Take Your Mark, Get Set…Go!

girls-running_9248_01Recent athletic competitions have spurred interest in TCI sports tourism.
By Sarah Gooch

The face of tourism in the Turks & Caicos Islands is on the precipice of change. For years now, developers and the government itself have encouraged a high-end and exclusive market geared towards the crème de la crème of the travelling public, offering luxury and exclusivity to those whose lifestyles demand only the best.

Now, with the introduction of a brand new, first class sports stadium that saw the country proudly prove itself by successfully hosting the 36th annual CARIFTA (Caribbean Free Trade Association) Games in 2007, and with more events in the pipeline, there is an impetus of sport that will augment the Islands’ natural attractions as a tourist destination.

Sports tourism, if managed correctly, will only serve to complement the Islands’ steadily growing swanky reputation. The Turks & Caicos Islands Government is pro-actively pursuing growth in this sector, and the Minister of Finance’s most recent budget address gave a taste of things to come. “With the success of the CARIFTA Games behind us, we plan to use this as a catalyst to develop sports tourism as part of our efforts to diversify the economy,” said the Honourable Floyd Hall, revealing that the Office of the Premier plans to invest $1.5 million in sport tourism initiatives and future events, including $1 million for the TCI Sports Invitational and $500,000 for the inaugural TCI Grand Prix.

Even without those ambitious future plans, sports enthusiasts have already begun to enjoy a surge of sporting competition and activities on the Islands. So far this year, the country has seen in the CARIFTA games an athletic competition that, according to President of the International Association of Athletics Federation Mr. Lamaine Dick, “was on par with the World Championships.” While an enormous sense of relief might have triggered this ever so slight overstatement, it was still a welcome compliment.

Hot on the heels of the CARIFTA games, a party of New York’s finest socialite ladies converged on Providenciales for their “Princess Race,” an event usually held in the Hamptons, and sponsored by Cartier — an indication of the perfect match that the TCI Tourist Board has achieved to complement the country’s already “elite” reputation.

Later in the year, world class athletes from all corners of the globe will gather in Providenciales for the Island Triathlon Series, a gruelling 80 mile event that will bring welcome international coverage, increasing awareness in both leisure and sports tourism markets.

But the spark that lit the public’s sudden enthusiasm for sports was undoubtedly the unexpected but well deserved success of the CARIFTA Games held in April. You simply couldn’t ignore its significance. It seemed to cap off the recent years of surging development and mark the commencement of a new era. There was hardly a person in the country who wasn’t touched by the poignancy of the moment; that the games went off without a hitch proved the country’s capacity to host an event of international standards.

crowd_9446eThe CARIFTA Games are generally regarded within the region as the “Caribbean Olympics.” Held annually since 1972, the competition is open to junior track and field athletes up to 20 years of age from countries within the Caribbean community (CARICOM members). As well as being a showcase for junior athletes, the games give them much needed exposure and experience, and many have the ability and attitude to become future Olympians.

Each of the 26 participating countries was allowed up to 70 athletes, broken down into “Under 20” girls and boys and “Under 17” girls and boys categories, with no more than two competing in the same event. The entire three day track and field competition includes more than 150 separate events.

TCI won the bid for the 2007 games just over two years ago and since then, the organisers have worked non-stop to get the country’s infrastructure ready in time. Promises of a brand-new stadium seemed like pie in the sky when the announcement was made by Hon. Lillian Boyce (then Minister of Sports) in 2005 and skeptisism was rampant.

Work on the stadium proceeded in earnest and as the date drew nearer, doubts began to vanish and anticipation grew. And, although the stadium was still undergoing finishing touches as late as the week before the event, people began to realise that CARIFTA was really going to happen in this tiny country.

Hon. Boyce gave a moving speech at the opening ceremony, amidst the seamless displays of dance, song and fireworks. She said, “These games will always be remembered as one of the defining moments in the history of the Islands . . . it is strong evidence of our vision and determination to our people and the future of the country.” She added, “CARIFTA has always played a significant role in the region, but this year it has done that and more. A huge feeling of national pride, optimism and unity has engulfed these beautiful Islands and it’s impossible to recall any event that has brought the people of the TCI together like these CARIFTA games.”

Accolades came pouring in from athletic organisations and the competing countries. Neville McCook, IAAF area representative, said that the facilities and preparations were excellent, and as the smallest country to ever host the games, the TCI coped remarkably well with one of the largest consignment of athletes in CARIFTA’s history.

So much about the games were inspiring — not least the fact that they were focused solely on the region’s youth, which seemed to epitomise this country’s enthusiasm and hope for the future, both economically and developmentally.

It didn’t even seem to matter that team TCI came away without a medal. The infectious enthusiasm of the crowd and the athletes themselves fittingly lent the games a sense of sportsmanship that seems so often lacking in today’s competitive arena. The mood of unbiased encouragement for all the competitors, regardless of nationality or performance, let the whole region know that this was a defining moment for the country, and that for TCI, this event was about more than athletics.

Jamaica stole the show with a medal count of 76, but, fitting to CARIFTA spirit, dedicated all their medals to the people of the Turks & Caicos for their hospitality and warmth.

Only in the Caribbean would you find crowds at a sporting event partying to impromptu junkanoo performances. They arrived prepared and geared up, and supporters from every country merged as one with their drums and horns and whistles to create a real celebratory vibe. In fact, the crowd almost stole the show from the athletes . . after all, who wants to watch the long jump when you could be doing a hop, skip and jump of your own in the stands! “Capturing the Spirit, Fulfilling the Dream,” sang the TCI youth choir, and they couldn’t have more accurately hit the nail on the head.

As the Honourable Dr. Carlton Mills said on opening night, amidst the well syncopated series of presentations, “The Turks & Caicos Islands are no longer just a little country, we are a force to be reckoned with!”

The Princess Race, though, was an altogether different kettle of fish. Whilst classed as a bit of a joke within the sporting world, the two day event seemed to go down rather well here, and certainly helped to place the TCI firmly on the map within the moneyed set. A selection of the “A” list’s finest ladies were handpicked to give shopping and cocktail sipping a rest, ditch their Valentino dresses and Jimmy Choos, and embark on a two day sporting event that saw them kayaking, diving, golfing and jet-skiing, all in the name of charity.

The women participated in their two-day extravaganza with gusto, albeit with tongues planted firmly in cheek. And although they were perhaps their own fiercest critics prior to the race (“We have to be kayaking at 8:00 AM? I really don’t know what I’m getting into!”), it didn’t take long for the sense of competition to bubble to the surface. The ladies showed that there was far more to them than their social graces and bystanders were heard commenting on their sheer perseverance and determination, which, frankly, seemed to come as a bit of a shock to all.

And, of course, who can criticize when it’s all in the name of a good cause. The event was held in support of Innocence in Danger, a child protection organisation that aims to bring public attention to the plight of children who are victims of trafficking and sexual abuse.

All the “princesses” walked away with 18 Karat gold bracelets just for taking part, whilst the winners received Cartier watches. Cartier also donated $100 per competitor to the charity.

national-stadium-pdThose who prefer a more serious approach to their sporting events won’t be disappointed with the Island Triathlon Series taking place in Providenciales later this year. Branded as the “newest and most innovative triathlon,” the arduous contest can be relied upon to put the “sports” back into “sports tourism.” Event organiser Hala Bissada and team have worked tirelessly promoting what will be the inaugural race in a ten year series held on islands around the world, with its own World Championship planned to be held again in the TCI in 2010.

Over 500 athletes are said to have already signed up for the event, which will completely take over Providenciales on December 1, 2007, with many world class athletes and pro-triathletes already on board.

The race will involve an original distance of 80 miles, broken down as a 1 mile swim, 66 mile bike ride and 13 mile run, and television rights have already been snapped up by Canada’s TSN and Big Picture Entertainment, who will distribute the series across Europe.

The event is an incredibly exciting opportunity for the country. Floods of athletes and spectators will fill the hotels in what is traditionally off-season, and every major TCI excursion organiser, resort and tourist organisation have pledged their support.

The event will also call for major public participation and the need for 200 to 300 volunteers is essential in ensuring the event runs smoothly. From roles that anyone can handle, such as water distribution and athlete registration, to more specialised responsibilities like certified divers along with jet ski, boat and kayak operators to ensure swimmers’ safety, and motorbike riders who will accompany the runners, this event will be one that the people of the country can get behind with their assistance.

This experience will deal the Turks & Caicos Islands a winning hand in securing its reputation as a premier sporting destination. With such serious competitors and highly respected athletes taking part (including Ironman champions Rutger Beke and Lisa Bentley and rising triathlete stars Lewis Elliot and Desiree Flicker, to name just a few), word of the Islands’ potential is bound to spread like wildfire amongst the athletic community.

It seems that there isn’t a slice of the pie that the TCI doesn’t have its hands in as far as sports are concerned — from the inspiring and exciting CARIFTA Games to world class athletic competition in the form of the Island Triathlon. All can help TCI add “sports” to its noted attractions of “sun, sand and sea.”

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What's Inside The Latest Edition?

On the Cover

Aysha Stephen is Grand Turk’s newest artistic sensation, renowned for her iconic “Cool Donkeys” paintings. Her creations are quite the hit with visitors to TDB Fine Arts Gallery. It recently opened within the Turks & Caicos National Museum on Grand Turk and is dedicated to showcasing art “Made in TCI.

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