There was an era that Sri Lanka was producing athletes of substance as if they were being churned out from a machine. From rather a bland 70s and 80s Sri Lanka walked in to the hosting of the 5th South Asian Federation Games in Colombo with a lot of fan fare and a lot of confidence, and didn’t the athletes reciprocate the faith kept in them by running into the third place in the medals tally?
In the first place was India who dominated the indoor events with 64 Golds and 164 medals in all, and the other South Asian giant Pakistan was next with 58 Golds and 117 medals and Sri Lanka coming in third with a haul of 44 Golds and 118 medals in all with a lot of accent in outdoor field events.
Chaminda Wijekone- 1500 metre Gold Medalist led the Sri Lankan Contingent to the SAG Games
In previous years besides the opening event in 1984 in Kathmandu where Sri Lanka won seven Gold medals and ended up second to India, the rest of the results were appalling with 2 Golds in 1985, 4 in 1987 and six in 1989.
The Colombo effort in 1991 was ground breaking. Up came the house hold names of Sriyantha Dissanayake, Damayanthi Dharsha, Sriyani Kulavansa, Sugath Tillekeratne, Padmakumara Amerasekera, Dhammika Menike, Ineka Cooray, Jayamini Illeperuma, Ranjith Subasinghe, Anusha Kariyawasam, Yamuna Yapa and Chaminda Fonseka to form the nucleus of the “golden era’ of Lankan athletics. Two years later when young Susanthika Jayasinghe won her short distance bronze at the Dhaka Games the team was almost complete and they kept marching through the next two decades through their own ups and downs which finally was heralded with the turn of millennium Olympic ‘Silver’ of Susanthika Jayasinghe.
The 1991 momentum blew out in the aftermath of the last SAG after Sri Lanka did below expectations to finish with 35 Golds, but it was the final ‘gong’ of a wonderful era of athletics in Sri Lanka.
What’s next was the question that followed. Being used to Jayasinghes and Dharshas the critiques could not see beyond the eye line. However the just concluded South Asian Games is a very good indicator to report that everything is not lost. Yes, there were draw backs, but, with a pronounced set of no hopers Sri Lanka won 16 Gold medals in all with the athletes yielding exactly half of that number for the country with eight Golds against their names.
Encouraged by this positive performance we confronted the AAASL secretary Prema Pinnawela of what he thought of the young athletes and how the Lankan track could move on from here. Pinnawela explained: “Yes, we did depend a lot on Susanthika, Sugath (Tillekeratne), Damayanthi Dharsha and the 4 x 400 relay team. The 4 x 400 team was within the first 20 in the world rankings for about eight years and in 2004 we had 19 athletes taking part in the Olympics.
There is a certain section of the people including some from the press who say that standards have gone down. I do not agree with that. Maybe that in the recent past there may have been people at the top working with different agendas, but, the present athletics administration works with an agenda and a vision to back it. Three years ago seeing this culmination, we started our second line programme. At the beginning it was starts and stutters, but later it picked up. Now the foundation that we laid three years ago has taken place about 25%. Just for instance Chaminda Wijekone is a good prospect for the 2016 Olympics with more overseas training and foreign exposure he should make it in the future. Then Chandrika Subhashini in the 200 and 400 metres then Shehan Ambepitiya is another very good prospect.”
The AAASL secretary then explained that tough Sri Lanka had some very good individual athletics coaches and some of the foreign experts who have come here on short assignments had identified it. But, the only drawback he said “there is no collective effort by these coaches to take the Lankan athletics into the next level. They have only caged themselves into their own peripheries and try to work within their small groups. For instance they go on an overseas training and learn a modern technique in coaching and comeback and keep it to himself rather than sharing the experience. It should be a collective effort with common planning and a common goal”.
Pinnawela also feels that now the northern war is over, it is time for the country to reap the benefits of the untapped talent there. Pinnawela who has made several visits to the North with foreign experts says that they had seen many talented girls and boys in the area of whom the experts feel that the AAASL could put their talent to good effect. He also feels that gradually the authorities also can shift some of the events to those areas so that it would help to cultivate the interest in the given areas. He is also very sure with the talent what he has seen in the North, the day is not very far, that Sri Lanka gets an international medal courtesy a Jaffna athlete. He also revealed that Jaffna will get their first all island athletic event with the Nestomalt marathon being worked off there.
The next to air his views was the overall captain of the Sri Lankan contingent Chaminda Wijekone who also brought the 1500 metres Gold medal home.
Sharing his views with the Sunday Times Musings Wijekone said though on the surface there is a feeling that Sri Lanka has dropped its stance, but, being a member of the athletics contingent he felt that the country had done well. He then added “I watched the Kabbadi and the football matches in progress there, but there I felt that the Lankans were rather unlucky not to win medals at these events, however we did beyond expectations in the track and field events.
hen we went for the Asian Championships we had a contingent of twenty two athletes and there were some who had not achieved the minimum requirement and there were many questions asked about the selection of the contingent. But, we answered the questions at this meet by bagging eight of the sixteen Golds that were won by Sri Lanka in the track and field events. I feel it is a direct result of the positive approach of the AAASL and the way that they are encouraging the younger athletic brood. For the first time Sri Lanka bagged more Gold in athletics than India, and I feel that is the best indicator.”