It is impressive to realize that for an under-developed, war-stricken south-Asian country, the great strides our past and present sports personalities have achieved. Three massive moments standout in the history of this glorious nation, and most of us in this present generation were lucky enough to experience the latter two. Duncan White, who in 1948, hurdled away to a silver medal at the Olympics, was also the only South Asian to have won an Olympic medal in track and field for more than fifty years. Then after an agonizingly long wait, Arjuna Ranathunga’s batch of ’96, achieved the highest honour at the Cricket World Cup. Four years later Susanthika Jayasinghe missed Olympic gold by only 00.01 of a second.
These achievements have come in the midst of trying times for the country. 1948, after a struggle for independence from the British, even competing at the Olympics would have been a commendable feat. In 1996, Shane Warne feared of being bombed when he went shopping around Colombo and also in 2000, the situation was no better, Arjuna’s ‘boys’ and Jayasinghe proved to the world what Sri Lankans are capable on the field.
Now however times have changed, and one must ask the question “Have we as a nation made any progress for reaching greater sporting heights?” To be completely fair to sports administrators, yes, funds are going into infrastructure. New stadiums are been built, ‘kreeda gammana’ (sports village), world class training facilities, new leagues are being born and even some classy cricket commentators can now be heard on the airways and seen on television. But then where are the results? With the Commonwealth Games and the Asian games last year only producing two medals, where are these much spoken about sportsmen and sportswomen trained at high performance training centers? Are these talented individuals only groomed to qualify for these events? Or have the youth from the villages been given a false sense of security, by being full time athletes? Who will look after them after their so called ‘career’ is over?
Being actively involved in sports has given me a chance to interact with these athletes, and each time I speak with them, I realize how privileged the average Colombo youth truly are, with access to knowledge rich schools, world class technology and a pleasant social life.
The outstation mindset is ‘come to Colombo,’ they expect their sporting career to kick off from that point onwards. Who can blame them? Administrators are looking for quantity over quality, and it is only one person from the world that could win the 100m Olympic Gold, and not a whole village.
The next time you are around Independence square just observe the number of youth doing laps around the Sports Ministry Ground, almost a 100 athletes could be seen giving their best from dawn to dusk. So just imagine in other sports grounds around the country, how many of these athletes are vying for places at the final of the “National Games”? Let alone South Asian Games. These athletes who are boarded in shabby Colombo hostels, are not employed nor are they a part of any educational institution. The only way out for these athletes is to do a coaching exam and be an athletics coach. This brings us to another issue where Sri Lanka would be producing more ordinary coaches rather than extraordinary athletes.
I applaud the effort that sports administrators are putting into a giving a new life for these local youth, it definitely keeps them away from turning to drug, alcohol or other unsavory acts and thereby becoming a menace to society. However, the task is only half complete. These athletes have to be given a proper education, a fall back option, a proper career option—in the event that their sporting aspirations are not achieved or they are faced with injury before they reach their full potential. Unfortunately for these youth, their family and social circles are not sufficiently made aware of their options to offer them proper career advice or any kind of counselling. Therefore these ill-advised youth are dragged into and used as pawns in grand political schemes, without being given any choice in the matter. It is the duty of the administrators to provide these youth a 360 degree perception and sufficient information on their future in the sport, issues relating to an untimely retirement due to injury and future career prospects.
Great sporting moments could come frequently from this nation, if a proper system is in place. Jeopardizing a hundred careers in search of one champion should not be an option. Administrators should be in the view of quality and not quantity. Even in cricket, only eleven players could play in the team. Sports should be promoted excessively at the primary school level in order to identify the young bloomers, thereafter once the cream of the crop has been picket out and they progress those that would not be successful should be given other options. At the same time for the average sportsman or sportswoman sports should be promoted as a leisure and health activity that will help ease the tension and excess energy of adolescence. Playing professional sports is a beautiful thing, the passion, the energy and the pride one feels to be representing ones country playing a sport that you love is an experience that cannot be compared to anything else, but at the same time it can be cruel as well Because as Jesse Owens said “A lifetime of training is just for ten seconds.”