A soft sporting power?

by malinga
September 24, 2023 1:15 am 0 comment 1K views

By Rajpal Abeynayake

That Sri Lanka is a sporting brand of sorts cannot be underestimated. In the Asian context, the fact that we are the most successful next to mammoth India in terms of Asia Cup success, is a fact.

The next most successful team Pakistan is not even close in terms of how many finals they figured in and how many of those they actually won. None of the bad moments we have had, including the debacle in the final of last week, can change the reality that we are generally punching above our weight when it comes to cricket.

In sport in general there is some parallel. We have had success in the Asian Athletic Championships and are not far behind the Asian giants in terms of the medal tally. Though we didn’t win a huge amount of medals as the Japanese did for example, we still won a reasonable number, and that sets us apart as a class of our own among the countries that are not considered top-tier such as Japan and South Korea.

Overall, the fact that we have achieved this type of sporting success should lead us to the conclusion that along with our relatively positive physical quality of life numbers, we have done far better than most of our Asian peer nations in terms of competing with the rest of the world.

This may not mean anything to those in developed countries whose sporting records and so on we cannot even remotely aspire to, but relatively speaking, we have done well.

What does it mean? Perhaps that we shouldn’t feel too sorry for ourselves as a country that went through an economic meltdown last year and defaulted on our debt?

Of course the reaction would be that any such complacency is insanity. We were in dire straits and just now are beginning to recover, amidst a struggle that’s not surprising to anyone. What’s the point in that context of waxing eloquent about our sporting success and saying we are relatively better than the others of our own circumstances?


Is it to say, we are good all round as a country but just recently lost our way a bit? Or is it that our sportsmen and women are doing well despite the fact that this country doesn’t offer them proper facilities, and a proper environment for training and fitness? In other words are they so prodigiously talented that the lack of facilities doesn’t quite have a bearing on them?

This may be a tempting conclusion to arrive at, but it’s just not the truth. We can’t have such relative sorting success, unless there has been something done right with our training and fitness regimens, relative to other countries in the region for instance. But how are we able to do that?

By being a country that punches above its weight class? Hardly likely. It’s because we are economically too, more well placed than our peer nations that are around us. It’s just that this has become an almost improbable conclusion given the events of last year.

But that’s precisely the point. The events of last year should not make us lose all our perspective so as to have us imagining that we made no gains in the past few decades. In some way, our economic collapse of last year caused so much news because we were a relatively promising country compared to similarly placed countries, relatively being the operative word there.

But if sports is to be taken as a barometre of general gains in physical quality of life, we may as well start with cricket. We were behind the regional giants India and Pakistan, both of which were accorded test-playing status much before we were. But finally we were admitted to that exclusive club in the 80s or thereabouts, and since then, we have all but surpassed those two nations in terms of cricketing achievements.

India of course has reached new heights in the recent years, but that’s because the country has transitioned into a vibrant economy with huge market potential, what with a population of more than 1.4 billion people.

Naturally they would have a cricket juggernaut under those circumstances. But even so, this tiny country has managed to give the Indian team a good run for the money most of the time, with the recent defeat at the finals of the Asian tournament being regarded a shock defeat in this context.


This tiny country has produced the highest wicket taker in international cricket, Mutthiah Muralidharan, and arguably in some people’s reckoning at least, the best batsman of all time, Kumar Sangakkara.

The latter’s batting average was only behind that of Sir Don Bradman for a very long time, and considering everything and the fact that he was a wicket-keeper as well, there is a good case to be made that he is at least one of the contenders for the title of greatest of all time, so far, in the world of cricket.

If stardom is an indication of anything, it’s clear that we have indeed punched above our weight class. This is not to suggest that we should be cynically happy about it and be disdainful. But it’s to implore that we don’t look back, and we consolidate on these gains and not just consider them freak occurrences of good luck.

Often the sort of sporting success we enjoy was achieved without state sponsorship. There was Dilantha Malagamuwa who won the Formula Nippon races and several other famous racing events in the key circuits of Malaysia and so on.

Malagamuwa was never working with State patronage. He did the hard work himself, and of course that may be the way most racing drivers do it all over the world. Racing is not exactly the kind of sport that is normally encouraged and sponsored by governments and ministries of sport.

But even when Malagamuwa started winning and making waves in the international racing circuits, there was nobody in the State apparatus deciding to support him or deciding to give him a leg up now that he had come a long way on his own.


The gentleman was essentially left to his own devices, but he managed to win more events and set up charities so that he could give back to society after he had achieved considerable success.

The lesson is that people can achieve certain goals in this country on their own because we have reached meaningful standards, and there are people who have the capacity to reach breakout success on their own as sports personalities just because we are a nation that’s doing relatively well in economic terms despite the notoriety achieved in the very recent past.

It’s because of our relative economic success that we probably failed last year so spectacularly as well. We had something to lose, and we lost it.

That’s not an achievement of course, it’s a disaster, but we can at least begin to acquire some perspective about that state of affairs. We were good enough to achieve relative economic success and when we did, we sustained those gains for some time. But at a certain point, there were cracks in the system and those appeared as they most often do because improved economies can afford to flex a little. Of course we flexed too much, and that was the debacle.

Despite biting the dust last year, the sporting community has not taken years to recover. We soon started from where we left off before the economic crisis, and now at least the sportsmen and women are achieving much as if nothing has happened.

It’s of course at least in part because they are of great temperament and are spunky individuals ready for all types of challenges. But that type of inner-resource base is not built from nothing.

As a country our relative success made sporting achievements possible, and that’s something we have to contextualise at least, because an outright celebration would be far too early.

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