Saba: Sri Lanka’s sporting wonder | Sunday Observer

Saba: Sri Lanka’s sporting wonder

Mahesh Sabaratnam
Mahesh Sabaratnam

He never did any sport at his obscure school but became a marvel in rugby, weight lifting and boxing :

There have been several sportsmen who represented Sri Lanka in more than one sport but the name of ‘Mahesh’ Sabaratnam who passed away in Toronto, Canada on November 30, 2014 at the age of 72 stands out as unique.

“Saba” as he was popularly known represented Sri Lanka in rugby, boxing and weightlifting. It was an incredible feat of living the dream of becoming a triple International for Sri Lanka. He never did any sport at school and started his education at Thakshila Vidyalaya, a school which is housed along Katugastota Road, opposite Vidyartha College and is one of the oldest schools in Kandy.

Sabaratnam belongs to a rare breed that had represented the country in three sports. Another sportsman from Kandy who represented the country in three sports was Army man Col. CS Fernando who represented the country in soccer, rugby and athletics.

The sportsman in Sabaratnam was brought out when he joined Kandy Lake Club that was owned by the late EW Balasuriya. It was Kandy Lake Club’s first rugby captain Niyas Majeed who spotted Saba and encouraged him to take to weightlifting as he had an impressive physique and introduced him to SA Wijewickrema (Jnr) who was iron sports coach at that time. To become a boxer he had the helping hand given by Old Sylvestrians Boxing Club in local meets. But it was really at the iron sport of weightlifting which he really shone at first.

In the middleweight class, he was unbeaten from 1963 to 1967 and broke records at the Novices meets, Intermediate meets and the Junior and Senior Nationals. At that time the Kandy YMCA was housed on a municipal property around the Kandy Lake.

Sabaratnam set up several new records. It was a case of setting up a new record and breaking it at the next meet. At that time weightlifting had three segments, Press, Snatch and the Clean and Jerk and the total. He held all four national records for his body weight category.

Balasuriya gave him employment at the Club and it was his first job and due to some good coaching coming from people like Sydney Ratwatte and Maurice Perera at Kandy Lake Club in the early 1960s, Sabaratnam took to rugby seriously and played as a wing three quarter for Kandy Lake Club in the B division. He was virtually unstoppable in his runs and was also a fine tackler.

After that Kandy Lake Club came out as Kandy RFC for professional reasons and later Sabaratnam was invited by CR and FC that had a crack back division in 1973. The halves combination was made up of Tikri Marambe and Irwin Howie, Jagath Fernando and Didacus de Almeida the centres and on the wings were skipper Reginald Bartholumeusz and the muscular Mahes Sabaratnam making up pretty much a Sri Lanka line.

Some of his appearances for the country were against Bosuns, Blackheath, Paris University, Emu RFC from Australia, London Welsh and also in the then All India Rugby Tournament.

He played for the Sri Lanka team in the 1974 Rugby Asiad in Colombo in which Sri Lanka ended runners up to Japan who won 44-6 in front of a large crowd despite heavy rain.

The Sri Lanka team was led by Indrajith Coomaraswamy who had players like Hadji Omar, Alphonso Rodrigo, Jeyer Rodriguesz, Lanil Tennakoon, Maiya Gunasekara, Jeffrey Yu, Anton Benedict, Hanzil Samad, Hafi Abdeen, Jeffrey de Jong, Didacus de Almeida, Omar Sherif, Mahesh Sabaratnam, Charles Wijewardena, Nimal Malagamuwa, Bryan Baptist, MF Fernando, Clifford Elhart, Shafi Jainudeen and GB Gunadasa. As a weight lifter Sabaratnam represented the country at the World Games in 1966 as well as the Asian Games. He won his weight class at the National Weightlifting Championships for 10 successive years and was selected as the best lifter for four years.

He boxed for Kandy YMCA and later represented Sri Lanka in the middleweight class and migrated to Canada 15 years ago.

In boxing he was unbeaten and won most of his bouts by knocking out his opponents. Apart from this he had won his weight class at the Layton Cup, Clifford Cup and the Nationals. He was also a body builder and was adjudged ‘Mr Kandy YMCA’ at a local physical culture contest.

When he visited Sri Lanka he met up with this writer and was reminiscent of an article by ME Marikar which gave him plenty of inspiration.

He revealed that his real name was Muttiah and not Mahesh which he said was a nickname given to him by the media and ME Marikar, a veteran journalist at the time.