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Encouraging young sports talents for global achievements

Go to a so-called elementary school in Colombo and you will see a swimming pool, an indoor sports arena, a playground with an athletics track and cricket nets and countless other sports facilities. Thus, the children attending these schools have all the sporting (and educational) facilities to excel at national and even international level.

This was illustrated by the slogan “Colambata Kiri Apita Kekiri” often heard during the 1988-89 youth uprising. Although this literally means “milk for Colombo and cucumber for villages”, the underlying meaning is much deeper. It showed the great gulf between town and village when it comes to facilities for students and young people.

Children and young people in rural areas find it difficult to compete with their peers in the cities in the sports arena. First, their families are likely to be impoverished and in some cases even unable to afford three decent meals a day. Boys and girls who exercise need a protein-rich diet of chicken, fish and eggs, but their parents often can’t afford these now-luxury items, with a kilo of fish or chicken costing well over Rs. 1,300 and even a modest egg costs an astronomical Rs. 60.

Added to this is the lack of facilities, places and equipment for training. Not many families can afford to buy running shoes, for example, which cost well over Rs. 40,000 a pair. Everything else from cricket bats to badminton bats is very expensive. Most rural schools have little or no training facilities for any type of sport. Sometimes children have to travel 30-40 km to the nearest town to reach indoor or outdoor sports facilities, especially swimming pools and good athletics tracks. Rural schools also lack teachers who are familiar with sports. Sometimes these children are given a period of physical training (PT) in which they are only exposed to sports aside from the impromptu games they play at recess or after school.

bring honor and glory

Despite all these shortcomings and difficulties, there have been athletes from rural areas who have reached the international stage and brought honor and glory to Mother Lanka. Susanthika Jayasinghe is a prime example. Jayasinghe, who won the silver medal at the 2000 Sydney Olympics (Sri Lanka’s second Olympic champion after Duncan White), came from a rural area and despite many difficulties reached the summit. Sriyani Kulawansa also has a similar story to tell.

Her great performances at international level inspired a whole new generation of young people in rural and urban areas of Sri Lanka to take up various sports at school and national level. They showed that it is possible for young people from rural areas to make their way to the international level with the right amount of conviction, commitment and courage, even in material poverty.

Nethmi Ahinsa was not even born when Jayasinghe delivered her phenomenal performance in Sydney, but today she is a household name across Sri Lanka. Ahinsa won a bronze medal in the women’s 57 kg freestyle wrestling event at the 2022 Commonwealth Games (CWG) in Birmingham. The 18-year-old successfully defeated Australian Irene Symeonidis through technical superiority in the bronze medal match and went down in history as the first Sri Lankan to win a medal in wrestling at the Commonwealth Games.

Speaking to the media on her return to the island, Ahinsa said she was glad she could win a medal and gain glory for Sri Lanka given the current situation in the country, adding that she expected to make up for any weaknesses that the she failed to win the gold medal while preparing to qualify for the Paris Olympics (2024).

Ahinsa’s achievement is phenomenal given that she chose an unconventional sport for a schoolgirl and because she comes from an underprivileged family that does not have the financial means to provide her with a lavish diet and exercise equipment and facilities. However, with great difficulty, they provided her with everything she needed to the greatest extent possible. She also had the services of a dedicated coach. Unlike some of her compatriots who pulled off the disappearance trick in England, she returned to Sri Lanka to further her career and bring glory to Sri Lanka.

It was more or less similar for the other Sri Lankans who bagged medals at the CWG 2022. 64 Discus Throw) also had to endure many trials and tribulations on their way to success. Sri Lanka has minimal facilities even for able-bodied athletes, so to succeed at this level in a Paralympic event is quite an achievement.

hardships

Even Italy-based Yupun Abeykoon, who won bronze in the 100m sprint at the CWG 2022, had complained that he had received very little support from the Lankan authorities. It was only later that Sri Lanka Cricket and several other organizations came forward to sponsor him as he is a real contender for the next Olympics.

Aside from the CWG, the young athletes representing Sri Lanka at the U20 Athletics World Championships in Cali, Colombia (which was held almost simultaneously with the CWG) suffered so many difficulties due to bureaucratic bungling and other factors beyond their control. At least one athlete had to attend her event just an hour after landing in Cali after a 36-hour flight (including transit times) because Sri Lankan officials failed to issue her ticket on time.

young talent

In light of these events, it is important that sport and education authorities unite to support young sporting talent from schools, universities and other educational institutions. There must be hundreds of individuals like Nethmi in the Lanka school system whose talents lie dormant. We need a proper sports plan for all schools in the country, where talent scouts from different sports go in search of hidden sports stars. There used to be a plan to build fully equipped sports centers in each province so that athletes could train and hold camps in each province. Para-athletes should have access to all of these facilities and should be given the same level of recognition as their able-bodied counterparts.

But one center per province may not be enough if we want to reach international level in a number of sports. It is better if this can be done district by district, although the initial cost will be high. In some cases, like swimming pools, the government cannot be expected to build 25 Olympic swimming pools, but at least two or three selected schools/universities in each province should get this facility.

Like Nethmi, girls (and boys too) need to be encouraged to take up unconventional or ‘difficult’ sports. Sports such as wrestling, gymnastics, weightlifting or swimming, which inevitably require athletic apparel that reveals certain body parts, can also be culturally sensitive in rural areas, particularly among women.

Religious or cultural factors can also discourage girls from certain communities from participating in team or individual sports. These taboos must also be broken in order to broaden the talent base for the sport.

“Captain Cool”

The authorities must also make sports equipment available to all sports and universities alike. In fact, some sports like judo and karate don’t even require very expensive equipment. More sporting events need to be held nationally to identify potential medalists from schools, universities, police and security forces, and even private organizations.

As in the case of Yupun, more organizations from both the public and private sectors need to come forward to help our promising young athletes, both physically and disabled. More training camps need to be conducted for them and adequate nutrition ensured. Our primarily rice-based diet (all three meals) isn’t exactly conducive to high-performance sport.

Authorities should also pay attention to team sports, the largest of which in Sri Lanka is cricket. This is the only sport in which we have been world champions (Lahore 1996) and by a happy coincidence the man who led Sri Lanka to victory on March 17th this year now heads the Sri Lanka Sports Council. We can expect a lot from “Captain Cool” Arjuna Ranatunga in this new role as he has already pledged to clean up corruption and other irregularities in the country’s sports administration. He needs to eliminate political interference in the administration of the sport and even team selection in some sports. Sports Minister Roshan Ranasinghe has given his full support for these plans.

Observer-Mobitel School Cricket Player of the Year

Speaking of cricket, it is heartening to note that rural girls have embraced cricket in a big way and with their zealous participation could one day equal the men’s achievement of 1996. This newspaper was the first to recognize and reward the achievements of women cricketers in both rural and urban areas through the Observer-Mobile School Cricket of the Year Contest. Hopefully this has inspired girls across the island to take up cricket and other team sports (despite the costs involved, with the help of sponsors).

Netball is an all-girls sport that we can develop further as we have already reached Asian and international levels in this sport. Our global standing in football is very bad, but more rural students should be encouraged to get involved. We should try to move up at least 10 more places in football in the FIFA rankings within the next 10-15 years, for which a talent pool needs to be identified now. Volleyball, basketball and hockey are sports that can easily be expanded island-wide. In addition, rugby authorities should work to shed the sport-related elite tag, played mostly by schools and clubs in Colombo and Kandy, and introduce rural schools.

Sheer unpredictability

Then there are sports like cycling, tennis, badminton and table tennis, which can be practiced individually or in small teams. With the right coaching, fitness program and nutritional control for a cycling team, we may one day even be able to send a team to the Tour de France. Sri Lanka has done reasonably well at the Davis Cup tennis tournament so far, but more could be done to develop the sport here. And even though golf is a horrendously expensive (and a bit incomprehensible to me) sport, who knows if there’s a Tiger Woods waiting in Sri Lanka?

Cricket is known for its sheer unpredictability, but really all sports are about phasing. Winning, let alone taking part in, an international sporting event is no easy feat and some of our youngsters, against all odds, have managed to do just that. They should be further promoted as many of them have long careers ahead of them. All who can support them in any capacity should not shirk this national duty.

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