Sporting Legends of Sri Lanka:


10 May, 2020
Susanthika Jayasinghe
Susanthika Jayasinghe

Susanthika Jayasinghe: Sri Lanka’s Sprint Queen, Olympic Games and World Championship medalist embodied courage and dedication as an elite athlete

Susanthika Jayasinghe is undoubtedly Sri Lanka’s Sprint Queen who achieved her greatest victory at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games.

The same year, she was chosen ‘Sri Lankan of the Year’ and became the first female athlete to reach the pinnacle of any sport among all Sri Lankans and the first South Asian Athlete to blaze the Olympic Podium in a sprint event in the 124-year history of the modern Olympic Games.

The honour and glory she brought to Mother Lanka through her determined, tireless and fearless effort, overcoming enormous challenges, will continue to reverberate in the hearts of Sri Lankans.

Tears of Pride and Joy

It’s a medal won during our life span, thus it is most appropriate to sight authenticated words of a professional who savoured the glorious moment at the Sydney Olympic Stadium. Let me quote Dinesh Weerawansa, the country’s elite sports correspondent, from his headline article of the Daily News of September 29, 2000: “Tears of pride and joy welled in the eyes of all Sri Lankans among the 110,000 capacity crowd at the Olympic Stadium as ‘Dazzling Gazelle’ Susanthika Jayasinghe rewrote Sri Lankan sports history wining her country’s first Olympic medal in 52 years at the XXVIIth edition of the Games in Homebush here, today. Incidentally it was the magical sixth lane that guided Jayasinghe to the bronze medal in the women’s 200m in the much looked forward to final worked off under lights today. She ran in lane six right throughout her way to the magical bronze, which is more than a gold. Jayasinghe, thus became the first Sri Lankan woman to win an Olympic medal and only the second in the local sports history. The only other Lankan to win an Olympic medal was Duncan White, a silver in the men’s 400m Hurdles way back in 1948, London. It was one hundredth of a second which separated Jayasinghe from the silver medal as the Lankan lass established a new Sri Lanka National Record timing 22.28 secs.”

Stunning and Spectacular Achievement

Let me now take you back to the start of the 200m at the Olympic Stadium. Date: September 28, 2000. Sri Lankan Time: 1455. The commentator: We have, Beverly Mc Donald of Jamaica in Lane 1, Cathy Freeman of Australia in Lane 2, Pauline Davis-Thompson of the Bahamas in Lane 3, Marion Jones of the USA in Lane 4, Debbie Ferguson of the Bahamas in Lane 5, Susanthika Jayasinghe from Sri Lanka in Lane 6, Australia’s Melinda Gainsford-Taylorand in Lane 7 and Ukraine’s Zhanna Pintusevich in Lane 8.

Marion … the most superior athlete… Cathy Freeman- gold medal in 400 …Susanthika Jayasinghe has been in good form. Jayasinghe ran a great 150 meters and then a very ordinary 50 in the semis. So, Sri Lanka is in the final. Here’s Australian Melinda Gainsford-Taylor. Let’s hope she has a race of her life. It’s her town and it’s her night. She says it’s the biggest day in her athletic life. She has made the final. The question is how quick Jones will be going for her second gold medal and she is going for five medals, the long jump and the relays.

Away they go! Jones gets a terrific start. So did Ferguson. Jones clearly in front of Jayasinghe, Pintusevich and Melinda, coming through is Davis. Jones clearly in front of Jayasinghe and also Davis. Jones 21.84 secs. What do you say about that! That is brilliant running! Davis has come second and Jayasinghe third. Jayasinghe has run a good turn as well. Jones was not cruising she makes running fast look easy. The commentary ends and the roar of the crowd subsides as the winners drape themselves with flags.

Mother’s Strength and Inspiration

“Susanthika was always very mischievous, did everything she wanted. If she was not allowed to do something, she would find a way to do it! She was always very determined. She always told me everything and I advised her. During her troubled period, my only advice to her was to win her events. Win, I told her: and, she did.” And, is she her golden girl? “I have four girls and a boy. They are all special to me. I have no favourite. But Susanthika is the most playful, as she is the youngest,”shared Sumadhu Weerawarne in LMD Magazine of December 2000 that declared Susanthika Jayasinghe – Sri Lankan of the Year for 2000. Susanthika’s determination is not acquired. It is genetic, it is something that she has inherited from her mother. The creases on her mother’s face, are akin to furrows traced on the face of a rock by the unrelenting elements. The underlying strength is unmistakable.

Susanthika reminisced: “Village life is very different from the city life. We used to run around, wild and free. When it rained, we would play in the streams. I did what I wanted, generally. No one knows what ambition is when they are young. I just ate when I was hungry, slept when I was tired and loved beautiful clothes and toys – more so, because they were scarce. Life was just that. Living was a good enough dream at that stage. It was as I grew older that the dreams took form. I only hoped to join the Sri Lanka Army. This was so that I could take part in sports. And I did just that for two years. I saw no more than this, even in my most ambitious dreams.”

“I had to find money on my own. So, I sold the duty-free vehicle permit given to me when I won the silver medal at the World Championship in 1997. I had no sponsorship. In 1997, when Sports Ministry officials colluded to trump up doping chargers against me, it seemed that my career had ended. I was desperate. I could not participate in the South Asian Games in 1998. I had not trained for a long time. But, I picked up the pieces. Daham Wimalasena was one who helped me greatly. He advised me and helped me to go to the US. I was so afraid that I didn’t want anyone to know of my plans. I booked my ticket in anonymity. Some questions were raised at the airport, but they let me go. From that point onwards, I concentrated on my sport. I trained under Tony Campbell, who was both my coach and manager. I took part in Grand Prix events, to raise the necessary funds,” Susanthika concluded.

Birth and Growth

In the backwoods of Uduwaka, Warakapola in the Kegalle district, Manannalage Jayasinghe and Menikpurage Babynona were blessed with a child on December 17, 1975, a daughter whom they named Susanthika. The parents were not able to do much, being hard put to make ends meet. On one day, the family sustenance would be satisfied through the daily wages earned by either spouse tapping rubber. On another day, it would be by breaking rocks in the quarry. In other words she had a tough beginning in life. The parents were hard pressed even to buy milk powder, so she was breast-fed for well-nigh five years. Both parents shared similar sentiments.

She studied at the village school, Athnawela Maha Vidyalaya in Warakapola, up to her Ordinary Level and from an early age she displayed better aptitude on the field, than in the classroom. Winning sprint events at school and at district levels, sans expert coaching, sans the required diet and sans proper equipment, she caught the attention of the Sports Officer at Warakapola, Dhammika Wanigasinghe, who spotted and guided her on the correct path. He helped her to take the first steps in her career. Then, she was just a village lass. And now, her winged feet have brought her far.

Pathway to Glory

Susanthika described her entry to athletics: “I was always a good runner. My events in school were 50m and 75m. In 1984, I won the district championship, and later, I won club events. It was in 1991, that I first came to Colombo. I was then 15. On my first tour as a junior athlete, I ran with borrowed spikes. I was just a kid from the village, with a burning desire to win, but with little means.” At 17, she celebrated her entry to the international arena winning the bronze medal in the 200m at the SAF Games in Dhaka 1993.

At 18, she bagged a gold in the 200m and a silver in the 100m at the Asian Junior Championships in Jakarta 1994. At the Asian Games in Hiroshima in 1994, she won a silver medal in the 200m with a time of 23.57 secs. At 19, she comfortably secured gold medals in both the 100m and 200m at the SAF Games in 1995. Also, at the Asian Championships in Jakarta in 1995 she won a gold in the 200m and a silver in the 100m. She took part in the Australian Open Meet in 1995, winning a silver in the 100m and the Taipei Open winning a silver in the 100m. At 20, she represented the country at her maiden Olympic Games in the 100m but she couldn’t go past the first round in the 100m at Atlanta in 1996.

At 21, winning the silver medal in the 200m clocking 22.39 secs at the IAAF World Championships in Athens in 1997 was one big triumph of her career. Amid setbacks at home, she surreptitiously left the country for the USA and fortuitously came under the wing of renowned American coach Tony Campbell. Campbell once said: “I have never come across such a dedicated and courageous person like Susanthika Jayasinghe in my life.” In the run up to the Olympics medal she took part in the IAAF Grand Prix Final in Munich in 1999. After these successes, she set her eyes on a more glamorous achievement, a medal at the Olympics.

Disappointment at Commonwealth Games

The biggest disappointment in the career of Susanthika Jayasinghe was at the Manchester 2002 Commonwealth Games. The entire country expected her to win a gold medal in the 200m. She did extremely well to advance to the Final of the 100m. She achieved her season’s best of 11.08 secs, yet she missed the bronze medal by a mere 0.01 secs. Her loving parents were in Manchester to see her performance and she was determined to win a medal.

She entered the arena to win a gold in her pet event of the 200m. She ran in Heat 4 of Round 1 in the Women’s 200m on July 28, 2002 at 1924 in London. She recorded the fastest time of 22.61 secs among all athletes. The commentator in fact announced that she ran a very fast race. After nearly eight minutes the commentator disclosed that Susanthika had been disqualified. I rushed to the Technical Information Centre (TIC) and collected the official results and found that she had been disqualified under IAAF Rule 163.3. As I watched the race and I didn’t observe any obstruction of other athletes or crossing of lanes by her, I was not convinced at all with the decision. I tendered my protest against the decision without any hesitation in the best interests of the athlete and the country.

I was the Team Manager of the Sri Lanka contingent at the Manchester 2002 Commonwealth Games. Such a decision based on judgement of just one Track Official could be destructive to athletes. It remains a misery as I am unable to come to an agreement on the disqualification. Perhaps, in a whisker, Susanthika as an athlete and Sri Lanka as a country was deprived of the Gold Medal of the 200 meters by an ‘Error of Omission’. Yet, you respect the decision in the name of sport.

I lodged an appeal as per the provisions of the IAAF Rule 146 and in terms of 3.6 of the Competition Management. Then, I met the shattered athlete at the warm down track and having consoled her, proceeded back to TIC. I was provided with a copy of the ‘Details of Infringement’ that led to the disqualification. Still, I was not convinced. The Jury of Appeal sat at 2130. I anxiously waited. The decision of the Jury of Appeal was given in writing at 2345. It said: “Having consulted the Track Officials and viewed all available video evidence, the Jury upholds the decision of the Officials. The protest is therefore rejected.”

Still not convinced, I requested in writing the Jury of Appeal to consider the video coverage in fairness to the athlete, pointing out that neither the said infringement nor the slow motion of the event was shown on the wide screen. I stressed that in other instances such incidents were repeatedly highlighted on the wide screen. Finally, a copyright VHS copy as the video evidence was provided to my dismay. At that moment of horror, Susanthika Jayasinghe showed her class and values – Respect, Excellence and Friendship of a true Olympian, to the admiration of all athletes from 72 nations in the Athletes’ Village. Her parents showed what they are made of by continuing to encourage the Sri Lankan athletes and admiring feats of other athletes.

Olympic Games Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008

In the following month, August 2002, the Asian Athletics Championships took place in Colombo and Susanthika bounced back and carried the hopes and dreams of a whole nation winning gold medals in both the 100m and 200m. In October 2002, she won the gold medal in the 100m at the Busan 2002 Asian Games clocking 11.15 secs. In 2002, at the IAAF World Cup in Madrid she took part in both the 100m and 200m. Thereafter, she qualified to take part at Olympic Games and I was the Team Manager of Athens 2004. She reported that she was suffering from an injury and I brought the matter to the notice of the Secretary and President of the National Olympic Committee and the Secretary and Minister of Sports immediately. Within days, her critics commented that she was “over the hill” and her days of glory were behind. Yet, the authorities decided to permit her to serve as the Team Captain at the Olympic Games.

She again trained under Tony Campbell who coached her before the 2000 Olympics. Despite all these dramas, she won a silver medal in the 100m clocking 11.34 secs at the Doha 2006 Asian Games. In 2007, she won a bronze medal in the 200m clocking 22.63 at the IAAF World Championships in Osaka, 10 years after her first IAAF World Championship medal. She also comfortably won both the 100m and 200m at the Asian Championships in Amman 2007. This silenced her critics and opponents and gave every sports loving Sri Lankan a hope for a medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. She fulfilled entry qualification standard and reached Beijing 2008 Olympic Games. She did well to enter the semi-finals of the 200m but failed to qualify for the final. The veteran sprint queen shared that Beijing would be her final Olympic Games and she announced her retirement from athletics in 2009.


At 24, Susanthika Jayasinghe accounted for the Olympic Bronze Medal. Widely recognized as Sri Lanka’s most successful sportswoman ever produced, she journeyed from the growing fields of Warakapola to the glistering tracks of Sydney. At the Olympic Stadium, she ran her Personal Best 200m and raised the Sri Lanka flag. It was a final that saw all competitors achieving their season’s best, a classic example of how the elite athletes peak up to a dream event.

The story of Susanthika will surely inspire generations of athletes. Her medal represented not only the talent of an athlete, but also the courage, determination and dedication of a lone village lass from impoverished environments – one who had to overcome insurmountable settings of critics. She proved to be a champion of the downtrodden and as soon as the IOC formally announced her elevation in 2007, President Mahinda Rajapaksa honoured her with the Olympic Silver Medal at a Special Reception.

During the World Youth Games in 2003, the IAAF President introduced legends Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Michael Johnson and Edwin Moses- who experienced the big picture to inspire, to grow in sport, recognize what you do well, encourage growth and help you climb closer to your goals, through ‘Youth Clinics’. They spent time,‘story-telling’ with young athletes including Usain Bolt– then just 16.

Can Sri Lanka have a better ‘Sports Role Model’ or ‘Story-teller’ than Susanthika Jayasinghe, backed by her phenomenal journey to the Olympic Podium?

(The author possesses a PhD, MPhil and double MSc; his research interests encompasses Olympic Education and Sports as an IOC Scholar; recipient of National and Presidential Accolades for Academic and Sports pursuits; his byline appears in journals and publications regularly since 1988)