Accomplished athletes reflect on 100 years of athletics in Sri Lanka | Print edition

By Pranavesh Sivakumar

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This year marks an important year in the calendar and history of Sri Lankan athletics. The sport of track and field turned 100 in January 2022. To mark and celebrate this milestone, the Sunday Times spoke to medal-winning athletes and Olympians, having written and etched their names in the history books, locally and globally.

One of the only two products the country is most proud of as Olympic medallions, Susanthika Jayasinghe, said she was proud of herself looking back on history.

SLA held a half marathon to kick off its centenary celebrations

“I only remember about 30 years. I don’t remember childhood memories and chapters. When I look back on history, as a woman who won a medal, I am ecstatic and proud of myself,” said the silver medalist at the Sydney Olympics in 2000.

“Most of our victories come from the Asian Games. Our victories in the Olympic arena are only an iota. Institutions that celebrate events are good, but I would also like to ask why we can’t win medals anymore,” Jayasinghe joked.

Only Duncan White and Susanthika Jayasinghe etched their names in the history books, while a few others managed to put in impressive performances even though they didn’t win an Olympic medal. Jayasinghe was not entirely satisfied with the progress of the sport, however.

“With my understanding of the game, I’m not entirely happy with it. In this century period, what kind of achievements have we recorded? We only have a handful of Commonwealth Games (CWG) victories. On the world stage, we only won in bits and pieces.”

She urged officials, who have the responsibility to run the sport, to work responsibly by promoting the game. Jayasinghe also asked what designations were given to Asian and CWG winners.

“Where are the experts, after excelling in the sport?”

She couldn’t even estimate how long it would take for the country’s third medal at the Olympics. However, a former president of the Sri Lanka Athletic Association (SLAA), Sunil Gunawardena seemed happy and proud of the story.

“We have only won two medals on the Olympic stage and both have come from athletics. In the Asian Games, we have 10 gold medals in athletics and one in cricket. Apart from that, all of our wins have come from athletics only, so there is a history to be proud of and we also have the gift for the next generation, who will carry on the relay,” said Gunawardena, also an Olympian at the Munich Games in 1972.

Gunawardena was also convinced that the nation was armed with many talents to carry the baton.

“An Olympic medal is not easily obtained. Even in the Asian arena, after a 20-year drought, only Damayanthi Darsha and Susanthika Jayasinghe have won. Since then, we haven’t won a single medal at the Asian Games. But we have a lot of talented athletes capable of winning medals,” he explained.

Thilaka Jinadasa, Sri Lanka’s first Olympian to compete in athletics, remarked that there is improvement unlike their time.

“We were doing athletics in the late 1980s to early 1990s. That time compared to now, the athletes were treated well. They have a lot of sponsors and opportunities. Competition these days was either the SAARC or the Asian Championships. But nowadays athletes have a lot of opportunities because of that, I think, we’ve seen a lot of improvements in the athletes.

“If you look at the numbers, that may not be the case. But the athletes arrive well with good performances. This is our achievement in 100 years,” added Jinadasa, also a former netball player and coach.

Dr Nagalingam Ethirveerasingham, another Olympian at the 1952 and 1956 Games, said his country was lagging behind in terms of infrastructure.

“While the rest of the world has improved the competition surface and other technological advancements, Sri Lanka has only been able to establish two synthetic tracks in Colombo and Western Province. The rest of the country has continued with grass tracks Athletics in schools did not improve much in the other eight provinces Athletics in clubs and districts outside Western Province improved at a rate of snail, especially in the north and east,” he said, while laying out the modus operandi on the future of the sport.

“In the recent SLAA elections, many Vice Presidents were elected. There were, however, no Tamil or Muslim vice-presidents. The majority of the members were Sinhalese and they voted for their own ethnic community. The SLAA constitution needs to be amended to ensure that minority communities are represented on the national body. A synthetic track must be built in each province. In the United States (because it is based in the United States), all high schools have a synthetic track. Sri Lanka cannot afford it.

“To be successful in any sport, children should start participating around the age of eight or nine. School athletics is expected to be funded by the Ministry of Education (MoE) and SLAA. Trained coaches should be appointed in all schools by the Ministry of Education,” said the Asian Games record holder in high jump.

“Between Duncan’s (White) money in 1948 and Susanthika’s money in 2000, there is a gap of 52 years. We should not wait another 30 years. We should identify the talents of nine-year-old athletes and nurture them by providing quality education and providing quality coaches to train them. I also like to see that student athletes should maintain a passing average in each term to represent their school in any sport. They can do it. This is a rule that exists in schools and universities in the United States,” concluded Dr Ethirveerasingham.

Naomi C. Amerson