Caught in politics, squash champ pours her heart out after Commonwealth Games snub | Sunday Observer

Caught in politics, squash champ pours her heart out after Commonwealth Games snub

30 July, 2022
Fathoum Issadeen in action-Fathoum Issadeen with her trophy
Fathoum Issadeen in action-Fathoum Issadeen with her trophy

Sri Lanka’s current women’s number one squash exponent Fathoum Zaleeha Issadeen became the darling of sports fans on social media when photos of her wearing the scarf worn by Muslim women went viral after winning a bronze medal in squash at the 2019 South Asian Games (SAG).

Displaying unwavering loyalty to Sri Lanka, she not only became a celebrity but walked the talk to be crowned as the undisputed squash queen three years ago. But fame and fortune seems to have come at a price for this talented and devoted squash star who was literally in tears after being deprived of representing Sri Lanka at the XXII Commonwealth Games in Birmingham.

This is not the first time she was denied the opportunity to fulfill her dream. Although ranked number two, she was not selected for 2018 Gold Coast apparently since she was still a schoolgirl and not a national champion. Now a three-time national squash champion, she should have been an automatic choice for Birmingham 2022 but the 23-year-old has been at the receiving end of a conspiracy hatched by devious officials of Sri Lanka Squash (SLS) and the Sports Ministry to prevent her from bringing honour to Sri Lanka.

“It’s very sad and disheartening. A couple of minutes ago I was just crying. I don’t know why they are doing this. I train so much. What am I training for now,” said Fathoum sharing her emotions during an interview on WhatsApp from Sri Lanka.

The unkind cut by Sri Lankan sports authorities forced her to seek legal measures but despite receiving a court verdict in her favour, she could not make it to the Commonwealth Games as the date for submission of entries had closed and because SLS had not nominated her name despite giving valid medical reasons for her inability to attend trials or practices.

It was little consolation when she gained a moral victory with the learned judge declaring that she should be allowed to represent Sri Lanka at the forthcoming Asian Team Squash Championship and postponed Asian Games in China next year without undergoing any trial.

“It clearly shows injustice done. I don’t think the judge knows what squash is. Even he realized that something wasn’t right,” said Fathoum who received overwhelming support from the public when agreed to a tweet from Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa on Kusal Perera’s injury “What gives better ROI for @OfficialSLC sponsoring a star player’s surgery or sponsoring trips abroad for politicians and officials?” Sri Lankan people did the rest and gave me that blessing,” she said.

“I’m too emotional. I know I’m not going to go. I dreamt of this to train hard day and night. Brother is annoyed because he drops me (for training). It’s tough, not easy. Sad thing is I am still not going to be represented at the Commonwealth Games after being national champion after being told ‘you are not national champion, so you can’t go’ last time. You become national champion, then you can go,” said Fathoum.

Describing the chronology of events that led to her surprise omission, she said on February 14 SLS sent an email requesting the players to confirm their participation at the trials for three tournaments – Commonwealth Games, Asian Games and Asian Team Squash Championships.

Confirming her participation, she requested to play her trial before leaving for the Bangamatha International Squash tournament in Bangladesh. “They (SLS) were aware I was flying and the Bangladesh tournament is a PSA (Professional Squash Association) event. The trials were to be held in the third or fourth week of March. I was to return on March 24 and it was an impossible thing to do. They did not give any reply,” she said.

“I came to the finals and won a silver medal but during the match, I had a very bad fall and hurt my neck. I remembered I had trials and I took pain killers. Eventually the pain was sort of numb and it was manageable,” she said.

She returned on March 24 but SLS had convened a meeting of players that evening. “I realised the meeting was not going to be important. The men’s national champion also came for the same tournament and he lost in the quarters. With national champions away, how to have a meeting which was eventually cancelled,” she said.

When another meeting was called for March 27, she excused herself because she had other commitments since she was studying and doing a degree in education and training management.

When trials were set for March 28, 29 and 30 with two matches on one day, she won the first match but suffered an injury relapse in the second match on the first day. “There was no SLS or selection committee representative or medical officer to get treatment or advice. My father advised me not to play because health is more important but he also told me I will be completely out of this trial if I retired,” she said.

“I said no. I am going to play this trial. I have never lost to this girl ever in my life. She never got a set from me before. Even if I lose I will have to be sent as number one because of the world ranking that I have which is the highest in the world this year and in Sri Lanka. I lost in a four-setter despite injury but could not play the next day’s matches,” she explained.

The doctor in charge of squash at the Sports Ministry was not available so she went to a senior sports medicine specialist at Lanka Hospital.

“He examined me for 45 minutes and said you are not fit to play and gave me a medical telling SLS to call him if there is any issue. Strangely, SLS said they cannot accept this,” she said.

Despite being billed to leave the country on April 16 and with the onset of the fasting month of Ramadan, she started treatment under the squash doctor. But with power outages she could complete only manual treatment with electric treatment being postponed several times.

After her last treatment on April 11, she sent many emails to SLS inferring she has not retired. “I will continue playing trials. I have not given up and I am not withdrawing,” she said.

She urged SLS to put her name on the nomination list for the Games. “If I win (trials), I will go. If I don’t win, they will go. It’s very simple, not a complicated process. They were not willing to do that. I wasn’t after an accident where I had to be bed-ridden. I requested to have trials after Ramadan,” she said.

Meanwhile, she got a medical done in the UAE and went to Kuwait on an invitation to take part in a Ramadan Open tournament for added motivation. “I easily won this tournament and won prize money of Rs 500,000. Mentally it was a massive boost for me,” said Fathoum.

“I sent a mail in February requesting to have trials before Bangamatha because I knew in case there was injury, these matches will be postponed. It will fall in the month of Ramadan when I cannot play while fasting or during that month. You guys have no idea how tiring it is,” she said.

“I am national champion for three years and got a PSA world ranking of 250. Technically this trial is of no use for me. How many other national champions went without a trial because they were national ranked,” she questioned.

Ironically, when she was in Dubai a vice president of SLS had removed her from a WhatsApp group where players who are not playing now are included. In another strange twist, her name had been cut from receiving Sports Ministry medical benefits as well.

“I was very upset. Very disappointing. Dad asked (SLS) what’s going on. They said they were not sure about the team going because of the situation in Sri Lanka but said they were going to have another trial,” she said.

“They were lying. By that time tickets were bought for players,” she said.

When she appealed to Sports Minister Roshan Ranasinghe, he sounded that she should go but another official put a spoke in the wheel saying she did not come for practices.

“What rubbish. I used to go like a prayer and had attendance of 99.9% in the past but was used as a sparring for junior players who injured me on purpose. Once I even got hammered. Training morning and evening, I got injured. I could never become national champion,” she alleged.

It was then that she decided to train on her own to become national champion. “Guys squash is not a team sport. I cannot play with my opponent neither can they play with me because their weakness is not my weakness. My weakness is not their weakness,” she explained.

“I am still the national champion and in the world top 250. Is my training wrong or right,” she asked.