A close analysis of athletics in Sri Lanka would suggest that the sport has been through various phases during its nearly 100 years of history. Though the sport is just behind cricket in popularity, it has been the number one sport in terms of participation, dating back to the period when the sport was introduced to locals, during colonial rule.
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The foundation of athletics rests with the education system in any country. The athletes who learnt the basics during their school careers have evolved to greater heights later on nationally and internationally. But for this one requires to make an emphasis on developing athletics at the grass-root level. In the absence of a proper system to develop athletics at the grass-root level the standard will drop drastically resulting in mediocre performances on the international stage.
The beginning of school athletics goes as far back as the 20th century, when the Schools Athletics Association was formed in 1920. Its formation gave birth to the country’s first-ever school athletics competition, competed in by a few public schools in Colombo, Galle, Kandy and Jaffna. Although some who performed at this meet went on to represent Sri Lanka internationally in the early 40’s, the lack of majority representations was a major concern.
This situation however remained intact for many years until the introduction of central schools during the latter part of 1940’s (1944-1948). With the advent of Central Schools, the athletics authorities looked out for new horizons, ways and means of developing athletics. Thus a competition (All Island Schools Championships) was organized. However, this could not change Sri Lanka’s athletic fortunes during the next 25 years, during which time only a handful of good athletes were produced.
The reason of course was the non participation of public schools in the All Island Schools Championships, a factor largely due to the poor standard. In addition the competition was not as well organized as the Public School Championships and that contributed to its woes.
The dismal performance at the 1982 Asian Games became an eye-opener for local authorities, who thought it was fitting to bring in new changes to the school athletic structure in order to remain a force to be reckoned with at the Asian Games. Accordingly, changes were brought into the system. In 1983, the Ministry of Education revived the All Island Schools Championships after scrapping the Public School Championships. Abolition of the then popular Public School Championships was based on the fear that public schools may boycott the revived All Island Schools Championships. This gave birth to the National School Games. The event was conducted with a high standard of competition and the popularity it received within a short space of time saw many embracing it with both hands.
The Ministry of Sports then extended a helping hand. The Ministry of Sports conducted special training sessions to athletes with promise in different parts of the island through their district coaches. Out of the lot, the best were directed to national coaches for further training. Accordingly, the new system helped to revolutionize Sri Lankan athletics as a number of top class athletes emerged during this period.
The 1991 South Asian Games was the best example. For the first time in history Sri Lanka managed its highest athletics medal tally at the games, ending India’s dominance. This was the beginning of a long story. The next 15 years that followed could probably be described as the golden era of local athletics. Sri Lanka not only offered a stiff challenge to India in the years that followed but also went onto win Asian Games, Commonwealth Games and Olympic Games in addition to Asian Championships and World Championships medals, which speaks volumes on the need for a proper school athletic structure.
However the facelift that was given to athletics in 1983 was restricted to the ensuing 20 years, as it has failed today to keep pace with the developing world. This yet again put Sri Lanka athletics on a backward march.
The Sri Lanka Athletic Association (AASL) had only a handful of national coaches at the 1984 South Asian Games (or to be more precise the 1984 Kathmandu Games and the AASL had only five coaches). All the coaches had received international training and had a wealth of experience. As Sri Lanka started to reap the benefits of the system introduced in 1983, the coaches were rewarded financially for their hard work in preparing athletes for the world stage. Though this was done with good intentions, its adverse effects are still to be eradicated.
The situation got worse in the latter part of the 90’s with the Sports Ministry pumping money as part of its attempt to win an Olympic medal. Athletes and national level coaches were rewarded while ignoring district level coaches. This changed the whole coaching landscape with coaches at district levels refusing to release their athletes to national coaches. Even though they had no international training experience, they kept athletes with them. Accordingly Sri Lanka had 36 coaches at the 2006 South Asian Games as opposed to the five coaches at the 1984 (AA Annual Report 2006) which means there was a coach for every two athletes. However the question was whether these coaches had the ability to take their athletes the extra-mile. Thus the standard of athletics dropped drastically from those of the 90’s.
As a proposal to improve the standard, it’s important that all stakeholders, Sports Ministry, Education Ministry, National Olympic Committee, National Sports Associations and other sports associations should jointly formulate a national programme. A new educational sports policy should be adopted, where teachers should pay specific attention to physical education and basic sports training of school children in a proper manner.
* Parents should be educated on the physical and psychological benefits for their kids by including sports activities in their education. Sports activities should be held without clashing with students’ education programme.
* Talented coaches should be provided with foreign training and scholarships to enhance their knowledge. Coaches and administrators should be encouraged to use information technology. This is at a very low level in Sri Lanka.
* Training sessions could be organized under different climatic and time conditions in order to make athletes prepared for various geographical conditions and it’s also important to make available all possible facilities which include a fully equipped training venue in each district.
In addition, the athletes, coaches, teachers, administrators and even parents should be encouraged to read sports literature.
If the above proposals are implemented sooner rather than later, Sri Lanka will not only recover from its temporary set back but could possibly become once again, a force to be reckoned with on the international stage.