Jamaican Olympian says she survives on $100 JMD a day
Three years after a Sunday Observer revealed her living and selling “bag juice” in New Kingston to survive, former Jamaica athlete Olivia McKoy is back on the streets, although she is still hoping to achieve her dream.
“You know people will say, why not leave athletics and try to and get a job? But the job of running is what I do, and I would not tell anybody in a regular job not to work until they are 65 and retire. If you still think you’ve something left in you, you have to keep going,” she told the Jamaica Observer in a recent interview.
McKoy won international recognition in a field event in which Jamaicans historically fail to do well — the javelin. She won bronze at the 2006 Commonwealth Games, and two silver medals at the Central American and Caribbean Championships although she failed to medal while representing Jamaica at the 2000 and 2008 Summer Olympic Games.
However, after falling on hard times, being beaten and robbed at her former home in Belvedere, St Andrew in 2012, she was left homeless and destitute on the streets of New Kingston, selling bagged drinks to survive.
Following the exposure of her condition in the Sunday Observer, she was offered a position at the Hydel Group of Schools in Ferry, St Catherine. However, that did not last long, as she soon fell out of favour with the school’s head, Hyacinth Bennett, and has since returned to the streets of New Kingston and Half-Way-Tree.
But McKoy has insisted that she will continue to follow her dream of restoration and today she will compete in the “Everyone is a Winner” Best Dressed Chicken 5K road race which ends at Hope Botanical Gardens in St Andrew. She is among the favourites to top the women’s section.
Following her episode at Hydel, she had stopped training for months, as she shared a room on the premises of Andrews Memorial Hospital, Hope Road, with an elderly woman who needed care. But that also ended in 2014 and since then she has been forced to return to the streets.
McKoy resumed her training in March of last year when, despite a lack of practice, she turned up at the UWI Track and Field meet and demolished the field, winning the javelin open with a throw of 49.62 metres. Her nearest rival threw 41.12 metres. But, a lack of opportunity to train with the javelin led her to take up the 5K.
“I had nowhere to practice the javelin, and since I was always walking, I decided to enter walk races,” she explained.
McKoy has won a number of top 5K races including the Kingston City Run, Portmore and the CB Group run, UWI run, was second in the Puma Fortis Run and was the top female entrant in her age group in the recent Sagicor Sigma Corporate Run.
This has boosted her confidence immensely and she has now decided that she will run all 5Ks on the road, and the 3,000 metres on the track.
“I think I will stick with the 5K for now, because I am just learning how to run the event,” she said.
McKoy won a trophy and round-trip ticket from Fly Jamaica for her performance in the Kingston City Run, which she hopes will also take her to the next level of her painful return to normality and leave the streets behind.
This time she walks around the city with all her important papers, clothes, track shoes and trophies stacked in a huge synthetic leather bag and slung over her shoulder because she has no money to pay bus fares, and tries to survive on $100 a day.
The Sunday Observer actually followed her one morning as she walked through New Kingston to Emancipation Park, in the south of the uptown commercial centre, struggling with the huge bag until she found a bench for a morning nap.
Media reports since she was revealed selling “bag juice” in the area had suggested that McKoy was doing fine, since she was taken off the streets and employed by the Hydel Group of Schools. However, a closer examination of her conditions shows that she has been left with huge emotional and physical scars, including a huge gash in her head — a painful reminder of the violence and rejection to which she has been constantly exposed.
McKoy wears a crafted head scarf to hide her shaven head and the scar she has carried since she was attacked and robbed by three armed men in Belvedere in 2012, who struck her three times in the head with huge rocks.
However, despite her scars and poverty, McKoy is not concerned about the fact that the 5K races she has won offers her no money, only trophies which make the bag she tows with her belongings a little heavier.
The Fly Jamaica ticket she won for being first among the women who entered the Kingston City Run offers her a round trip to Canada, but she says she can’t afford the accommodation or spending money.
“Hopefully, by God’s grace, I will be able to take up the trip later this year,” she remarked.
“My plan is that if I get to go to Canada, I would want to do some clinics in their high schools and I have just launched my Olivia’s Track Club,” she pointed out.
But how does a 42-year-old former Olympian who sleeps on the streets at nights, curled around her most valuable belonging — a huge, black, synthetic leather bag with all she owns in life — operate a track club?
“It’s based with me; anywhere I am at it’s there,” she said, pointing out that she chose the name Olivia because she regards it as her “God name”, because “first names represent God”.
“Olivia is associated with a child of sorrow and woes. It’s just my personal analysis. I am the only member of my track club so far, but I intend to have a track club with a governing body and serious athletes. I know it needs funds, but I didn’t have any money when I started college at NCU and got a Bachelor’s degree in business administration and when I went to Louisiana Tech in the United States and I did my Master’s.
She said she wanted to become a counselling psychologist or a psychiatrist, but now, at the age of 42, all she can think of is running.
“I just train as I go along. You know I don’t have money to pay the fares on the bus I just walk. Wherever I am going I walk: If I am going downtown I walk. If I am going to Papine, I walk, even if I am going to Spanish Town, I walk. This morning I walked from the UTech training facility at Papine to the Observer with my bag on my shoulder,” she explained.
“UTech is the only place that I have ever been that they have not interfered with me. Mr (Stephen) Francis has never said anything to me when I am there, and that’s why I admire that man so much. That’s the only facility that I have ever been to and have never been harassed or ridiculed.
“I am harassed at the National Stadium, harassed at Emancipation Park, harassed on the road, they steal my sneakers, they steal my phone, they grab my bag on the streets, because I don’t have any money to pay rent. So I am training on the road and I am sleeping on the road and living on the road with my bag and pan and people keep call me all kinds of names, like ‘Arawak Indian’, ‘African’, ‘Nigerian’. But you know I have still been able to maintain my focus.
“I get up in the mornings like I am living in a home same way. I hit the shower wherever I can find the convenience, grab my bag, go to my training, you know, still maintaining my schedule, even though I live on the road. It’s not easy but, you know, it is what I have to do. I have limited funds. I have to beg money sometimes. Sometimes I preach in the parks, and I accept an offering.”
McKoy is a math teacher in a society in which they are so in demand that the Government says it is willing to pay any kind of salary for them, yet she is not in the classroom.
“It’s very challenging in the school system as a teacher, today, and the renumeration is not grand, even though it is better than nothing. I want to start my own school. I want to start with evening lessons, but I wanted to resume my training first and see where I am at with the long-distance road races, and once I have solidified that, I would take it from there,” she stated.
She said that the Government, through the Jamaica Administrative Athletics Association (JAAA) is providing her with health insurance coverage. However, she feels that there is a lot more that could be done for athletes.
“I thank God for that. They probably think I am too old and washed up now, but I think I have done my service for Jamaica. I have done 20 years’ service to this country,” she noted.
She thinks that the Government should formulate a programme allowing athletes to have access to pension when their careers are over.
“For the years in which we have worked, something could be done for athletes who have served the nation, because we are veterans like anybody else and when we retire we shouldn’t have to go and work another 33 years to get a pension to survive. They might say, but nobody hired you, but when we were there we were just told to be patriotic. We weren’t thinking about whether somebody was going to hire us or not, we were just thinking about representing our country.
“So, after doing that for 20 years I shouldn’t need to have to work another 33 years to get a pension. But, who is supposed to be speaking up for us? The JAAA is there, they are not representing us well. As a matter of fact, it is as if they are pushing us down into the gully. We have no athletes’ representation. What about the cornmeal porridge we need to drink? No other nation treats their athletes the way we do. Should we go and represent another country if we want to avoid this?
“Some of the things to do to put ourselves in a position to represent this country. We have done so much, we should not be complaining and we are not asking for much. I live on $100 a day or less,” she reiterated.