Fri | Dec 13, 2019

Isis Clarke – Jamaica’s first female track and field star

Published:Sunday | November 17, 2019 | 12:45 AMLynford Simpson - Sunday Gleaner Writer
Clarke-Reid

Isis Clarke-Reid is not a name that rings many bells and despite being one of the first women to represent Jamaica in track and field, she has never been recognised by her country for her role in the emergence of Jamaican athletics.

Clarke-Reid, who competed as a 19 year old at the 1938 Central American and Caribbean (CAC) Games, will celebrate her 100th birthday tomorrow, November 18, and her immediate and remaining family members want this perceived slight to be corrected while she is still alive and can appreciate it.

Described in Gleaner articles as a “champion” sprinter, Clarke-Reid, who now resides in Port St Lucie in Florida, suffers from dementia and is bound to a wheelchair. However, her memories of the emotions experienced, while representing her country has certainly not faded, as she reminisced on how privileged she felt all those decades ago.

“It was great, great, great. I felt like a champion,” Clarke-Reid said.

At just 19-years-old, the lanky and versatile sprinter, who competed in the 100 metres and 200 metres as well as the 80m low hurdles, formed part of a quartet, which included her friend Gertrude Messam, Rhona Saunders and Beryl Delgado, that won a bronze medal for Jamaica in the 4x100m relay at the 1938 CAC Games, which was held in Panama City. Jamaica would place fifth on the medals table that year with 22 medals.

The war years would intervene and the Games were not held again until 1946 in Barranquilla, Colombia. Now 27 years old, Clarke-Reid’s quality and longevity were quite evident in Barranquilla, as she was the only member of the 1938 relay team that went on to compete at the 1946 edition of the Games.

This time around she was joined by future Olympian, the legendary Cynthia Thompson, Hyacinth Walters and Cynthia Llewelyn.

SILVER MEDAL FINISH

The team raced to a silver medal finish behind Panama, in what would turn out to be one of Clarke-Reid’s last competition for Jamaica at a major championships after her move to the United States the following year in 1947.

She first settled in New York and would later marry Richard Green with who she shared a son, Richard Jr. After her divorce from Green, Clarke-Reid later married a Jamaican, Fred Reid and the union bore another son, Carlton, who died in 1993; his father died a year later. Clarke-Reid’s first son, Richard, also predeceased her.

Clarke-Reid, who attended the Half-Way Tree Primary School, was born in Kingston and lived in the Molynes Road area with her parents and four brothers.

After leaving primary school, she attended the long-defunct Waltham College. Without a coach, Clarke-Reid and her brothers, including David, who would later become involved in coaching cricket at the national under-19 level, would work out at what they called Half-Way Tree Park.

While still a teenager, Clarke-Reid was affectionately referred to as “Champion girl sprinter” according to Gleaner newspaper articles from 1938 and 1939 and in a caption on March 19, 1939 in which she was seen shaking the hand of the Governor Sir Arthur Fredrick Richards before departing to compete in what was then called the Pan American Olympics in Panama, Clarke-Reid was described as “a regular record breaker” in a clear indication of her abilities.

Her influence also stretched off the track, where she championed for greater involvement of female athletes in athletics.

GOOD FOR HEALTH

“I am appealing to all those girls desirous of running in these sports to start now on serious lines of training. As an athlete, I can say that athletics are good for health. It is said by many that Jamaica possesses quite a lot of girl athletes even in the schools. I agree. But may I ask, why they are shy of taking part publicly in these games?” Clarke-Reid was quoted as saying in a March 1938 article in The Gleaner.

A large part of the limited involvement of girls in track and field eight decades ago was cultural, as it was not seen back then as a female sport.

Clarke-Reid, in an interview for an article published in 1992 in a newspaper in Port St Lucie, noted that her own mother only allowed her to train if her brothers accompanied her, noting that she was determined to make the best of it.

Thompson aside, Clarke would have competed alongside other Jamaican legends such as Arthur Wint, Herb McKenley and George Rhoden.

Former long-standing Jamaica Olympic Association president Mike Fennell hailed Clarke-Reid for her contribution to the development of Jamaican athletics.

“I offer my congratulations to Isis Clarke on a wonderful innings and do recognise her contribution to laying the foundation for our (Jamaica’s) current status in the world of athletics,” said Fennell.