars at the Nationals.

A businessman in his own right, he brought that orientation to the JAAA. Under his watch and that of the man who followed him as JAAA president, Adrian Wallace, the association's annual report included a full listing of coaches and support personnel for every international engagement for the year ahead. Built into that was a ladder system where new selectees started at the Carifta Games. As their experience and accomplishments grew, coaches moved up to assignments further afield and further up the totem pole.

STRONG DECISION MAKER

Unfazed by public pressure, he was at the helm when icon Donald Quarrie was not selected for the 1988 Olympic 200 metres. McCook reasoned that Quarrie wasn't going to be competitive.

Time has rightly dimmed our recollection of that tense stand-off and the non-selection of in-form 800 men Alex Morgan and Mario Vernon-Watson to the 1995 World Championships.

Mr McCook's hard work has allowed him to take his place among Jamaica's most respected sports administrators. He composed the earliest of athletic equipment sponsorship deals for the Jamaica team, helped to bring the World Junior Championships to Jamaica in 2002 and, with coach Fitz Coleman, brought Usain Bolt to the then new High Performance Centre in 2003.

Perhaps that move was fuelled by his fervent belief that our coaches could produce world champions at home. It's no secret that he was right.

Famously, he was chairman of the Gibson Relays from its inception until 2011.

In a chat after the London Olympics, Mr McCook revealed that he had no regrets. Having been NACAC president since 2007, he'd seen the region develop young stars from not just Jamaica but Grenada, The Bahamas, Trinidad and Tobago and the Dominican Republic.

In addition to technical assistance, the 'Chief' brought smaller nations in the region a message of hope and encouragement. "You need not be dismissed on the first round," he recalled telling officials from less-fancied countries in the region. "The first thing you have to try to do is to get to the second round. Then it's the semi-finals, and then it's the finals.

"Once you're in the finals, anything can play."

He and the late Howard Aris were lifelong friends. It is ironic that his end has come not long after Mr Aris' death late in 2011.

His last gift to the region is the 2014 IAAF World Relay Championships to be held in The Bahamas. That new event is 18 months away, but when the action begins, Neville McCook is sure to be missed.

Hubert Lawrence is the author of 'Champs 100: A Century of Jamaican High School Athletics 1910-2010'.

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