Susanthika’s Olympic medal and her courageous journey on the track | Sunday Observer

Susanthika’s Olympic medal and her courageous journey on the track

11 July, 2021
Susanthika Jayasinghe on the Victory Podium of Sydney 2000 Olympic Games
Susanthika Jayasinghe on the Victory Podium of Sydney 2000 Olympic Games

Deshabandu Kreedabimani Susanthika Jayasinghe, OLY became the first Sri Lankan female to reach the pinnacle of any sport and the first South Asian Athlete to blaze the Olympic podium in a sprint event in the 125-year history of the modern Olympic Games. The honor and glory she brought to Mother Lanka at Sydney 2000 Olympics through her determined, tireless and fearless effort, overcoming enormous challengers, will continue to echo in the hearts of Sri Lankans.

The Millennium Olympic Games, officially known as the Games of the XXVII Olympiad and commonly known as Sydney 2000 were held from September 15 to October 1, 2000. The Sydney Olympics celebrated not only sports but also significantly used its platform to unite, heal and energize the country and the rest of the world. The Games received universal acclaim, with the organization, volunteers, sportsmanship and Australian public being lauded in social media.

Humble beginnings in Uduwaka

In the backwoods of Uduwaka in the Kegalle District of Sabaragamuwa Province, Manannalage Jayasinghe and Menikpurage Babynona were blessed with a child on December 17, 1975, a daughter whom they named Susanthika. The parents were not able to do much, being hard put to make ends meet.

On one day, the family sustenance would be satisfied through the daily wages earned by either spouse tapping rubber. On another day, it would be by breaking rocks in the quarry. In other words, Susanthika had a tough beginning in life. The parents were hard pressed even to buy milk powder, so she was breast-fed for well-nigh five years. Both parents shared similar sentiments.

She studied at the village school, Athnawela Maha Vidyalaya, up to her GCE (Ordinary Level) and from an early age she displayed better aptitude on the field, than in the classroom. Winning sprint events at school and district levels, sans expert coaching, required diet and proper equipment, caught the eye of the Sports Officer at Warakapola, Dhammika Wanigasinghe, who truly guided her in the correct path. Then, she was just a village lass and he helped her to take the first steps in her career. And later, her winged feet brought her far.

Maiden Olympics Atlanta 1996

Susanthika’s entry to athletics in her words, “I was always a good runner. My events in school were 50m and 75m.

In 1984, I won the district championship, and later, I won club events. It was in 1991, that I first came to Colombo. I was then 15. On my first tour as a junior athlete, I ran with borrowed spikes. I was just a kid from the village, with a burning desire to win, but with little means. At 17, I celebrated my entry to international arena winning the bronze medal in 200m at Dhaka 1993 South Asian Games.”

At 18, Susanthika won a gold in 200m and a silver in 100m at Jakarta 1994 Asian Junior Championships. She clinched a silver in 200m with a time of 23.57 secs at Hiroshima 1994 Asian Games. At 19, she comfortably secured gold medals in both the sprints 100m and 200m at the Chennai 1995 South Asian Games. Also, at Jakarta 1995 Asian Championships she won a gold in 200m and a silver in 100m. Besides, she took part in the Australian Open 1995 as well as Taipei Open 1995 securing silver medals in 100m at both competitions.

At 20, she represented the country at Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games. It was her maiden Olympic Games. She clocked an impressive 11.18 secs to come second to Merlene Ottey of Jamaica, eventual winner of silver medal, running in Heat 3 and qualified for Quarter Finals where she failed to enter the Semi Finals.

Sydney 2000 Olympic Games

At 21, winning the silver medal in 200m clocking 22.39 secs at the IAAF World Championships of Athens 1997 was one big triumph of her career. It was the first IAAF medal of the country and she was accorded a warm welcome by the then President of Athletics Association Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Susanthika shared, “When Sports Ministry officials colluded to trump up doping chargers against me, it seemed that my career had ended. I was desperate. I could not participate in the South Asian Games 1998. I had no sponsorship. I had to find money on my own. So, I sold the duty-free vehicle permit given to me when I won the silver medal at the World Championship in 1997.”

She continued, “I had not trained for a long time. But I picked up the pieces. Daham Wimalasena was one who helped me greatly. He advised me, and helped me to go to the United States. I was so afraid that I didn’t want anyone to know of my plans. I booked my ticket in anonymity. Some questions were raised at the airport, but they let me go. From that point onwards, I concentrated on my sport. I trained under Tony Campbell, who was both my coach and manager.”

Once Campbell said: “I have never come across such a dedicated and courageous person like Susanthika in my life.” In the run up to Sydney Olympics she took part at the IAAF Grand Prix Final in Munich 1999. After these successes, she set her eyes on a more glamorous achievement, a medal at the Olympic Games.

At Sydney 2000, she started with 100m amongst 84 athletes, winning Heat No. 4 clocking 11.15 secs. In the Quarter Final, she came fourth with 11.23. In the Semi Final, she was seventh with 11.33 and overall, tenth amongst the top 16.

In 200m, she won Heat No. 7 clocking an impressive 22.53 to be listed second in Overall Results of Round 1 out of 54 athletes. In Round 2, she won Heat No. 4 with a time of 22.54 and was placed fourth overall. In the Semi Final, she clocked 22.45 and was third overall.

Let me take you back to the 200m Finals. It was September 28, 2000. The commentator announced, “We have, Beverly Mc Donald of Jamaica in Lane 1, Cathy Freeman of Australia in Lane 2, Pauline Davis-Thompson Bahamas in Lane 3, Marion Jones of the USA in Lane 4, Debbie Ferguson of Bahamas in Lane 5, Susanthika Jayasinghe from Sri Lanka in Lane 6, Australia’s Melinda Gainsford-Taylorand in Lane 7 and Ukraine’s Zhanna Pintusevich in Lane 8.”

Marion… the most superior athlete, Cathy… gold in 400… Susanthika… in good form. Jayasinghe ran a great 150m and then a very ordinary 50 in the Semis. So, Sri Lanka is in the finals. Here’s Australian Melinda. Let’s hope she has a race of her life. It’s her town and it’s her night. She says it’s the biggest day in her athletic life. She has made the final. The question is how quick Jones will be.

Away they go! Jones get a terrific start. So did Ferguson. Jones clearly in front of Jayasinghe, Pintusevich and Melinda, coming through is Davis. Jones clearly in front of Jayasinghe and also Davis. Jones 21.84 secs. What do you say about that! That is brilliant running! Davis has come second and Jayasinghe third. Jayasinghe has run a good turn as well. The commentary ends and the roar of the crowd subsides as winners drape themselves with flags.

In the Finals, Susanthika clocked 22.28 secs to secure the bronze medal which was later upgraded to a silver when Marion Jones was stripped of her gold following her admission of taking banned substances.

The Glorious Moment

It’s a medal she won during our life span. Let me, share the words of Dinesh Weerawansa, the country’s elite sports correspondent, who savored the glorious moment, “Tears of pride and joy welled in the eyes of all Sri Lankans among the 110,000 spectators at the stadium as ‘Dazzling Gazelle’ Susanthika Jayasinghe rewrote Sri Lankan sports history wining her country’s first Olympic medal in 52 years… Incidentally, it was the magical sixth lane that guided Jayasinghe to the bronze medal in women’s 200m in the much looked forward to final. She ran in lane six right throughout her way to the magical bronze, which is more than a gold… Jayasinghe, thus became the first Sri Lankan woman to win an Olympic medal…It was a mere one hundredth of a second which separated Jayasinghe from Davis…”

Mother’s pivotal role as an Inspirer

“Susanthika was always very mischievous, did everything she wanted. If she was not allowed to do something, she would find a way to do it! She was always very determined. She always told me everything, and I advised her. During her troubled period, my only advice to her was to win her events. Win, I told her: and, she did,” Susanthika’s mother acclaimed.

“I have four girls and a boy. They are all special to me. I have no favorite. But Susanthika is the most playful, as she is the youngest…” she stressed. Susanthika’s determination is not acquired. It is genetic, it is something that she has inherited from her mother. The creases on her mother’s face, are akin to furrows traced on the face of a rock by the unrelenting elements. The underlying strength is unmistakable.

‘SJ’ recalled, “Village life is very different from the city life. We used to run around, wild and free. When it rained, we would play in the streams. I did what I wanted, generally… No one knows what ambition is when they are young. I just ate when I was hungry, slept when I was tired, and loved beautiful clothes and toys – more so, because they were scarce. Life was just that. Living was a good enough dream at that stage. It was as I grew older that the dreams took form. I only hoped to join the Sri Lanka Army. This was so that I could take part in sports. And I did just that for two years. I saw no more than this, even in my most ambitious dreams.”

Athens 2004 Olympic Games

The biggest disappointment in her career was Manchester 2002 Commonwealth Games. She did extremely well in 100m, achieving her Season’s Best of 11.08 secs, yet she missed the podium by a whisker. The entire country expected her to win a gold in 200m. Her loving parents were in Manchester to see her and she was determined.

In 200m, she ran in Heat 4 of Round 1. She recorded the fastest time of 22.61. The commentator in fact announced that she ran very fast. After 8 minutes the commentator disclosed that she had been disqualified. I rushed to the Technical Information Centre (TIC) and collected the official results and found her disqualified under IAAF Rule 163.3.

As I watched the race and I didn’t observe any obstructions, I was not convinced at all. Thus, tendered my protest against the decision in the best interest of the athlete.

I was the Team Manager to Manchester 2002. Such a decision based on judgement of a single ‘Track Official’ could be destructive. It remains a misery! Perhaps, in a whisker, Susanthika and Sri Lanka deprived of the gold medal by an ‘Error of Omission’. Yet, you respect the decision in the name of sport!

I lodged an appeal as per the provisions of the IAAF Rule 146. Then, I met the shattered athlete and consoled her, proceeded back to TIC. I was provided with a copy of the ‘Details of Infringement’ that led to her disqualification. Still, I was not convinced. The Jury of Appeal sat at 2130 and decision intimated at 2345. It read, “Having consulted the Track Officials and viewed all available video evidence, the Jury upholds the decision of the Officials. The protest is therefore rejected.”

Still not convinced, I requested the Jury of Appeal to consider the video coverage, pointing out that neither the infringement nor the slow motion was shown on the wide screen. Finally, a copyright VHS copy as the video evidence was provided to my dismay. At that moment of horror, Susanthika aptly displayed values such as Respect, Excellence and Friendship of a true Olympian.

In August 2002, the Asian Athletics Championships took place in Colombo and Susanthika bounced back and carried the hopes and dreams of a whole nation winning both 100m and 200m. In October 2002, she won the gold medal in 100m at the Busan 2002 Asian Games clocking 11.15 secs. In 2002, at the IAAF World Cup in Madrid she took part in both 100m and 200m.

Thereafter, she qualified to take part at Olympic Games. I was the Team Manager of the Athens 2004 Olympic team. Susanthika reported that she is suffering from an injury and I brought the matter to the notice of the President of the National Olympic Committee and the Minister of Sports immediately.

Within days, her critics commented that her days of glory were behind. The authorities unanimously made her the Team Captain and she was the Flag Bearer at the Athletes Parade of Athens 2004 Olympic Games. I recall with gratitude the presence of then Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and Madam Shiranthi Rajapaksa at the Opening Ceremony to inspire Team Sri Lanka.

Beijing 2008 Olympic Games

She started training under Tony Campbell once more. Despite all the dramas, she won a silver in 100m clocking 11.34 secs at Doha 2006 Asian Games. In 2007, she won a bronze in 200m clocking 22.63 at the IAAF World Championships in Osaka, 10 years after her first IAAF World Championship medal.

She also comfortably won both 100m and 200m at the Amman 2007 Asian Championships. These feats silenced her critics and gave every sport loving Sri Lankan a hope of another Olympic medal. She fulfilled entry standard and reached Beijing 2008 Olympic Games. In Round 1, she clocked 23.04. In Round 2, she finished twelfth with 22.94. Her 22.98 in the Semi Finals was not sufficient to qualify for the Finals. She announced her retirement in 2009.

A Living Legend

At 24, Susanthika, affectionately known as ‘Susy’ became a living legend when she achieved the most awaited Olympic Medal for the country at Sydney 2000. Widely recognized as Sri Lanka’s most successful sportswoman ever, ‘Susy’ journeyed from the growing fields of Uduwaka to the glistering tracks of Sydney Olympic stadium.

At the Olympics, she reached her brilliant best performance in 200m and raised the Sri Lanka Flag. It was a final that saw all competitors achieving their Season’s Best, a classic example of how the elite athletes peak up to a dream Olympic final. ‘Susy’ became the first Asian to win an Olympic medal in a sprint event. This incredible achievement earned her the name, ‘Asian Black Mare.’

Her national records in 100m and 200m established on September 9, 2000 at Yokohama, Japan and September 28, 2000 at Sydney, Australia at the Olympic Games clocking 11.04 and 22.28 respectively have remained intact for 20 years. The story of ‘Susy’ will surely inspire generations.

Her silver medal represented not only the talent of an athlete, but also the courage, determination and dedication of a lone village lass from impoverished environments – one who had to overcome insurmountable settings of critics. She proved to be a champion of the down trodden. The LMD Magazine declared her the Sri Lankan of the Year for 2000.

The legends who experienced the big picture are the best to be, ‘Role Models’ or ‘Storytellers’ to inspire younger generations, to steer them to grow in sport and to usher them to reach the podium. To fulfill the pivotal role, can Sri Lanka have a better personality than ‘Susy’, backed by her phenomenal journey to the Olympic Podium!

Once ‘Susy’ shared, “Each time my spikes hit the asphalt, the rhythm was always synchronous with chorus in my head… Dream… Country… People.” Indeed, her focused determination, unrelenting energy and crystal-clear purpose challenges Sri Lankans to dream!

(The author is the winner of Presidential Awards for Sports and recipient of multiple National Accolades for Academic pursuits. He possesses a PhD, MPhil and double MSc. He can be reached at [email protected])