Remembering Edwin Roberts’ Olympic first
Happy anniversary Trinidad and Tobago.
No, I have not gotten my independence date mixed up. Exactly 50 years ago, Edwin Roberts became the country’s first Olympic medallist in the sport of athletics, claiming bronze in the men’s 200 metres final in 20.6 seconds.
That 200 bronze at the 1964 Games in Tokyo, Japan was also the very first post-independence Olympic medal for T&T. So, to Roberts and all of T&T, a happy golden anniversary.
“I think there was a greater sense of nationalism,” says historian Dr Basil Ince, “because Trinidad and Tobago had just become independent. The real nationalist environment came with Eric Williams, from ’56, moving towards independence. So, by the time we went to the Games, in ’64…people were looking forward to these Games because Trinidad was now a sovereign nation.”
Roberts, a 23-year-old sprinter from Belmont, was selected to represent the “Red, White and Black”, and advanced all the way to the 200 final.
Drawn in lane eight in the championship race, Roberts squared off against seven other sprinters, including Italy’s reigning Olympic champion, Livio Berruti, and Americans Henry Carr, Paul Drayton and Richard Stebbins.
“When I settled into the blocks,” Roberts recalls, “I didn’t feel any burden…I felt expectation. Running in an outside lane, everybody chases you. You can’t see anybody in front of you. So, it’s a mindset, how you have to plot your race. I accelerated, and right at the tape, I came very close to getting second.
“Paul Drayton, who is deceased now, was very upset that he got second. I said ‘man, you should be glad,’ in my subconscious mind, ‘that you got second, because I was right on your tail’.”
Carr won in an Olympic record time of 20.3 seconds, with Drayton (20.5) second and Roberts (20.6) third.
For the first time in history, the “Red, White and Black” was raised during an Olympic Games medal ceremony.
At the time, however, the significance of the achievement was not uppermost on Roberts’ mind. In the excitement of the moment, it did not dawn on him that he was the country’s first post-independence Olympic medallist.
The North Carolina College student recalls his thoughts as he stood on the podium.
“I did it and I’m happy to get third place, and to see my flag go up into the air…not knowing I was the first. It never did cross my mind. As that flag went up, I was enthusiastic, I was happy, I was proud. I did my job for my country.”
Thirty-two years later, Ato Boldon became only the second T&T athlete to earn an Olympic 200m medal, following in Roberts’ strides with bronze at the 1996 Atlanta Games.
“For me, I looked back and said, okay, I can do this because somebody like an Edwin Roberts did it long before I stepped foot on the track.
“Edwin Roberts was extremely good,” Boldon continues.
“If he had a little bit more exposure in terms of being seen by the T&T viewing public, he would probably be held in much higher esteem than he is. To me, he is one of the most underrated sprinters in Trinidad and Tobago history.”
Roberts lives in Pennsylvania, USA, and has stayed close to athletics through coaching and officiating.
“I got involved in officiating in athletics after I semi-retired,” says Roberts. “I was running Masters and officiating. In the last three years, I started to do starting.
“A lot of people ask me if I miss coaching. I say no. I’m still in the field. I’m still coaching people by talking to them while I’m officiating. Do this, do that, but I’m not their actual coach. I’ll give them advice.”
Roberts is 73, but is young at heart, and has an excellent rapport with the teenagers he interacts with while officiating at track and field meets in Pennsylvania.
The Olympic medallist wants to make a contribution to the development of the sport here in T&T.
Equipped with vast knowledge and incredible people skills, Roberts certainly has what it takes to inspire today’s generation of Olympic aspirants.