Sri Lanka bank on wildcards for Olympic qualification | Sunday Observer

Sri Lanka bank on wildcards for Olympic qualification

27 June, 2021

Sri Lanka’s contingent for the upcoming XXX11 Olympic Games in Japan next month would be finally known after the track and field teams are finalised on Tuesday.

The IAAF has set June 29 as the deadline to reach athletic qualifying standards. President of the National Olympic Committee of Sri Lanka, Suresh Subramaniam said they are seeking wildcard entries for the athletes if they fail to qualify by Tuesday.

With less than a month to go for the greatest sporting event, the former Sri Lanka Tennis Association President and Asian Tennis Federation Vice President and ex- Secretary General turned Sri Lanka NOC chief said the final contingent would be named later this week after the athletic qualifying deadline.

Here is an exclusive interview with the Sri Lanka Olympic chief:

Q : How do you see the progress of the Sri Lanka contingent for the upcoming Tokyo Olympics?

We have seven disciplines apart from athletic hopes – Matilda Karlsson (equestrian), Niluka Karunaratne (badminton), Milka Gehani de Silva (gymnastics), Tehani Egodawela (shooting), Chamara Dharmawardena (judo), Matthew Abeysinghe and Aniqah Gaffoor (swimming). But gymnast Gehani, though on wildcard at present, will be able to go in as a qualified participant by next week as Asia’s number one in that slot. If so, we will try to get that wildcard slot to another sport.

Athletes are battling for places before the June 29 qualification deadline - Yupun Abeykoon (46th in the men’s 100m), Ushan Perera (51st in men’s high jump) and Nilani Ratnayake (39th in women’s 3,000m steeplechase).

Q: Our contingent will get into a bubble one week before they depart for Tokyo for the most secured Olympics ever. Could you explain more about that?

About three weeks ago, the Tokyo 2020 Organizers were talking about a five day bubble. Now, they say it is a seven day bubble. If the Covid-19 cases increase in Sri Lanka there will be a lot of restrictions. Once, they wanted India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka to do 14 day quarantine. We were able to convince the IOC, saying all athletes and officials have been vaccinated. The organizers do not insist vaccination is a must but it was changed due to the high risk posed by red zone countries.

Those travelling from Sri Lanka are not only subjected to a seven day bubble but also have to do PCR tests everyday during that period. When you land in Tokyo, you have to do an antigen test before going to the Athletes Village. But if they show symptoms then they have to do another PCR. If they are tested positive for Covid-19, the entire team will have to go into quarantine. We have to be thankful to the Commander of the Army and the Health Ministry Epidemiology Unit for supporting us to meet these requirements. Of course the Ministry of Sports is assisting us.

Q: How do you analyse Sri Lanka’s chances of making an impact at the Olympics?

I took over as NOC President in 2018. I was very keen that there should be adequate high level competition if we are to win medals. This is where I am very upset with the Athletic Federation. Neither did they have enough local competition nor did they send athletes for overseas meets. You only know your ability, strength and weaknesses through completion. Running in home comforts and familiarity of the opponents is not real competition.

Milka has been training in rhythmic gymnasts since 2018 with no cost to NOC or the Gymnastic Association. That is because we maintain a very good rapport with almost every NOC in the world. Qatar is training two athletes free of charge. We got the two athletes to compete in Turkey under the Qatar bubble. If we had tried to compete from Sri Lanka the Covid-19 conditions would not have given them that chance.

Answering your question, we can’t definitely say we could do it this time around. But we have a set proper workable plan. In the Olympics or any sports, you cannot produce champions overnight. It takes time with intense training and good competition.

Recently, NOC signed a MOU with University of Sabaragamuwa where we could analyze the performances of sportsmen and women. Today, the technical and digital mechanisms have developed and reached very high levels. Unless you get detailed analysis of athletes, we can’t fine-tune their mistakes.

As the NOC President in 2018, I made my first visit to China and saw how the athletes being trained, with a lot of sophisticated tools around. When they do long distance training or long jump, there are lots of such tools wired to their muscles working via Bluetooth connectivity – making it easy to ascertain everything beforehand.

When we trained, only when you are injured only you realise a weakness of a muscle. Unfortunately that was the order of the day. If you genuinely want to see the Sri Lanka flag fluttering high, athletes, coaches and officials have to be 100% committed. We are working from various possibilities so that when I leave NOC one day, it will be easy for my successor to move forward.

Our targets are the Olympics in 2024, 2028 and 2032. Definitely there will be results. We are not just looking at one sport for medals but multiple sports. Apart from that, we have planned for medals at the Commonwealth and Asian Games after Tokyo. It will be easy for the athletes when they train abroad because they will be in a free mindset, without club or team politics and better competition. They are provided with everything and will only have to concentrate on their training and competition.

Q: The IAAF revised its world rankings, just a few days ahead of the June 29 deadline for athletes to achieve Olympic qualifying standards. Accordingly, Yupun Abeykoon is ranked 46 in men’s 100m, Nilani Ratnayake 39th in the women’s 3,000m steeplechase and Ushan Perera 51st in men’s high jump. Will any of them make it to Tokyo?

We are consulting the IOC on this. We hope that they would qualify on their own merit by reaching the standards set by the IAAF. If not, we will try our best for wildcard entry. Whether we could get all three, I am not sure.

I have been requesting successive sports ministers since 2018 (there were three) that wildcards are determined in the boardroom in any international event. Athletics is the key sport in the Olympics and although the three athletes are in different events, it is hard to say whether all could make it. If you don’t have somebody to speak on your behalf or for your country you are depending upon your friend to take it up at these meetings. Just like the corporate world.

I am in the Asian Tennis Board and is aware of how these things work. We have six wildcards at the moment, a great achievement for a country like Sri Lanka. But these competitors deserve the wildcards because they are the best in Sri Lanka and best among the countries that could not make it.

If we had our representation at IOC, OCA, IAAF and, or other sports bodies either Asian or international federation, that would have made a huge advantage. Today, India is represented in almost all major sports bodies. That is one reason Indian sport is doing well.

Q: Who are the athletes who could show the best performance at the Olympics, at least to make it to the semi finals or finals?

Badminton player Niluka Karunaratne who is making his third successive Olympics on wildcard, entered the fourth round in the men’s singles at the last 2016 Rio Olympics.

The NOC will support players with the ability to succeed. At the beginning of last year, Niluka came up with a proposal to the ex-co of his ambition to participate in the 2020 Olympics and requested sponsorship for the Tokyo Games. We declined because he was 140 or 150 odd in the rankings at that time. He was disappointed and met up with me seeking the reason for rejection? I requested him to improve his performance and to reduce excess weight and to win the nationals again.

You are requesting sponsorship to qualify for the Olympics but you have already played in two Olympics and with your age, why should we invest for you just to qualify or participate? We would have invested that money on a new young player. He took the challenge, went back and reached both targets.

Then he went to Peru and Portugal and improved his rankings from 152 to 99. When he achieved the level we set, we must honour him. He deserves the wildcard and will be well used.

Q: Another Olympic medal is long overdue for Sri Lanka after Susanthika Jayasinghe’s silver in the 200m at the Sydney 2000 Games. When will Sri Lanka fulfill that dream?

I could see it in 2028. There is an outside chance in 2024. But definitely, we could do something in 2028 if we continue the current programs. That should be coupled with fair selections, good competition and proper training.

Q: When the Indian authorities came forward to offer all available facilities for 15 Sri Lankans to the Indian Inter-State Championships, the National Sports Council scrapped four of the slots. With Sri Lanka not having to spend anything, don’t you think we could have given the four a chance?

I think the National Sports Council is right there. No country wants to go there because of the Covd-19 type delta variant playing havoc there. Not worth the huge risks. Secondly, even if our boys and girls go there and do well, there is no chance for them to qualify for the Olympics.

They would only improve rankings but it won’t take you anywhere as far as the Olympics are concerned. Just for a minor improvement in ranking, is it worth taking such a huge risk? It will not bring their ranking to the first fifteen or so. Look at the timings of them and they are far behind the qualifying standard.

But when the Covid-19 situation improves, this sort of a meet is close to Asian Games. But this is not the time. Hence, the decision is correct.

Q: Preventing the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic from foreign visitors to residents of Japan while keeping athletes healthy and virus-free to compete is no easy task. Some 11,500 competitors and 79,000 officials and media are in action. How do you see the arrangements?

They are trying their level best to prevent mingling among the participants. Even the meals which were served buffet style at previous Olympic Games will not be possible I heard. Niluka Karunaratne needed somebody who could play alongside at practice sessions.

So we told him there is no point in taking a coach who could not play with him and asked him to take someone who could practice with him. We don’t take any orthopedic doctor and that slot has been given to a doctor specialized is Covid-19 care as per Tokyo 2020 guidelines.

Q: You have opened new horizons for the country’s Olympic prospects with lucrative scholarship programs. What progress has been made in that program?

I got an open invitation from China in 2018 offering to help us in any sport that we want to train in. We had a series of meetings with sports federations. For some sports we need to send our athletes to China or get coaches down to train our athletes here.

For instance, they helped us with wushu. China sent one of their best coaches at no cost to us. He was here for almost one year before going back to China during the Covid-19 lockdown. During his coaching our team won a medal in the South Asian Games.

Then for taekwondo, there were South Korean experts through their embassy here. Likewise we can get coaches anytime to groom our future prospects. We have another stint with Slovenia to train our judokas. Iran has come forward to help our weightlifters. Indonesia offered to assist but it was hard because of the language barrier. We are working in different countries to benefit various sports. But my target is to send our top tier athletes for overseas training so that they would also be open for a high level of competitions as well.

Q: What progress have you made after entering the Sri Lanka NOC as President a few years ago?

Actually when I entered in 2018, I was not fully aware of what I was walking into. Prior to that, all my commitments were in tennis, as a player and administrator holding top positions here as well as the Asian Tennis Federation. But I was ready to take the challenge – black is black and white is white policy.

I am only interested in doing an honorary job, sans favours. Then I got three major companies to address the past audit queries of the NOC. I am glad all outstanding matters regarding accounts have been resolved. Thanks to efficient Chairman Joe and Lalith cleared all shortcoming that were there before 2018. We were able to prevail upon some of the big companies to partner us for this long journey we have embarked for the future generation.

The Olympic is supported by Brandix and Hirdramani. They gave five million rupees each because I only asked for that amount. If I had asked 50 million, they would have obliged. We have MAS Holdings, Crysbro, Expo Lanka, Akbar brothers also supporting the NOC. Even my successors need not fear because we have managed the NOC in an exemplary manner.

Q: How supportive are the National Sports Associations towards the NOC to achieve the common goal?

Most of them – 95%, fully back us. At present, there are 34 Olympic sports and well over 30 are fully backing us. Even the individuals from the few associations who are not 100% want to support us. It is not because they have anything against me, sometimes their pride takes the better of them. If we are working towards a common goal, everybody should support and work towards that goal.

Q: What are your short, medium and final projects for the Olympic movement in Sri Lanka?

We must be above board, dealing with financial, selection and preparation. We have to be mindful of future generations. We have to be open minded and fair by all and then everything else will fall in place. When people realise that you are a fair person, they start believing in you and trust must be built.

We must ensure there are enough participation, fair competition and positive energy for success. When there are more participants, each one keeps pushing to win, which means there is good competition.

Only through tough competition will we have improvement for medals. If we can get this right, winning will become a habit and we can win medals regularly. Otherwise what Duncan White won in 1948 and Susanthika Jayasinghe won in 2000 would remain.