Sri Lanka’s Queen of the Ring on threshold of history | Sunday Observer

Sri Lanka’s Queen of the Ring on threshold of history

18 July, 2021
Nelka Shiromala brings together two rivals before a fight
Nelka Shiromala brings together two rivals before a fight

How a UN peacekeeping trooper Nelka Shiromala became a promoter and supervisor of the ‘good fight’ that has earned her the reputation of a little woman who stands strong in a macho man’s world:

Dharmasiri Weerakoon was one of the most charismatic sporting personalities to grace the ring as a boxer and later as a referee. A former national champion who represented Ceylon as Sri Lanka was then known at the 1960 Rome Olympics along with another top Police pugilist Sumith Liyanage, Weerakoon created history at the 1988 Seoul Games as the first boxing referee from Sri Lanka at the Olympics.

When he inducted new boxing referees and judges in 1993 which included a Stubbs Shield Best Boxer from Trinity College, Kandy Udeni Kiridena who went on to officiate at the 2016 Rio Olympics, Weerakoon emphasised that the referee is the ‘king of the ring’. A former Commandant of the STF (Special Task Force), Weerakoon certainly walked the talk as president of the Amateur Boxing Association of Sri Lanka. He was lord of the ring in any decision he took instantly commanding respect, awe and admiration to become the ideal role model for aspiring boxing referees.

Another top cop Chief Inspector Nelka Shiromala is poised to emulate Weerakoon and create history by becoming the first woman technical official (referee/judge) from Sri Lanka in the history of the Olympic Games to step into the ring in Tokyo. The only 3-Star woman boxing official in Sri Lanka, Nelka is on the brink of realizing the Olympic dream of her late father Thambu Sampath who passed away when she was officiating in the European Olympic boxing qualifying tournament in Paris.

One of the pioneers of women’s boxing in Sri Lanka when the sport was introduced in 2000, Nelka’s rise to the pinnacle of sporting glory in her storied career is also about how she endured trials and tribulations as the daughter of a Tamil father to overcome gender bias and jealousy among her peers to become a world class boxing official. It is a tale of a 45-year-old mother who was outstanding in sports during her days at Rippon Girls College, Galle (sister school of Richmond), the eldest in a family of four girls who now dotes on her daughter Manuli.

Nelka joined the Police to secure her future and married her Police batchmate Chandana Wickremanayake to become a sharpshooter and investigator who represented Sri Lanka in boxing and became the ‘queen of the ring’ winning the award for the Best Referee (men and women) from the Asian Boxing Confederation in 2017, the first woman to receive this honour.

Winner of the first ever ABA Novices meet for women, Nelka was runner-up at the Nationals for five consecutive years being consoled with the Best Loser’s award. Her interest in continuing boxing waned after she returned from a stint as a UN peacekeeper in Senegal, Dakar but she enthusiastically became an official when Herbert and Neiva Embuldeniya drafted women to officiate in 2009.

She was among the first batch of four women to pass the referee and judges examination. Her life changed thereafter and emerged as a star carrying herself with her panache as a referee to become a 1-star international official in 2011. She made her international debut, the first from Sri Lanka, at the 2011 Indonesian President’s Cup, where significantly she was the only woman official.

Invited by AIBA stalwart Terry Smith for the London Olympic Test event, she was promoted as a 2-star referee on the second day just six months becoming a 1-star official. She went on to officiate in many international events including the World Combat Games in St Petersburg, Russia and Myanmar SEA Games.

In 2013, she became the first woman 3-star referee from South Asia and South East Asia after passing the examination in Catania, Italy. She went on to officiate at the 2014 Women’s World Boxing Championship in Jeju, South Korea.

The only woman selected to referee the finals at the 2015 Asian Championship in Thailand, she also created history by qualifying as a WSB (World Series Boxing) referee.

Another significant moment in her career was being invited to give the officials’ oath normally given to the host nation at the 2016 Asia-Oceania Olympic Qualifying Boxing Tournament in China. She was an automatic choice to referee in the finals of several world tournaments, including the 2019 Men’s World Championship in Russia.

It has been reported that India’s boxing icon Mary Kom has commended her style of refereeing while women officials from Thailand and Philippines look up to her as a role model.

A little known fact is that she became the best Police shooter in 1997 and 1998 in pistol firing. Apart from securing Police Colours in badminton, netball and boxing, she was one of the first divers from the law-enforcement agency.

Never second in school, she displayed leadership skills being Games captain in 1995 and 1996, school prefect, excelling in netball, volleyball, swimming and badminton in addition to being a 400-metre hurdler.

Not bad for a girl who was sent to live in the College hostel in Galle because she was mischievous whereas her sisters attended schools in Colombo.

A fearless law enforcement officer who has served in various department including as Acting OIC of Kollupitiya, the first female to be in-charge of an A1 station, among her many accomplishments as a boxing official is becoming the first Sri Lankan technical delegate from any sport at the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games.

She is unfazed by the challenge of controlling heavyweight bouts despite being a pin weight boxer during her fighting career.

If Dharmasiri Weerakoon is arguably Sri Lanka’s ‘king of the ring’, Nelka Shiromala will go down in the annals of boxing history as the ‘queen of the ring’.