Olympic star Nelka eyes ‘Gold’ at World Boxing | Sunday Observer

Olympic star Nelka eyes ‘Gold’ at World Boxing

24 October, 2021
Nelka Shiromala was the queen of the ring at the Tokyo Olympics
Nelka Shiromala was the queen of the ring at the Tokyo Olympics

IOC chief Thomas Bach picks her as role model for women while teachers in Sri Lanka are being asked questions about her:

The forthcoming World Boxing Championships in Serbia will present a new challenge for Sri Lanka’s iconic woman referee Nelka Shiromala.

The world governing body for boxing AIBA will be grading officials for the first time at this event where the winners will receive prize money of $100,000.

“AIBA has a new concept about grading referees. They have clearly stated this World Championship is like an exam. AIBA is going to categorise referees into Gold, Silver and Bronze,” said Nelka who created history at the Tokyo Olympics.

“This is going to be the first time. Depending on my performance, my future assignments will be determined. This time it is significant and important for a referee,” said Nelka who will be officiating for the second time at the world men’s boxing championship.

The first female technical official from Sri Lanka in any sport to officiate at the Olympics, she was one of only three officials to referee two bouts in the boxing finals. In fact, of the six women referees at the Olympics, she is the only woman to be invited for the World Championship.

The 45-year-old law enforcement officer has also been forced to prolong her career despite achieving her dream of going to the Olympics. “I wanted to retire after the Olympics. But even if I want to, I cannot do so if AIBA requires my services,” said Nelka whose credentials as the best in the business was underscored when she was given the honour of refereeing on the final day of the Olympics.

“When the IOC (International Olympic Committee) Task Force announced that only the best referees would officiate on the final day, I was upset since I had already done a final on the second day. But to my pleasant surprise I opened the ring by refereeing the Brazil versus Ireland final. I cannot explain the feeling when they introduced me as the ‘referee from Sri Lanka’,” she recalled.

But she lamented the fact that despite bringing glory to Sri Lanka on the international arena, there were attempts to belittle her remarkable feat. In fact it was a Sri Lankan boxing promoter in the Middle East Dunstan Rozairo who invited her to Dubai to felicitate her Olympic achievement during the second edition of the ‘Countdown to the Middle-East Crown’ series.

Nelka was hurt by insinuations that she is driven by personal glory whenever she steps into the ring as an official and that only athletes deserve to hog the limelight.

“Going to the Olympics as a referee is a proud achievement as an individual but it is not like a sportsman or woman going to the Olympics. They bring glory to the country. Refereeing is only for personal benefit,” it was whispered to her cynically before she went to Tokyo.

“I did not go as Nelka personally. I went as a referee from Sri Lanka. In the Olympics, I refereed 11 times and judged 33 bouts. That means I carried the Sri Lanka flag 44 times. I didn’t take it only as a personal pride for me. It was bringing glory to the country,” said Nelka, the eldest daughter of a naval officer the late Thambu Sampath.

Indeed she was hailed as a ‘superwoman’ hero by Sri Lankans after her epoch-making feat at the Olympics for which she was grateful to the Police media unit for creating awareness.

“It was like setting an Olympic record. Athletes did not win a medal. I became a role model because women generally don’t like a sport like boxing. Now even small children talk about the sport. It was a good advertisement for the sport. Even the Education Department in an exam for teachers had a question asking in which sport did the first female official from Sri Lanka take part in the Olympics,” she said proudly.

Even Sports Minister Namal Rajapaksa reportedly tweeted that just as sports stars bring credit to the country, the sacrifice and dedication made by officials during their international journey should be appreciated.

Although the Olympic experience was special, Nelka considered it as just another international competition.

“The IOC Task Force did not want to put stress on officials as a unique event. They wanted us to officiate in the Olympics just like any other international event. They only said the world’s best are here and to display transparency. Always a 15-member committee chose the referee or judges for bouts adopting certain criteria not by using a ping pong ball,” she said.

“This was a different experience though it was not something special for me. We were independent. There was no pressure. We were given the freedom to do the right thing,” she recalled.

An increase in weight classes (eight men and five women) meant there were 13 final bouts for which normally different officials would have been assigned as referees. However, for the first time in Olympic history, three referees – one from Africa, Argentina and Sri Lanka – were selected to officiate two finals.

“I did not expect to get another bout. To be considered among the best four is a big achievement,” said Nelka whose performance caught the eye of IOC chairman Thomas Bach when she officiated on the second day. The IOC chief proposed to increase the participation of women at the next Games after seeing how a small official handled an 81kg men’s final well.

To a query whether refereeing or judging was more difficult, she replied: “Both are not difficult for me. Some say my judging is better than my refereeing. Only AIBA evaluators can decide that. They have clearly said we get selected because we are good at both refereeing and judging. If you are suspended as a judge then you are suspended from refereeing as well but if you are suspended as a referee but are a good judge, they can use us,” said Nelka who was adjudged the Best Referee from Asia in 2017.

One of the pioneer Sri Lanka woman boxers, Chief Inspector Nelka Shiromala is keen to pass on her expertise to the boxing fraternity and is sought after by other sports federations such as football. “I want to help to upgrade the knowledge of boxers regarding rule changes and mentality of judges,” she said.

“I want to be an AIBA instructor or evaluator,” she said of her future plans.