As the Bahamas prepares to participate in its 10th Olympic Games as an independent nation, led by its 24 member track and field team, we reflect on that moment over two decades ago when the sport played a pivotal role in changing the country’s Olympic profile forever.
Wednesday, August 3, marked the 24th anniversary of Frank Rutherford capturing the Bahamas’ first Olympic track and field medal, a bronze in the triple jump at the 1992 games in Barcelona.
Rutherford jumped 17.36m to finish third behind Americans Mike Conley (18.17m) and Charles Simpkins (17.60m).
Since his milestone accomplishment, the Bahamas has medalled in every edition of the summer Olympic Games.
His effort changed the way the Bahamian fan base viewed excellence in sport and particularly at the Olympics, to a point where a position on the medal podium is expected from a small country of just over 300,000.
“When you talk about inspirational, pivotal and historic country building moments – something that effects not just the athletic world but something that effects the athletic competence of a people. I feel like this was one of those moments,” Rutherford said, “There are moments that shift the way a people of a country think. When people make contributions at a global level, their compatriots can uplift them and it in turn uplifts us all. That moment for a young country like the Bahamas it represented in some small way what you see the founding fathers envisioned for the Bahamas – the ultimate power, knowledge and understanding that Bahamians could achieve in any field and to see Bahamians walk with that kind of confidence. That moment reinforced that as one of the pillars in our society and sports was used as the vehicle for that.”
Rutherford was expected to come into the event as a major contender. A former three time NCAA champion, he won the Bahamas its first World Championship medal with a bronze in the 1987 IAAF World Indoor Championships and won a silver medal at the 1992 World Cup in Havana, Cuba.
“I had a very outstanding qualification round a few days before the final where I jumped 17.28m on my third jump and by the luck of the draw I was the last jumper in the field. That would make for some incredible drama in the final. When it was time for the final, I felt a state of readiness for the expectations of winning the gold medal and breaking the world record. Everything was lined up to do that and I felt like God had answered every prayer in a perfect sense for me to do so,” he said, “I felt so comfortable and at home in that stadium because it did not matter to me what the rest of the field could do. I did not care what anyone else could have jumped. My mental preparation was that I was going to overcome any and everything. Everyone knew that Frank Rutherford that year in 92, could have done the impossible in the triple jump. I wasn’t complacent but I was positioned to make history. It was just a matter of going out there and making it happen.”
Rutherford sat in seventh position after the first round when he jumped 16.75m on his first attempt and Russian athlete Leonid Voloshin of the Unified Team took the lead at 17.32m.
By round two, he moved into second place with a jump of 17.36m, behind Conley who took control of first place with a mark of 17.63m. Rutherford equaled the mark of 17.36m in the third round. He jumped 17.16m and 16.33 in rounds four and five.
He recalled the series of jumps as if the event took place not 24 years, but 24 hours ago.
“My first jump I nearly fouled along with Conley and Simpkins. The Cuban [Yoelbi Quesada] comes through and jumps 17.15m and the Russian jumped even further to take an early lead. I was in medal position by the second jump, and held on to that silver heading into the sixth and final round,” he said.
Simpkins would surpass Rutherford on his final attempt to take silver, but the bronze medal was secured for the Bahamas when Voloshin fell just short of the bronze medal mark. As the last jumper in the field, the stadium grew tense as Rutherford had an opportunity to win and surpass the pair of Americans on the final jump of the competition.
“I’m standing on the runway with the last jump at the 92 Olympics so I know I’ve already secured third place and I had a chance to go ahead and accomplish my goals that I set out to do which is to chase the gold medal and the world record,” he said, “The thrill at that moment was unbelievable. I’m looking down at Conley and Simpkins and they are shaking with the nervous clap, wishing me well but nervous at the same time. I came down and put everything I had into one final attempt and some people today still believe it’s the longest triple jump in history, but it would up being called a foul.”
Rutherford got up from his jump, which appeared to surpass the 18.00m mark, and raised both fists triumphantly, anticipating that he leapt into gold medal standing. In the midst of competition, he was caught up in the disappointment of the final foul call and nearly missed the magnitude of the moment – he had won the country’s first Olympic track and field medal.
“I looked over and saw one Bahamian journalist sitting there with tears coming down his eyes and that was the great Brent Stubbs. I tried to figure out what Brent was crying for because in that moment I was just concerned about that last jump. I was concerned about that gold medal. As they announced it over the loud speaker it set in and the whole stadium became aware of what happened for the Bahamas” Rutherford said, “The history making of the Bahamas winning its first medal, I had no idea and was lost in the moment once it actually happened, but Brent brought the reality to me because he was the only other journalist that was there and my eyes immediately connected with him in the crowd. It was truly a special moment.”
Rutherford was followed by the (soon to be) Golden Girls team of Pauline Davis-Thompson, Sevatheda Fynes, Chandra Sturrup, Debbie Ferguson-McKenzie and Eldece Clarke-Lewis taking silver in the 4 x 100m relay at the 1996 Games in Atlanta.
The 2000 Games in Sydney was the most successful for team Bahamas with three medals – an individual gold for Davis-Thompson in the 200m, the official coronation of the Golden Girls in their signature event and a bronze medal for the emerging men’s 4x400m programme featuring Avard Moncur, Troy McIntosh, Carl Oliver, Tim Munnings and Chris Brown.
In 2004 in Athens there was gold from Tonique Williams in the 400m and bronze from Debbie Ferguson-McKenzie in the 200m.
Beijing in 2008 saw triple jump return to the forefront with a bronze from Leevan Sands and silver from the men’s 4x400m team of Brown, Michael Mathieu, Andretti Bain, and Andrae Williams.
“My inspiration coming up was Elisha Obed, I knew he was the world champion I wanted to be a world champion. A lot of the younger athletes that I meet today when they compete in the U.S, they know me and they know my accomplishments. I don’t know if anyone explained the historical significance, but they’re aware of it,” he said, “In my opinion it’s really hard for a younger generation to really appreciate historical pivotal life changing moments if it’s not taught in the classroom and if that moment isn’t framed somewhere in your history when people can pass a monument and be reminded of it everyday. “
Despite the impact of his achievement 24 years ago, Rutherford insists the moment has yet to be properly commemorated by the government of the Bahamas.
“What I expected did not happen, and I kind of understand why it didn’t. When I won in 1992 our country was going through a political revolution. The country was in a very nasty election cycle so everyone was in serious crazy campaign mode and the country was focused on that. We were, and in many ways still are very politically immature. I was told by my ex-wife at the time that the PLP got on the platform stump and said the they delivered the first Olympic medal and connected my success with theirs,” he said, “I came home on the 9th of August, there was a motorcade, there were many Bahamians at the airport but it was very gentle sub-par celebration, but it wasn’t what I expected to be. Everyone was in that political mood. There was a committee that put together gifts for me, other incentives, but when the government changed, it was taken personal against me. I was turned into a political football. That part of it derailed the magnitude of winning the medal for my country. FNMs were so emboldened that they won the election; they frowned upon me in every aspect. So whatever was initially planned, for whatever reason, much of it never came to fruition.”
Today, Rutherford concentrates his efforts on his Elite Development Programme, which continues to prepare young Bahamian students with an opportunity to further their education through sports in the United States. The programme, based in Houston, Texas includes a star studded list of alumni includes Devard Darling, Michael Carey, Waltiea Rolle, Mavin Saunders, Alex Cooper and many others.
“I see myself as one of those tools that God put in a country to help it evolve into being a world class country. I think what I demonstrated in terms of the hard work, sacrifice and challenging the system to bring a higher level standard of preparation for our athletes to reach that level was instrumental. It would not have been possible without the vision and support of our forefathers and Sir Lynden Pindling whose mandate was for me to show that Bahamians could go on the world stage and excel in all areas of life, mine just happened to be sport,” Rutherford said, “Even today my image suffers because of the steps I made because of the ultimate confidence to win and succeed at the highest level, but you can’t deny the impact that moment in 1992 has had on track and field and on the country at large.