12 July, 2020
Ethirweerasingam on the podium
Ethirweerasingam on the podium

Dr. Nagalingam Ethirveerasingam: First Sri Lankan to establish an Asian Games record, first Sri Lankan to win an Elite Gold Medal in Jumping Events and first Sri Lankan Elite Athlete to achieve a Doctoral Degree

The legendary Dr. Nagalingam Ethirveerasingam, PhD succeeded in striking the right balance in Sports and Academics to achieve a unique Double, earn a doctoral degree in academics and reach the elite podium in athletics. He strode to the High Jump bar and scaled the bar with nonchalant ease to become one of the All Time Greats of Sri Lanka. He represented the country at successive Olympic Games - Helsinki 1952 and Melbourne 1956. Besides, he was in the Sri Lankan contingent for three successive Asian Games - Manila 1954, Tokyo 1958 and Djakarta 1962. In addition, he took part in the Cardiff 1958 edition of the Commonwealth Games. His name is etched in gold in the annals of sports as the first Sri Lankan to win a gold medal at the Asian Games.

Dream Olympic Games of Helsinki 1952

Ethir reminisced: “I was not different from any kid who was playing as students. I was fond of running, jumping and even vaulting. In 1948, I was Under 13 champion in high jump. It was the Olympic year and we were following Olympic Games, every event on the following day’s newspapers. I remember the London 1948 Olympics vividly and the Olympics film was shown at the Regal theatre in Jaffna. Every school booked a day at the cinema and the principal, Rev. CA Smith accompanied.

“We eagerly watched how Duncan White won Sri Lanka’s first medal. The Olympic film opened my mind. I said that I wanted to be part of the Olympic Games. However, I did not tell anyone, because I would have been teased to death. I said to myself that someday, I would go to the Olympic Games. Then you forget but remains in your subconscious.”

Ethir as a 17-year schoolboy from Jaffna Central was chosen for Sri Lanka’s Olympic Team for Helsinki 1952. As he assesses now, it would have been his height and the quest for knowledge at that tender age which impressed the selectors. After nearly seven decades, he remains the only athlete from Jaffna to represent the country at the Asian, Commonwealth and Olympic Games. As a Professor with a wealth of experience in the athletics arena and university lecture halls, he described it, “athletes had been lagging behind, because they had not been exposed. In athletics, unlike the brain, there is a time factor. It takes time. To shorten it, facilities must be provided to everyone. Why has Jaffna not produced anyone to take part in the Asian Games since I went? Even with all the facilities, it is limited to certain people with physical and emotional quality.”

He took part at the Melbourne 1956 Olympic Games as the only athlete from the country. It was barely two months after he left the country for studies in the US and arrived directly in Australia. He was unfortunate not to make it to the Rome 1960 Olympic Games despite achieving the qualifying standard of 2.03m. The National Olympic Committee of Sri Lanka had refused to accept his feat insisting that there were better athletes.

Sri Lanka record holder for 36 years

At just 19, he succeeded in clearing the record breaking height of 1.95m along with the gold, silver, and bronze medal winners at the Manila 1954 Asian Games, but was unfortunately fourth as he had more failures than other athletes. Four years later, at the Tokyo 1958 Asian Games, Ethir brought honour and glory to Sri Lanka, winning the gold medal in the High Jump with a new Asian Games record of 2.03m, thus becoming the first Sri Lankan to win a gold medal and establish a record at the Asian Games. His success continued and at the Djakarta 1962 Asian Games he clinched a silver medal.

As a Professor, he served at universities in Sierra Leone, Papua New Guinea, Nigeria and Sri Lanka. He also worked for UNESCO for five years. Ethir, born on August 24, 1934 in Ilavalai in Jaffna, was a brilliant student at Jaffna Central College, where apart from his accomplishments in athletics, he was a cricketer. His unique athletic achievements shadowed his prowess in cricket. In later years while lecturing in Sierra Leone, he captained the university cricket team. In 1973, he was appointed vice captain of the national team that played against Gambia.

Ethir dominated the local scene from 1951 to 1962. He won his pet event at the National Athletic Championships in 1951, 1953, 1954, 1955, 1961 and 1962. He held the Sri Lanka record in High Jump for 36 long years from 1953 to 1989. He conquered it with a leap of 1.93m as a student of Jaffna Central College on September 6, 1953. Then, still at Jaffna Central, he improved the National Record to 1.95m on September 11, 1955.

Later, on October 29, 1955, he further improved the National Record to 1.97m as an HSC Upper 6th student of St. Joseph’s College, Colombo. Once more for the fourth time he sailed over 1.99m on August 5, 1962 representing the renowned Ceylonese Track and Field Club and that record stood for 27 long years. On a visit to Jaffna, the then Rector of St. Joseph’s College, Rev. Fr. Peter Pillai heard about Ethir’s brilliance in both sports and studies invited him to join St. Joseph’s College where his athletic prowess blossomed since 1955 with better facilities for training.

Ethir’s stories on water rides and sailing

The first tale shared with me by Ethir was very interesting. He started with a big smile, knowing well that I was a Naval Officer. “When I was a kid, I didn’t like the sea. Whenever we went to Nainativu or any other island in the North, I was so afraid and I used to go down the boat and hide my head to avoid seeing the waves. When I was selected for the Olympics, it did not strike me that the journey is by sea. My grandmother was explaining to me how the ships roll in high seas. I was frightened but I explained to her that the contingent would be sailing on a big ship. However, after the first day on board, I wanted to return home.”

“The very first morning, I just couldn’t walk, I was sea sick. Team captain, Leslie Handunge had sea-going experience having sailed to the London 1948 Olympic Games. He said, you have to get your sea legs. I did not know what he was talking about. He used to drag me around the ship, to walk. I was vomiting. I was feeling so bad; I told the manager that I want to go back. They asked me how and I said by train. They reminded me of the grueling boat trip from the one end of India to Talaimannar which I had to do alone, if I was to go back.” Finally, it was a unique experience for the 17-year prodigy to represent the country among the best in the world.

Transformation Process of High Jump

Ethir was perhaps the foremost among those who witnessed the evolution of the high jumping technique at the highest echelons. He switched from Scissors to the Western Roll and then to Straddle, as he grew up as an elite high jumper. He reminisced: “Up to 1949, I did the Scissors. I shifted to the Western Roll after reading books. In 1955, I switched to the Straddle. The Western Roll was easier. I almost perfected it as much as anybody in the world did, at that time. Maybe, I should have stuck to that. The Straddle was not meant for sand and it was a mistake I made. I should have waited until the invention of soft landing means, to try that.”

His pre-Olympic training was at Nalanda College in Colombo, the ‘only place where there was a saw dust pit’ to train. Ethir shared: “It was in 1964, we first used mattresses in the US. The style of the world champion was similar to mine but he did it perfectly. They were the mattresses used on beds, kept one on top of the other. From then on, people started using mattresses, with plastic covering and it led to the ‘Fosbury Flop.’

PE Rajendra, a teacher at Jaffna Central, first coached Ethir. Then, Duncan White and Anthony Abeysinghe coached him. He shared: “Abeysinghe was up to date with the latest techniques, excellent in all aspects and could be ranked among the world’s best. In 1955, Brayton Wilson Norton from California coached me and he influenced me to persevere with university education in the US. I received my Bachelor’s degree from the University of California and my Doctoral degree from the Cornell University in New York.”

Talent spotting and talent development

A National Trial was taking place in 2001 at the Torrington Square in Colombo and the President of the Athletics Association of Sri Lanka (AASL) introduced the author to Dr. Ethirweerasingam minutes before the commencement of the men’s High Jump. After a very brief conversation, we became friendly and watched the event as it progressed. Then, he spotted one athlete and my task was to serve as the translator. The fruitful discussion continued and Ethir disclosed his ardent desire to groom the young athlete. That was the beginning of the glorious career of the current Sri Lanka record holder in High Jump, Manjula Kumara Wijesekera.

Of this meeting, Ethir wrote to me in 2004: “My memory is like a movie fortunately. I wish the computer technology is advanced enough to record it as I think! Yes, I remember, you were very patient with a cranky old man, precise and logical in explaining to me the process, I thought you were special. You have wonderful qualities possessed by my former Chiefs of Missions – WHD Perera, Julian Grero, Duncan White, SP Ardent and Dr. HSR Gunawardena. I am sure you can help to improve athletics at a professional level. It is the human factor that is complex.”

Inspirational and Motivational Leadership

At 85, Ethir lives in the United States with his wife Juliet, enjoying his pastime of sailing his remote controlled boat once a week in the nearby park in Los Angeles, bit of gardening, a lot of reading and a little writing. He played a pivotal role towards Susanthika Jayasinghe’s trail to the Olympic medal. Then, he became a guiding light to Manjula as his ‘Foster Father’, guiding him to reach greater heights, represent the country at the Olympic Games Athens 2004, establish a new Sri Lanka record of 2.27m in 2005, win successive gold medals at Incheon 2005 and the Guangzhou 2009 editions of the Asian Championships and to continue his elite career till 2018.

Currently, Manjula is pursuing his Master’s degree in Sports Administration in Australia. I was privileged to serve as his Manager at the Athens 2004 Olympics and facilitate his entry to the University of Southern California a few months later as the Secretary General of the AASL. I treasured so much how Ethir followed Manjula’s jumps on the scorecard watching the Athens Olympics ‘jump by jump’ from his Los Angeles residence on NBC TV. At 20, Manjula’s creditable performance of 2.20m ranked him 20th in the world, first in Asia and second in the Commonwealth though fourth youngest among 41 in the Entry List. I still have in my collection his inspiring emails to me from Los Angeles to the Olympic Village of Athens 2004.

Ethir, a fatherly figure inspired me tremendously to share his pathway as an Athlete and Academic and emulate him. His ardent wish reverberated in my mind whenever I took part in Athletes’ Parades. After two Olympic cycles, in 2012, the Olympic Games was taking place in London and the highest academic degree programme at General Sir John Kotelawela Defence University commenced and same paved the way for me to achieve the first doctoral degree in Sports Science in Sri Lanka. Although Ethir reached great heights, he never lost his simplicity and continue to maintain a good rapport with his wide spectrum of athletes, students and friends.

Ethir’s contribution to Doctoral Research

One of the greatest high jumpers of all time, Dr. Ethir shared his life lessons in athletics with passion by way of a ‘qualitative interview’ making a unique contribution to my doctoral degree and I would like to share excerpts of the same for the stakeholders to ponder on.

Q: Is there an integrated pathway available for athletes from participant to elite competitor level?

A: The MoS conduct competitions at the divisional, district, provincial and national levels, and the schools organize at school, zonal, district, provincial and national levels. When an athlete attains the standard of ‘elite’, there are not enough competitions in number or in terms of competition. They are not sent to compete at elite level. The training facilities based around Colombo and obtaining permission to practice is an arduous bureaucratic process.

Q: Is there a solid foundation and participation for Athletics at primary and secondary level in our schools?

A: Participation at schools is encouraging but a large number is left out and only those who came first or second in each event move to the next levels up to the National school meet. In effect, it is like a knockout tournament. One chance and you are out until next year. The school and National examination systems are competitive. The GCE O/L at 16/17 years push out 70% of the students out of the education and sports systems. The GCE A/L at 18/19 years selects students who obtain high marks and 60% are denied tertiary education and sports. As a result, parents send children to tuition for 20 to 25 hours per week. This process deprives sports practicing and participation. The talents available for coaching during school years and after that are limited.

Q: Is proper foundation available for producing national level athletes across Sri Lanka? Is there a gap to be bridged between the schools and clubs competitions?

A: The coaches are not literate in English and are not up to date with techniques and performance. Very few are computer savvy. Synthetic track only two in Colombo. Strength training also lacking and not readily available to potential national athletes. The school coaches are often PE teachers. They lack technical knowledge of events and training methods though qualified to teach students. The coaches at club level, when they are Sports Officers or MoS Coaches, they have some technical expertise but not to coach potential national athletes.

Q: Is the TID system in Sri Lanka sustainable to achieve international success?

A: There are no formal valid or reliable TID system or knowledge and skills in Sri Lanka. There are ad hoc TID tests and observation based on performance results but no systematic procedures.

Q: How could the existing training facilities and equipment be enhanced?

A: Select a ground in each Division that is central to the schools, provide synthetic run up and take off for jumps, three 50m lanes for sprints, a weight training facility, equipment and materials, shower and changing rooms, a qualified sports medicine person for two hours a day, a manager for the training center and grounds staff. Then, appoint coaches for Jumps, Throws, Sprints and Middle distances six days a week. Appoint a Board of sports enthusiasts from the community to operate.

Q: Do the elite athletes take part in the most important international competitions on a regular basis?

A: The athletes are sent for competitions but are rare. The elite athletes have three or four local competitions where there is no challenge. Elite athletes should have a competition every weekend during the season totaling to at least 25 and elite athletes need to be exposed to the US and Europe. The selection and approval process are frustrating to elite athletes.

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