Making heroes of athletics’ poor cousins | Sunday Observer

Making heroes of athletics’ poor cousins

5 June, 2021

The Ritzbury ‘Mawbimata Weerayek’ athletes sponsored by CBL: MEN – Himasha Eshan (100m), Vinoj Suranjaya de Silva (200m), Shreshan Dhananjaya (Triple jump), Aruna Darshana (400m), Seniru Tenuka Amarasinghe (high jump), Roshan Dhammika (110m hurdles), Sumedha Ranasinghe (Javelin throw), Amila Jayasiri (long jump), Indunil Herath (800m) and Kupun Kushantha (1,500m). WOMEN - Shelinda Jansen (100m), Amasha de Silva (200m), W.V.L. Sugandi (110m hurdles), Nadeesha Ramanayake (400m), Dilshi Kumarasinghe (800m), Nimali Liyanarachchi (1,500m), Vidusha Lakshani (Triple jump/Long jump), Nilani Ratnayake (3,000m Steeplechase)

How a former Sri Lanka sprinter Ineka Cooray selected the best promising athletes on a mission to make the country recognize them:

Former Sri Lanka sprint star Ineka Cooray who represented the University of Texas in the US Nationals with distinction is making a pitch to brand athletics as a marketable sport in a country where other sportsmen and women are treated as heroes.

It was on her initiative that the ‘Ritzbury Mawbimata Weerayek’ programme was launched in September 2019 where 18 of the country’s brightest prospects in athletics were supported to reach greater heights and bring glory to Sri Lanka.

“I realised how our athletes are not recognised in Sri Lanka. They are not given the position they should be given,” recalled Ineka who took up this new challenge after having quit working for her father’s company for two decades.

She was thereafter roped in by the National Olympic Committee (NOC) to be on their selection committee for the ‘Next Olympic Champ’ project which focuses on potential junior sports stars.

“If you take Himasha Eshan, he was the fastest man in South Asia (in 2019) but I don’t think he got the recognition he deserved. If you take any cricketer, everybody knows them by name. So, I thought these people should be given recognition and athletics should be taken to another level.

"Then only our younger generation will have role models to look up to,” said Ineka who was a former national record holder in the women’s 100 metres and won a silver medal at the 1991 Colombo SAF (South Asian) Games.

“When I was in the national selection committee of Sri Lanka Athletics (SLA), I got to know how humble they are and they are not given a proper chance,” she said.

On the other hand she felt athletes were not professional in their outlook.

“Managing them also is not very easy. During our time athletes were disciplined because when we were in the national pool we trained under national coaches. Now they train in different places in Sri Lanka. Even to communicate, it’s very difficult,” she said, calling for national pool training to be centralised.

“I can’t change the whole system but I thought I should do at least something to support them plus to give them some publicity so that the younger generation will look at Himasha or Ushan (Thiwanka Perera) or somebody and think ‘I want to be like him one day’,” said Ineka who participated in the South Asian Games held in Islamabad, Pakistan at the age of 17 and was a member of the 4x100m relay team which won a silver medal.

She also felt the hunger for success is lacking to some extent.

“During our time the children did not have the means to excel in athletics. But now I feel parents can support them and buy them anything that they need,” noted Ineka, who is a mother of two teenage daughters.

“Athletics can be popular. It’s recognized among people. It’s just that as a country we don’t recognize the proper athletes,” said Ineka whose call to Nilupul de Silva, General Manager (Marketing) at CBL Foods International triggered the ‘Ritzbury Mawbimata Weerayek’ initiative.

“When I met Nilupul at a John Tarbat meet he was telling me how much they support athletics. Then I asked him why don’t we do a proper programme to bring athletics to another level,” she said.

She not only got the support of CBL, but also the national selection committee headed by Wimalasena Perera. “They were very supportive when I gave them the idea. I discussed with a few coaches and the best athletes of 18 different events were selected,” she said.

SLA president Maj. Gen. (Rtd) Palitha Fernando also gave the greenlight and agreements were signed with the athletes from September 2019 for a year.

“We started with Rs. 25,000 a month and publicity on billboards, TV ads, little documentaries. All 18 were very thankful to the programme because even when Covid came in March 2020, CBL transferred money every month. With that money they had some support to continue training,” Ineka said.

“I see CBL as a company who keeps to their word. Everything they have mentioned or agreed they have provided even under challenging times. I really admire this about them,” she added.

They continued with the same athletes till May. A new set of athletes based on their performance at the three meets held are to be decided.

“We want to keep this team continuous. I didn’t want to start something for one year and then people stopped talking about it. I want to ensure they will continue even if I’m not in Sri Lanka,” she said.

“This programme is mainly for somebody to win an Asian medal and think of an Olympic medal. After the South Asian medal, to go for Asian medals and qualify for the Olympics. And later to actually win an Olympic medal like Susanthika (Jayasinghe),” said Ineka who was the first Sri Lankan woman to run the 100m in under 12 seconds and finished among the top eight in the 100m at the Asian Championships held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

From March Ritzbury were also paying coaches Rs 10,000 while they are prepared to sponsor athletes to take part in overseas competitions.

“Ritzbury is willing to go beyond this 35,000 to help athletes who need to go to a foreign country to compete in a meet to qualify for the Olympics. We couldn’t come to that level because of corona,” she said.

It was not an easy task managing 18 athletes who are based in different parts of the country.

“By doing sports they (athletes) should not only win, they should learn other things such as how to communicate, how to give a speech and how to interact with people. Some athletes away from Colombo just win and are forgotten the next day. They don’t come to the limelight. Even if we try to give them a place, they try to hide. Those little things should be improved in our country,” she summed up.