Sri Lanka athletics dashing to a glorious century | Sunday Observer

Sri Lanka athletics dashing to a glorious century

Susanthika Jayasinghe
Susanthika Jayasinghe

Today, Athletics or Track and Field remains one of the most popular Olympic sports in the world sports arena. From the 100 Metres Dash to the Marathon, from High Jump to Triple Jump and from Shot Putt to Javelin Throw, it contains many of the Olympic Games blue-ribbon events and highest-profile competitors. Athletics is about running faster, jumping higher and throwing further than your competitors. Sri Lanka could look back on a long and glorious tradition in Athletics with a rich haul of 33 elite medals – 11 Gold, 10 Silver and 12 Bronze at the Olympic Games, World Championships, Commonwealth Games and Asian Games. With only the Olympic Games in Tokyo due in 2021, the country is likely to celebrate the 100th Anniversary on January 18, 2022 with these 33 elite medals.

Most medals in 25 years

During the 25 years that started in 1997, Sri Lanka has won a significant number of 16 elite medals. This achievement is mainly due to the great performances of athletes in the calibre of Susanthika Jayasinghe, Damayanthi Darsha, Sugath Thilakarathne, Sriyani Kulawansa and Rohan Pradeep Kumar Fernando who managed to reach the elite podium in individual events. Sri Lanka could not reach the podium during the first 25 years of Athletics from 1922-1946. Then on the second 25 years from 1947-1971, Sri Lanka yielded a respectable haul of 11 medals. The third 25 years from 1972-1996 saw only six medals. The intent of this article is to contribute to the knowledge of enthusiastic stakeholders about the birth, growth and success story of Athletics in Sri Lanka and to recognize the athletes who sprang to fame winning the medals at elite competitions since January 18, 1922, the day the Athletics Association of Sri Lanka (AASL) became affiliated to the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF).

Birth of Athletics

The Olympia, the most beautiful place in Greece, invited athletes to compete peacefully from the 8th century BC to 4th century AD. It is where the Olympic Games were held every four years throughout classical antiquity. The search for harmony, led to competition. It is there that all the athletes found their true position, dreams blossomed and abilities became streams that watered sprouting ambitions and kept them fresh. Victory in the Games proved that renown could be won by the very best at man’s disposal and that success depends on the proper use of man’s capacities - a model of life in which human endeavour was recognised by a wreath of wild olive. That’s a glimpse of how it all began – the Olympism and the Sports.

The concept of Olympism and the content of the Olympic philosophy has always been strongly linked to education. Having visited educational institutions and inspired by sport education in the UK, USA, Germany and Canada, the founder of Modern Olympic Games, Baron Pierre De Coubertin was working towards an educational reform in collaboration with the French government. Thus, Olympism, for him aimed at the harmonious development of the intellectual, moral and physical aspects of a human being through athletics competition. Furthermore, Olympic leaders and dominant Olympic institutions claim that “Olympism is Humanism.”

Gold medals for Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka has won a total of eleven elite Gold medals in Athletics. Duncan White became the first Sri Lankan and the only athlete to secure a gold medal at the Commonwealth Games when he won the gold medal in 400m Hurdles, establishing a new record. The remaining ten gold medals have been won at the Asian Games by Nagalingam Ethirveerasingham in High Jump, SLB Rosa in the 5000m and 10,000m, W. Wimaladasa in 400m, Relay team comprising W. Wimaladasa, Sunil Gunawardene, Kosala Sahabandu and A. Premachandra in the 4x400m, Sugath Thilakarathne in 400m, Damayanthi Darsha in the 200m and 400m and Susanthika Jayasinghe in the 100m.

Medals at Olympic Games

On July 31, 1948, Sri Lanka burst onto the Olympic scene in its maiden Olympic Games, winning a Silver medal. It was from the 400m Hurdles that Duncan White won the medal bettering the Olympic record that existed. With a Sri Lankan on the Olympic podium for the first time and the Sri Lankan flag hoisted in the Olympic stadium for the first time, he certainly etched Sri Lanka’s name in Olympic history. White was the country’s flag bearer as the team captain and with the solitary silver medal, Sri Lanka ranked 28th in the Medals Table. He remained the only South Asian Olympic medallist in athletics for a half century.

On September 28, 2000, Susanthika Jayasinghe won the country’s second Olympic medal in the 200m in Sydney. It was her personal best performance and she became the first South Asian female athlete to step onto the Olympic podium in the 124-year history of the modern Olympic Games. In December 2009, the IOC elevated her bronze to a Silver medal when the gold medalist was stripped of her medals.

Medals at World Championships

The only Sri Lankan to reach the IAAF World Championships podium is Susanthika Jayasinghe. She created history in becoming the first Sri Lankan athlete to win a medal with her breathtaking run in the 200m in 1997 at the sixth IAAF World Championships in Athens, Greece. She succeeded in winning a second medal in her favourite event of the 200m, a decade later in 2007 at the 11th IAAF World Championships in Osaka, Japan.

Medals at Commonwealth Games

The legendary Duncan White became the first Sri Lankan to win an elite gold medal when he won the 400m Hurdles at the Commonwealth Games in Auckland 1950, establishing a new record. He continues to remain the only gold medallist at the Commonwealth Games. In 1998, two of Sri Lanka’s greatest athletes, Sriyani Kulawansa from Kurunegala who is a product of Ibbagamuwa Central College and Sugath Thilakaratne who sprang to fame from Norton Bridge in Nuwara Eliya, secured elite medals after 48 long years.

Medals at Asian Games

The first Sri Lankan Asian Games gold medallist (Tokyo 1958), Nagalingam Ethirveerasingham hailed from Jaffna and was a product of Jaffna Central College. The second Asian Games gold medallist (Bangkok 1966), SLB Rosa is a joint product of the Roman Catholic School, Ampitiya in Kandy and the Army. The third gold medallist, W. Wimaladasa from Nugawela, Dambadeniya in Kurunegala is a joint product of Alawwa Central and the Army. The fourth gold medallist was Sugath Thilakaratne (Bangkok 1998). Incidentally, the last two gold medallists are the two most successful female athletes - Damayanthi Darsha (Bangkok 1998) originally from Ampara and Susanthika Jayasinghe (Busan 2002) from Kegalle.

First Athletic Meets

The British introduced athletics to Sri Lanka and along with it they promoted boating and cricket and thus were identified as ABC clubs. The first Sports Meet in Sri Lanka was held from June 9 to 11, 1868 at the Riffle Esplanade, Kandy and was organized by the Central Province ABC Club. The sports bodies across the country followed the lead given and the Annual Sports Meet tradition was born in the country. Even before, Sports Meets for schools was hosted by Trinity College, Kandy in 1883, Royal College, Colombo in 1892 and St. Joseph’s College, Colombo in 1897. Though several schools had organized their sports meets individually, the first Open Sports Meet was held on May 24, 1906 at the Havelock Race Course on Empire Day and Royal College emerged winners. AE Christoffelsz who won the sprint Double and excelled in the jumps and throws, was largely responsible for the success of Royal College.

Athletics Association of Sri Lanka

In 1986, the Amateur Athletics Association (AAA) was formed when Colonel GR Savage and Wilton Bartlet and other enthusiasts in the European Community and European Clubs joined hands towards the  effort. Initially, the Ceylon AAA catered primarily for the Europeans and was affiliated to the British AAA. The natives were not privileged to participate in these competitions. The Ceylon AAA conducted athletic meets regularly until World War One in 1912 brought sports activities to a grinding halt. Sports enthusiast SP Foenander inspired by the performance of promising young athletes, convened a meeting of all sportsmen interested in schools and clubs to form an association with a view of staging a National Championship.

First National Championships

In 1922, the first National Athletics Championship was held on September 22 at the Race Course, Colombo. This incidentally led to the revival of the then defunct Ceylon AAA. Colonel TY Wright was elected the President of the Ceylon AAA and RW Cammack was elected Secretary. The association became affiliated to the IAAF on January 18, 1922. Thus, the inauguration of the Athletics Association of Sri Lanka as a duly recognized controlling body dates back to 1922. At the first National Championships there had been 12 events for men and GH Karunathilake won the sprint Double while the remaining 10 events were won by 10 individuals. The 50th National Athletics Championship included 16 events for men, nine events and one Relay for women as well as four events and three Relays for boys.

First Public Schools Meet

In 1930, the first Public Schools Meet (under the auspices of the Ceylon AAA) took place from October 3 to 4 at the Police Park, Bambalapitiya. The President of the Ceylon AAA, Sir John Tarbet donated the Challenge Trophy for the Overall Champions. Royal College clinched the Tarbet Trophy and the HS Jeffreson Challenge Trophy Cup for the Relays among 26 schools that participated. HSR Jayewardene won the sprint Double and the 120 yards Hurdles while OLH Pauluz, DK Wilson, SA Dissanayake, MS Ahamed and GA Jayasundara also excelled and contributed to the success of Royal College. Then, Royal College made it three in a row by winning in 1930, 1931 and 1932. At the 25th Public Schools Meet in 1955, Royal won both the Sir John Tarbet and HS  Jeffreson trophies and went on to win both trophies once more for three consecutive years in 1955, 1956 and 1957. Later, Royal College won the Tarbet and Jeffreson trophies at the 50th Golden Jubilee Championships thus creating a laudable hat-trick. During the golden era of athletics at Royal College, both trophies were won for five consecutive years from 1973 to 1977.

First International Competitions

In 1934, the Ceylon AAA participated in the West Asiatic Olympic Games. The performance of our athletes was very creditable with Norman Matthews and CC Dissanayake winning gold medals in the one-mile and Shot Putt respectively. Besides, the Relay team comprising Harry Geddes, K. Duraisingham, DE Colonne and RE Blaze won the gold medal. Three silver medals were won by WW Thambimuthu in the High Jump, K Durasingham in the Long Jump and DE Colonne in the half mile while RE Blaze won the bronze medal in the Javelin Throw.

In 1940, the Ceylon AAA organized the first International Dual Meet with India at Police Park, Bambalapitiya. Ceylon won nine out of 14 events including the Relays. Duncan White won both the 400m and 400m Hurdles while Stanley Livera won the 100m and 200m. The Return Dual was held in 1945 in Bangalore and Ceylon won seven out of 17. Ceylon won the two Relays while RE Kitto won the sprint Double and his time was considered as the fastest in Asia at that time.

The Legends

There are so many athletes who have brought honour and glory to our country in Athletics. Amongst them, I choose the following three for their significant contributions.

AE Christoffelsz: In 1910, at the YMCA Meet, open only to Ceylonese (as Sri Lankans were known), he won six events in all which must constitute an All Time World Record, as no athlete has won six Open events at one Athletics Meet, 100m, High Jump, Hurdles, 400m, Long Jump and Throwing the cricket ball. His achievements in five of the events were the season’s best for Sri Lanka and he established a new Sri Lanka record in Long Jump clearing 21’ ½”. He was one of the most versatile all round sportsmen of an earlier generation and he carried Royal College on his shoulders to win the Planters Cup at the first, second and third Empire Day Games (the equivalent of the Public Schools) in 1907, 1908 and 1909, excelling in the 100m, 400m , Long Jump and High Jump.

CT Vangeyzel: In 1920, as a schoolboy at the Royal College Sports Meet, he established a new Sri Lanka record in the High Jump clearing 5’ 6 ½”.  Our greatest athlete of the early era was deprived participation at the Olympic Games 1920 due to the absence of an Olympic Committee. He was invited to represent Great Britain at the Paris 1924 Olympic Games, but declined. He was National Champion of 1926 and 1927 in the High Jump. In 1926, he became the first Asian to win a British National Athletics title when he won the High Jump with a new record of 6’1” at the British AAA in London. He participated in the 1928 Olympic Games as a member of the Great Britain Olympic Team. He was considered one of the best High Jumpers in the world in his day. He won his ‘Athletics Blue’ at the Cambridge University. His victory in the High Jump at the Oxford-Cambridge vs. Harvard-Yale Athletics Dual with a leap of 6’2 ½” was one of his major achievements.

Summa Navaratne: In the 1940s, he sprang to fame becoming the National Champion of the 100m in 1944, 1946, 1947, 1951 and 1953. ‘Asia’s Fastest Human’ and ‘Fastest Man in Asia’ were the adjectives used to describe him when he broke the 100m record at the India States Olympic Meet in Madras clocking 10.4 secs which bettered the existing Indian and Asian records. At the British Empire Games, Auckland 1950, he took part in the 100m, 200m and 400m. The legendary athletes Duncan White, Basil Henricus and RE Kitto were members of his 4x100m Relay Team. The Royal College Athletics captain in 1942 and 1943 and a Double International in Athletics (1946) and Rugby (1950), he will sail past his 95th birthday on May 21, the oldest living elite athlete in Sri Lanka!

Conclusion

The last elite medal won by the country was at the IAAF World Championships in Osaka 2007 when Susanthika Jayasinghe won a bronze in her pet event of the 200m, signalling the end of her eventful and glorious career in athletics. Since then 12 years have passed and Sri Lanka has failed to reach the podium in any Track and Field event at elite competitions. It is somewhat an alarming situation as athletics remains the most successful sport in the country ever since the country started taking part in elite competitions. It is of vital importance to strive to implement a strategy that could help to achieve sustainable performance and regular success at elite competitions in athletics for Sri Lanka.

(The author possesses a PhD, MPhil and double MSc; his research interests encompasses Olympic Education and Sports as a IOC Scholar; recipient of National and Presidential Accolades for Academic and Sports pursuits)

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