Barbados’ Obadele Thompson

Obadele Thompson, the 22-year-old Olympic runner, is Barbados' latest track and field star

His name is Yoruba, meaning “The King arrives at Home,” and for Obadele Thompson, the 22-year-old Olympic runner, it will be an uneasy head wearing the crown whenever he returns home to Barbados, given the super-fast competition on the track and field circuits.

But Obadele, having competed against the world’s superstars on the track, has much to be confident about.

His records thus far have been impressive: he has won five individual gold medals at the regional Carifta Games, establishing a new record of 10.33 seconds in the 100 metres in 1994. In March 1996 he won the NCAA (US Collegiate) indoor 200 metres in 20.36 seconds, eclipsing the old record of 20.59 seconds established by Michael Johnson. It was the fastest indoor time ever run in the USA and the fourth fastest indoor time in the world. In February 1997 he established a new collegiate record and world best time of 5.99 seconds for the indoor 55 metres, and in June of the same year he won the NCAA sprint double, clocking 20.03 seconds in the 200 metres and becoming only the sixth person to complete the double since 1969.

Until recently, Obadele held the world junior record in the 100 metres, with a time of 10.08 seconds, established in 1994. In April 1996, he clocked a 9.69 seconds 100 metres at the University of Texas at El Paso, the fastest for that distance under any conditions, but because it was wind-assisted it was not deemed a world record. In 1996 he also represented Barbados at the Olympics in Atlanta, where he was fourth in the fastest ever 200 metres.

At the 1997 Independence Day awards in Barbados, he and swimmer Leah Martindale received Service Star awards. This year, his first as a professional athlete, has been good so far. In Japan in May, he was second, with a 10.17 time to Namibia’s Frankie Fredericks’s 10.11 at the Osaka Grand Prix, in his first 100m for the season.

In January, Obadele was named among “Today’s Top Eight” by the NCAA, an award reserved for scholar athletes who have demonstrated character and leadership qualities — the only non-American on the awardees’ list.

Just the month before, Obadele had completed his last semester at the University of Texas, El Paso, where he was studying Marketing and Economics on an athletics scholarship. He graduated with a 3.9 average and was the banner bearer at the graduation ceremony, an honour traditionally reserved for an outstanding student.

And, at the end of last year, as he prepared for the transition from amateur to professional, he was ready to keep carrying high that banner of determination and discipline. “I came from the college circuit. It was a big leap. I got my feet wet and next year is going to be a big challenge — no college team, no college circuit. I’m going to be looking to improve my sprint times, particularly for the Commonwealth Games. I don’t think any of the great Commonwealth sprinters are going to roll over and play dead. But I love the competition. Beating people by default leaves an emptiness. You still take a win, but it’s not the same.” (The Commonwealth Games will take place in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in mid-September.)

Obadele has been away from home for four years, and now, as a professional athlete, is still based in El Paso, Texas, with his same coach from the University. He has an agent in Brad Hunte of Gold Medal Management, who also manages Michael Johnson. Part of the transition to professionalism has also been trying to fill the chunks of time which he finds in between meets. Fortunately for him, there are several options. He has always been fascinated by computer technology, and has always wanted to pursue his dream to produce music. (In 1996 he wrote and produced a cassette called The Vibe, filled with Christian lyrics set to a rap beat.) And whatever he chooses to fill those gaps left behind when his studies finished, one thing is certain, he will do it well.

From childhood, he has had a sense of being “above average,” of somehow being set apart to do great things, and as he has grown so too has that awareness. He credits it to his deep spirituality, the Christian outlook on life to which he is passionately dedicated. “If it’s possible to excel at something,” he says, “I’ll attempt it. I think once I remain focused in my spiritual life, other things flow.”

He comes from a deeply religious family. His Guyanese father, Alvin Thompson, is a history lecturer at the University of the West Indies in Barbados; his Bermudan mother, Hilda, is a nurse. Although at first he was not a committed Christian, he respected his parents’ warmth and closeness through their spiritual bond; and he was determined that, when he was ready, his commitment would be just as meaningful.

When he turned 15, Obadele knew it was time. “Okay, God, I’ve resisted long enough,” he said, and he burned all his tapes of secular rap music and embraced Christianity.

His friends at Harrison College were surprised, and he got a lot of ribbing for it, but he persevered, confident of the rightness of his decision. “Even if I haven’t lived a perfect Christian life, I know I have touched other lives,” he says now.

From his family, too, has come his athleticism. His father was a runner of some note in his early years, and his sister Abiola ran also. She was quite good at it, he says, but she always dreamed of owning her own hairdressing salon, and that’s what she does from her parents’ home now. Even as he says he is happy at the realisation of her dream, he sounds a little wistful: “There’s no doubt in my mind she would have been out front.”

His father has tried to coach him, but like most sons Obadele was loath to take paternal advice. “Through the years,” says Obadele, “he’s offered advice which has proved to be pretty accurate, but I would not listen until other people told me.” His father just laughs and tells him, “You won’t listen to your old man. Your old man knows a few tricks.”

His track and field success has had little to do with tricks though. It has come from hard work, discipline and commitment. Obadele began running at Harrison College, and his coach there, Orlando Green, recognised his talent and called upon his former coach, Frank Blackman, to watch the youngster. Blackman took him to task.

“He’s a genius,” says Obadele. “His input into my life can’t be measured.”

By the time he’d won some medals, Obadele’s thoughts turned to finding a university where he could get an athletics scholarship and continue running. He had to look outside the Caribbean. Although the right coach was in Barbados, the facilities were not in place.

He’s unhappy with the scant regard given to the training of athletes in the Caribbean, and particularly with the “politics” which he says dominates everything. “A lot of younger athletes who have potential are unable to conquer the politics and lack of facilities; so when they reach international arenas, they’re still dealing with things at the local level,” he observes impatiently.

“You have to believe in your people before you see them perform. It’s easy to turn on the TV and start shouting when they do well. But by then your screams don’t matter.”