Ever since he remembered, he loved track. Little Wendell Mottley would tag along with his dad, who was in a local athletic association in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago. As he got older, he began to run in competitions sponsored by the oil companies that had refineries on that Caribbean island.
“These refineries would give off a certain smell,” Mottley told me. “And as I got closer, that smell would trigger adrenaline.”
At the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the adrenaline was pumping. Mottley was all grown up, former captain of the Yale track team, and representing the upstart track team of a country that established its independence only two years before. “We were ambitious and we thought we had a chance to bring down the big boys – the USA.”
As Mottley waited for Edwin Skinner to hand him the baton for the anchor leg of the 4×400 relay race finals, he knew he had a chance to upset the Americans. By the time he got the baton, Trinidad and Tobago was already in second, but the Jamaican, George Kerr, was just inside of Mottley and created a bit of havoc for Mottley.
“I tried to run around him, but he flailed the baton so much that I had to run very wide of him, and those extra steps in a race of that quality cost us,” Mottley said. “When I came around in the final lap, I was tiring, and that allowed Robbie Brightwell of Great Britain to run past me, and we ended with a bronze medal.”
Mottley won a silver medal in the 400-meter sprint as well at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, but he lost his heart to Japan.
The first time he came to Japan was for the Olympics. He knew very little about the country, except WWII and kamikaze pilots. And ikebana. Mottley is a lover of flowers, and he enjoyed the flower arrangements he saw wherever he went.
“Tokyo blew my mind,” he said. “To see the chrysanthemum all laid out in their glory – what a people to be able to do this, I thought. I was also struck by Japanese landscaping, particularly Japanese gardens, the brushing of the sand and stone, and the spare architecture. I had read about these things as a hobbyist, but I was amazed when I saw these things in person.”
Observing the care that went into the gardens and the flower arrangement, as well as how organized the Games were, nothing like he had seen at track meets in the US or Europe, he came to this realization: “It must take a very disciplined people to do these things.”
As a teenager, Mottley had a life-changing turn of luck.
Running at yet another high school meet, a track coach from Loughborough University in the UK said he knew another track coach at Yale University in the US, and would young Mottley be interested in running track there. Mottley applied and was accepted into Yale, and the head of track for the Elis was legendary coach, Bob Giegengack, who ended up being the US track coach for Team USA in 1964.
“For this coach from the UK, who knew another coach in the US who might be interested, to see me run in Trinidad and Tobago, the stars had to align for this to have happened,” Mottley remarked.
But after getting to Yale, luck would not be enough. Mottley would learn a life-long lesson in the value and impact of discipline.
Mottley was a sprinter, but Giegengack also had him run cross country, which he hated. In the winter, too cold for the boy from the tropics, he competed at indoor meets, when arenas were filled with cigarette smoke. “After running 600 meters, it felt like someone took a pitchfork to your lungs.” Then it was back to outdoor running in the Spring.
Every day was full.
“You get up in the morning, have breakfast, and take classes because at Yale there were no concessions for athletes,” he said. “Then we trained from 2 to 5:30 pm, had dinner at 6, and then studied. It was a disciplined process, a rhythm of life. All of those years of training, that was tough work for a kid coming out of the tropics. But it served me well for the rest of the life.”
Life Goes On
Mottley recalled the moments just prior to the start of the finals of the individual 400-meter sprint at the Tokyo Olympics. The athletes were inside the bowels of the stadium, the nerves of the competitors palpable. The officials were nervous, checking to make sure the right people were there at the right time. The runners were nervous as they began to hear and feel the buzz of the crowd.
“You emerge into the sunlight, the crowd is roaring, and the nervousness climbs, and all things race through your mind,” he explained. “Then you start hammering in your starting blocks, and suddenly everything gets shut out and the focus comes back. It’s silent. You’re absolutely focused, bam, and the race is on.”
After Mottley wins his silver medal at the end of the race, he sees Coach Giegengack, who gives him a salute. “That’s it. It’s relief that it’s all over.”
Mottley ended his track career a year later, going on to an amazing career in government, serving as Finance Minister for his country in the 1990s, and then in financial services as a senior advisor and investment banker at Credit Suisse.
But before he left his sporting life behind, he had one more score to settle. It was August, 1966, and Trinidad and Tobago was competing at the 8th British Empire and Commonwealth Games, which were being held in Kingston, Jamaica.
Mottley, with 1964 Tokyo teammates Kent Bernard and Edwin Roberts, joined by Lennox Yearwood faced off against Jamaica on their home turf in the 4X400-yard relay. Mottley had an agenda. He remembered how Kerr swung the baton and forced him wide in Tokyo.
So when Mottley completed the anchor leg of the finals, Team Trinidad and Tobago not only beat Team Jamaica, they set a world record, a coda to a great career in track.