Saunders, Scotland – unfinished business
Clarance “Nicky” Saunders expects to lay some ghosts to rest when he attends Scotland’s first Commonwealth Games since they were held in Edinburgh in 1986, the events of which remain etched in his mind for all the wrong reasons.
Those ill-fated Games were marred by political controversy, with Bermuda joining 32 other countries in boycotting the competition in protest at the British Government’s position on apartheid.
As a black athlete, Saunders more than understood the reasoning behind the Island’s decision. However, he felt that it lacked any the political clout to help make a real difference in South Africa and ultimately left many athletes with shattered dreams.
“I’m strongly and vehemently against apartheid and I did applaud the efforts to make a statement,” said Saunders, who was a gold-medal hope in the high jump. “But my issue was, ‘Well, what’s the point in boycotting the Games if they’re still going to go on?’
“I felt that we needed to do something more to solidify our charge against apartheid, when in actual fact we didn’t really do anything. We just came home and I couldn’t even tell you what happened next.”
Discussions had been held on the Island about boycotting before the Games, but no decision had been made when Bermuda’s contingent left for Edinburgh.
But by the time Saunders, then aged 22, carried the Bermuda flag at the opening ceremony at Meadowbank Stadium, about half of the countries had already pulled out.
It was not long before the Bermuda Olympic Association, under the instructions of the Bermuda Government, followed suit and ordered the athletes to return home.
At the time, it was reported that Bermuda athletes hung bedsheets out of the window, with “Bermuda wants to stay, don’t penalise our athletes’ written on one.
Saunders, however, simply recalls an overriding sense of frustration that his chances of competing had been scuppered.
“I remember feeling that I was ready to compete and frustrated because these Games only come around every four years,” said Saunders, who has been appointed by the BOA as the team attaché for the Glasgow Games.
“One minute we were told we were competing and then we weren’t. Finally, the decision came that we were out and I had accept it. At that point, you just have to follow orders.
“Apartheid has since been abolished in South Africa, but did [the boycott] have any part to play in it? I don’t really know.
“Returning to Scotland for the Commonwealths will be bit like going full circle for me. It will allow me to let go of some of my self-imposed expectations. That may sound vague, but I don’t want to sound insulting or to get under anyone’s collar.”
Unlike some of the more senior members of Bermuda’s squad at the time, Saunders found a portion of comfort in the knowledge that he would have many big competitions in front of him.
And four years later in Auckland, New Zealand, he put firmly behind him the anguish that he experienced in Edinburgh to become Bermuda’s only Commonwealth Games gold medal-winner, setting a Games record with a leap of 2.36 metres (7ft 8¾in).
It is a record that still stands 24 years on, although, strangely enough, Saunders would like to see it broken — provided that he is in attendance.
“I had the same feeling in Auckland as I had done in Edinburgh,” said Saunders, who won bronze at the 1982 Commonwealth Games in Brisbane, Australia.
“I really did feel like I was going to win, and it made it all the more special having boycotted the previous Games.
“I felt so confident and I can remember telling the other high jumpers who I had a friendly rivalry with that they were going to have to settle for second.
“It’s nice to know that I still own the record, although I actually really hope that someone breaks it in Glasgow because I will be there. At least then I could say that I saw it happen.”
During his heyday, Saunders was one of a trio of world-class Bermuda athletes, along with triple jumper Brian Wellman and sprinter Troy Douglas, who is now the Bermuda National Athletics Association head coach.
While Saunders, who lives in London, believes it to be unrealistic to expect Bermuda athletics return to those halcyon days anytime soon, he is adamant that there is no shortage of talent on the Island.
“I certainly think me, Brian and Troy fed off one another,” he said. “Although we did different disciplines, we all wanted to do as well as each other and, when we trained together, there would always be a little bit of competition.
“Mind you, I knew I wasn’t going to beat Troy at repeat 200s, that wasn’t going to happen, and I wasn’t going to beat Brian in strength and conditioning — he was a compete monster!
“I’ve recently been feeling like I’ve not been able to give more to Bermuda. I developed a skill that I can teach but because of family commitments I can’t return home.
“I still speak to the guys and I know that Troy has some positive plans in place for track and field.
“We certainly have the talent. The trouble is, the life our kids are aspiring to is one of instant gratification, where there isn’t seemingly any work involved.
“That’s just not the reality and for most people success, especially in sport, doesn’t happen overnight.”
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