Mahinda Rajapaksa: sportsman and past President of Athletics | Sunday Observer

Mahinda Rajapaksa: sportsman and past President of Athletics

13 September, 2020
The Mahinda Rajapaksa International Cricket  Stadium in Hambantota
The Mahinda Rajapaksa International Cricket Stadium in Hambantota

Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa is a very unique leader, a politician and a gentleman whose endearing humane qualities and values are adored by Sri Lankans from all walks of life. His multi-faceted personality could be traced to him being a sportsman. His association with sportsmen, sportswomen and sports administrators has not diminished despite being the Prime Minister of the country as well as the President.

His commitment to athletics in particular came as a beacon of light. A former Public Schools athlete, he left an indelible mark in the sport when he became President of the Athletic Association of Sri Lanka (AASL).

A past President of the Elle Federation, his interest in athletics and rugby is valued. The sport of rugby is closer to his heart as all three of his sons played.

When the head of the world athletics body (IAAF) Lamine Diack made a three-day official visit to Sri Lanka, the first such official to honour us, he commended the positive role played by then President Mahinda Rajapaksa to promote sports, particularly athletics.

Diack discussed the proposed development work of the Mahinda Rajapaksa International Sports Complex at Diyagama.

Mahinda Rajapaksa makes it a point to personally meet and honour medallists such as after the 13th South Asian Games. It is an inspiration and motivation for medallists.

He is convinced that Sri Lanka will produce more medal winners at Olympics, Asian Games and Commonwealth Games in future.

He stressed the need for sports authorities and sports federation officials to change their attitude towards athletes by changing the present practice where talented athletes run after officials in desperation rather than officials going in the hunt for talented athletes.

Prime Minister Rajapaksa has personal experience on matters which directly affect our young schoolboys or schoolgirls. He knows what is ticking inside a young athlete’s mind and stresses on the need for officials to take the initiative to show love and guidance. Although it is the individual energy that drives an athlete to perform, it is also necessary to ensure an effective management system to support them.

As President of the AASL he inspired others by his commitment and dynamic leadership. When he headed the Sri Lanka athletics team at the World Athletic Championships in Athens in 1997, he energised the young athletes to bring glory to their Motherland. Medals are the symbolic indication of the prowess of an athlete. What is more important is the commitment to achieve and trying to be better than other competitors.

A great milestone in the annals of Sri Lanka’s sports history was when Susanthika Jayasinghe won the Silver Medal in the 200m at the World Athletic Championships, carving a name for Sri Lanka and Mahinda Rajapaksa himself as the President and Manager of the Sri Lanka athletics team.

He could have prevailed as any other political leader by being only a passive witness to achievements. That was the difference. He is very serious about the need to win and at the same time to honour the winners.

One thing Mahinda Rajapaksa always said was the fact that the participants have to be strong not only physically but also mentally. The participants representing the country will have to be very healthy individuals with high intelligence who can control his or her body only. The body depends on the reflexes and they in turn depend on the mental conditions.

Thinking about the positive attitude of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, what is readily visible is his attitude to challenges. It is interesting to note that he has always been a ‘ball of energy’ which was just the opposite of a ‘weakling’ who is not sure of himself. He started his schooling in the lower kindergarten at Richmond College, Galle where some of his contemporaries remember him very affectionately for his boldness. He led in all the small contests easily and a very interesting aspect was his fearlessness which pushed him forward. By the time he was in the Second Standard, as it was known then, he had made a name as the ‘best fighter’.

A fact to be remembered is that he sustains this fighting spirit in his political life as a successful leader and statesman, albeit never to bully his opponents, but always winning fair and square.

This trait has made him a person, who believes in being fit all the time, faithfully going for a workout in the gym even today before immersing himself in his daily work.

From his teenage days, his pugnacious qualities has been the cornerstone of his character which makes him different from others as well as portrays him as an icon.

Today as the Prime Minister he continues to let his psychological energy out through politics while always making use of the skills he had gained in sports to make him a more balanced person who believes in being physically fit and mentally alert.

Mahinda Rajapaksa as a politician is also concerned about the welfare of the Tamil population and their needs. He is also one of the few leaders from the south to encourage sports in the north which resulted in some programmes activated by the AASL where action was taken to send a key IAAF Official Byong Wangaman to the north.

The encouragement to organize a marathon after 27 years where 7,000 participated was accomplished by the AASL with the sponsorship of Nestle. This landmark event is still spoken about today.

(The writer is Secretary Gen. Sri Lanka Athletics, Life Member National Olympic Committee, Recipient of the Kreedha Bushana and past Sports Consultant Mahinda Rajapaksa)