How do you run a race when your legs have been amputated? How do you begin on time when you can’t hear the gunshot? How do you cross the finish line when you cannot see it? If you’ve ever assumed that being disabled equals less than capable, a trip to the Sunshine Games will change your mind.
The children who travelled from all over the island to compete in this annual sports meet held last Sunday at the Racecourse grounds brought with them an incredible energy and adamant commitment to their sport. They cross the finish line in wheelchairs and on prosthetic legs; sometimes their hands are held by their friends, sometimes the voices of their teachers guide them forward. Win or lose – here more than anywhere else, it's finishing the race that counts.
The 23 children from the Prithipura Home’s Asokapura branch are here despite a restless night. A tsunami warning kept them up from 3 a.m. Some are as young as five, but they all anticipate their trip to the Sunshine Games, says their teacher Anula Ramanayake. Hailing from even further afield is the ORHAN contingent. Mr. V. Subramaniam of ORHAN has brought 77 young people down from Vavuniya to compete in the games.
For them it’s a four day expedition, and they arrived in Colombo on Saturday, choosing to spend the night at a hospitable Vishnu kovil. Mr. Subramaniam, who is completely blind, tells me that through war and tumult, the team has always travelled to the games. Last year, they were forced to turn back at one of the multitude of checkpoints, but he says they’re revelling in the freedom of movement they now have. The children are certainly having a whale of a time racking up the medals – the day is not yet over and their tally already stands at 63.
In more ways than one, it’s been a long journey for all of them. Many have had to overcome parental disapproval and struggle with school authorities to be permitted to participate in the games, says Mr. Subramaniam.
ORHAN – Organisation for Rehabilitation of Handicapped – supports these budding athletes with training sessions that begin many months in advance. Muhundan is one of the young adults who made the trip this year. The shy teenager suffers from multiple disabilities, but says he loves running and finds it easy because he practises so much. He hopes to share his expertise and has plans to become a P.T master one day. Another one of ORHAN’s young athletes, 17 year old Kanishka Dilshan has been competing in the discus throw, javelin and 100 metre race - despite some vision impairment. Like Muhundan he says he has simply needed to practise harder to keep up with peers.
The two boys are among nearly 650 differently-abled athletes at the 2010 Sunshine Games. The games which were first held in 2000, are organised annually by the Rotary Club of Colombo Metropolitan. Widely recognised as among the largest annual sports meets for mentally and physically handicapped children in Sri Lanka, the event features over 144 individual competitions and caters to children with diverse disabilities. Though the games began as a sports meet, the organisers have now included a variety of other entertainments to create a carnival atmosphere, reveals Rotarian Nissanka Chandrasinghe.
There’s even a noisy papare band, tempting the children to dance. Rizvi Hussain, the current President of the club, explains that the meals and transport are taken care of for the thousand people who show up every year. But it’s the expressions of the participants' faces that he finds truly heartening – “even when they don’t win, they’re enjoying the run, they have a smile on their faces,” he says, pointing out a group enthusiastically waving their school flag. “Many of these children seldom get to enjoy a day out - it’s a very rare event in their lives,” adds Mr. Chandrasinghe.
Sister Premila Gamage stands with her little troupe under a blue tent on the edge of the field. The Supem Uyana Home for mentally handicapped children is based off Hikkaduwa and is run by the Sisters of Charity. Today they have 24 young children here. Some of them will not be able to compete in any of the more demanding field events. However, Sister Gamage’s protégés are enthusiastic participants in the likes of the bun eating competition. Anyway, they’re not here for the medals, they’re here for the company. “They’re happy to mix with the others,” she says, adding that they enjoy being spectators, surrounded by people they see as their peers.
The teachers also enjoy their day in the sun. C.M.I. N. Chandrasekera is the principal of the Sahana Deaf School. She’s brought 50 of her 60 students from Matale for the event and says it’s a great opportunity for everyone to get to know each other. Several of her students, perched on chairs around her, are avid spectators and she says they all unite in cheering for their friends.
Luckily, there are plenty of stars to admire. P.A.D. Subani Udeshika is a svelte 19 year old. She has competed in a few international events including the Asian Youth Paralympics and the Pacific Games where she was placed second. Despite being born without a left leg, Udeshika has been participating in sporting events ever since she was four.
Her steady stance today is courtesy of a prosthetic limb, and she’s competing in the 100m, 200m and long jump. But as much as she loves sports, she has her eyes firmly set on an IT course in Japan, and is studying Japanese to prepare herself. She carries herself with such confidence that Udeshika’s disability is hard to spot.
Danushka Madhusanga and Lasantha Chandimal stand out in the crowd though. Seated in their wheelchairs, they tell me they’re both 22 years old. Danushka has a congenital birth defect, and relied upon his mother to carry him to school on her back until he got a wheelchair in 2002. Lasantha, who fell out of a tree and hurt his spine when he was just 10 years old, is an orphan.
He now works with Rehab Lanka, and makes wheelchairs for others like him. “I want to be independent, I want to make my own future,” he tells me. The two boys are clear about what it takes to be a great sportsman, and unsurprisingly, they believe it has more to do with heart and head, than body.
You have to be willing to commit yourself, says Dhanushka. In the end, more than the physical strength, you have to be mentally strong, you have to be able to deal with things, says Lasantha, confident in himself.
Ceylon Knit Trend Ltd., Pan Asia Bank, Greenlanka, The Hilton, The Hilton Colombo Residence, Nestle and Norfolk Foods were the main sponsors of the event this year.