Since making its debut at the Olympic Games in 1948, Sri Lanka has had a few genuine warriors who truly made it to the ranks. Beginning from the first appearance with a silver medal from Duncan White, to Susanthika Jayasinghe, who won the silver medal in Women’s 200m at Sydney Olympics in 2000, the tiny [...]


Sri Lanka’s golden moment


Since making its debut at the Olympic Games in 1948, Sri Lanka has had a few genuine warriors who truly made it to the ranks. Beginning from the first appearance with a silver medal from Duncan White, to Susanthika Jayasinghe, who won the silver medal in Women’s 200m at Sydney Olympics in 2000, the tiny island with a population of over 22 million has had its glory twice at the world’s pinnacle sporting extravaganza.

Dinesh Priyantha Herath

Parallel to Olympics, known as Summer Games, runs the Winter Games as well as the Paralympics, where medals and achievements are as equal as the core event. The true definition to this was scripted last Monday, August 30, by Herath Mudiyanselage Dinesh Priyantha, a soldier, a war veteran, who had to go through a rough childhood coming from a fatherless family. Joining the Army at 18, Herath’s best years of his life was dedicated to serving the country until he was severely wounded and classified as ‘differently-abled’ aged 22, forcing retirement on medical grounds.

Yet, Herath, a true warrior in the making, was motivated to serve the country through a different path by his superior ranks of the Gajaba Regiment of Sri Lanka Army in 2012. He was 26 then. Little would have Herath imagined that one day, not so far from then, he would become a hero, a real one.

The arms that used to handle weapons some years back, were moulded to take up a different type of weapon, the javelin, used by ancient Greek and Egyptian soldiers. But Herath’s mission was not to counter enemies, but to compete as a para athlete in Javelin Throw in the F46 category, a class for disabled athletes who have injuries as a result of over the use of their remaining upper limb or arm.

He fitted well and secured a gold medal in a championship held in Malaysia in his first year, but failed to qualify for any of the top world events scheduled for the coming years. In 2014 at the Asian Para Games, Herath was placed sixth in his event, but his start looked bleak and unpromising.

Adding more salt to his wounds, Herath was going through a bad patch, as an individual, as an aspiring athlete with many setbacks haunting right around him. But his motivators, Premadasa Dissanayake, Major General Rajitha Ampemohotti and Colonel Deepal Herath were highly resilient that this Corporal of the 3rd Gajaba Regiment take a destined journey.

True to the vision of these three motivators, Herath qualified for the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro and won a bronze medal, in his first ever appearance at the Games. The distance — 58.23 metres. This was the second Paralympic medal for Sri Lanka following Pradeep Sanjaya’s bronze at the London 2012 in the 400m event.

Dulan Kodituwakku

So began Herath’s climb up the ladder as an athlete. To call or rate him a mere Paralympian, is not the best of descriptions an athlete deserves, mainly from a country as Sri Lanka. Herath proved that he is the sort of athlete any country would willingly like to claim their very own.

But what Herath had and other compatriots did not was the grit, heart and will.

While others struggled to sustain or simply faded, Herath flourished, blossomed. This was evident at the World Para Athletics Championship 2017, where he won the silver medal, and in the 2019 edition he retained the medal with a throw of 60.59 metres. Meanwhile at the Asian Para Games 2018, Herath set a new event record of 61.84 metres to secure the gold medal.

With over 35 local and international medals in his tally, Herath’s mission was to win ‘a medal’ at the Paralympics 2020 in Tokyo. The now 36-year-old was aptly appointed the captain and flag-bearer of the nine-member Sri Lanka contingent for the Tokyo Games, which began on August 24.

With back-to-back early exits within the first week, medal hopes for Sri Lanka were highly dependent on the track and field athletes in Tokyo. But what transpired was extraordinary, a feat that his family and friends in Kagama, Anuradhapura would proudly brag for years to come.

Dinesh Priyantha Herath became the first and only Sri Lankan athlete to claim many records in a single day — to claim a world record, to claim a gold medal at Paralympics or Olympics, win two medals at Paralympics or Olympics and earning the honour of being the responsible of playing Sri Lanka’s national anthem at a Paralympics or Olympics.

For this he put his fullest energy to clear 67.79 metres, to claim the world record previously held by India’s Devendra Jhajharia, who bettered his own record of 63.97 metres set at Rio, but settled with a silver at Tokyo with a throw of 64.35 metres.

The whole of Sri Lanka, battered in numerous ways with the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and its aftershocks, finally had a reason to rejoice. To add more joy to the already elated Sri Lankans, Dulan Kodituwakku added the country’s second medal, a bronze later on the same day.

Kodituwakku, a Corporal of Sri Lanka Military Police, who suffered an impairment in his right leg after a tragic motor accident, finished third with a throw of 65.61 metres in the Men’s Javelin Throw F44 event, which was won by Indian Sumit Antil with a new world record.

The 31-year-old from Deniyaya, a city from the Southern part of Sri Lanka, too has improved his performances since making the international debut at the Asian Para Games 2018, where he finished fourth with a throw of 58.38 metres. At the World Para Championships 2019, he was able to achieve 57.01 metres, but since then he has made huge progress to secure a Paralympic medal.

Herath, after claiming the world record and the gold medal

By today Herath and Kodituwakku have become the talk of the town. Congratulatory messages are flowing in to the heroes in all platforms available. Many are willingly coming forward to grab a piece of cake which Herath and Kodituwakku baked together though importantly Herath laid the icing on top with an elegant design.

But what many have forgotten conveniently is the fact that these two athletes, importantly Herath, scripted his journey from scratch. He may have had the backing from the military institution he is attached to, as well as Kodituwakku.

Had Herath flipped his chances, the hero of the day would have been Kodituwakku or vice versa. The bitter truth — failure is an orphan and success has many fathers. However, what has happened is done and dusted, today Herath is a hero and so is Kodituwakku.

But these fanfares, praises or words of encouragement were rarely seen before the Paralympics team took wings to Tokyo, or when athletes, one after the other failed in the early stages. Only those around them and the energetic hierarchy of National Paralympic Committee (NPC) are aware of the potholes and thorny paths the contingent in whole underwent.

But the silent man behind the whole glamour is Herath’s coach Pradeep Nishantha, a former national record holder of Men’s Javelin Throw, who turned coach in 2005. He is also the coach of Kodituwakku and of Sampath Hettiarachchi, Sri Lanka’s third thrower at Tokyo Paralympics.

Nishantha, who prefers to stay out of the limelight, is now being forced to come under the spotlight unwillingly, yet proves the value of a real coach who could make a huge impact on an athlete’s progress. The rapid progress made by Herath and Kodituwakku is a testimony to Nishantha’s silent contribution to javelin throw, a discipline he mastered as an athlete and later as a coach, helping shape up Sumedha Ranasinghe, Sri Lanka’s first javelin thrower to compete at an Olympic in 2016 in Rio.

Compared to how the ‘Summer’ Olympic athletes were treated by the local sports authorities, the Paralympians were rather ‘ill-treated’ when it came to benefits, chiefly monetarily. Though it is not compulsory for a nation’s administration in sports to be bound of making commitments on financial benefits to athletes, it’s clear that treatment of two different sectors, competing under the same flag at the most important sporting event of the world, were apparent.

The attempt to reach of 67.79 metres, a new world record

The nine members of the Tokyo Olympics 2020 contingent were motivated well in advance of how they would be rewarded for ‘making their country proud only by representation’. The sums allocated were US$ 10,000 each for athletes and US$ 5,000 for coaches, in addition to a per diem allowance of US$ 40 each to all. They went, they saw, they never conquered, yet were well rewarded.

In contrary, the Paralympians were never promised any of these perks nor they received bigger fanfare or hype on the road to Tokyo. Despite a few failures earlier on by some of the athletes, Herath and Kodituwakku demonstrated how worthy the ‘second class’ athletes really can be.

After the glorious finishes by the duo, the top ranks of Ministry of Sports have now come forward with a proposal to reward Herath with Rs. 50 million for his gold medal and Kodituwakku with Rs. 20 million for winning the bronze, a notable gesture indeed. In addition Herath’s coach, the deserving Pradeep Nishantha will be rewarded with Rs. 17.5 million.

Adding further to the contributions, Sri Lanka Cricket too has come forward to award cash incentives to Herath and Kodituwakku. The list of benefactors, in numerous ways, may add up with the passing of days.

But, more than the gold medal and the world record and with a bronze medal, Herath and Kodituwakku not only have given the Sri Lankans a reason to exult. Together they have fired a simple, yet alarming message to the higher authorities of sports in the country.

They convey the message that triumph cannot be reaped overnight, it needs methodical planning, perfect execution and above all, a nationalised policy for sportspersons of all walks of life. If those responsible could take the message with serious note, as much as they take pride in the victories, Sri Lanka could easily become what many hoped would be, decades ago in the field of global sports.

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