by Reemus Fernando
When Sri Lanka’s Olympic contingent were entering the stadium for the Opening Ceremony of the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo yesterday, Nimali Liyanarachchi who could have easily become the country’s flag bearer was taking a seat in the business class for the first time in a long career to take wing from Colombo to Tokyo. On the same flight, Sujith Abeysekara who identified the talent at a very young age and helped her blossom into one of the country’s most successful middle distance runners was seated in the economy class.
It was not long ago that Nimali and fellow track and field athletes slept on the floor during transit on their way to the last pre Olympic competition. The country’s sports authorities have decided to provide five star facilities to Olympic bound athletes and that paved the way for NImali to travel in business class for the first time.
A winner of multiple disciplines at National Level, NImali has represented the country at numerous international competitions. No other athlete in the Sri Lankan contingent in Tokyo has excelled at regional events like the athlete from Sooriyawewa. A gold medalist at the Asian Athletics Championships and South Asian Games, the 32-year-old received a wildcard to the Olympics after Nilani Ratnayake, who was in contention for qualification slid in the world rankings. Before the lack of competitions pulled her down in world rankings Nimali was one of the top three Asians in her discipline. Though Nimali is a wildcard entrant at the Olympics her fellow track and field athlete at the Olympics, Yupun Abeykoon is not. Abeykoon qualified through world rankings and could be the only athlete who could go beyond the first round. Abeykoon, South Asia’s fastest man and badminton player Niluka Karunaratne are probably the only Sri Lankan athletes who are competition ready as Nimali’s preparation too was hampered due to quarantine procedures following their return from India’s Interstate Championship.
Athletics fraternity was curious yesterday as to why the honour of carrying the country’s flag had not been give to track and field athletes. At the time this story was filed, rooky gymnast Milka Gehani and judoka Chamara Nuwan Dharmawardena were scheduled to carry the flag at the Opening Ceremony.
Nearly one third of the countries that took part in the opening ceremony of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics had handed their country’s flag to track and field athletes. Some of them were legends of the sport. Many time Olympic medallist Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce was scheduled to carry the flag of Jamaica at the time this edition went to press. For the first time countries could be represented by two flag bearers at the Olympic Games. Sri Lanka, a country that has won its only Olympic medals in track and field had a gymnast and judoka doing the duty.
Twenty years after Sri Lanka won its last Olympic medal has athletics lost its place as the premier Olympic sport of the country or has other sports come to prominence surpassing track and field as prospective medal winning Olympic sports? It is the first time a gymnast is representing Sri Lanka. She was ranked 114th at the 2019 World Championships but according to NOC, she has received a continental quota spot due to cancellation of the Asian Gymnastic Championship.
Now take a look at Sri Lanka’s track and field athletes. Forget about the two track and field athletes in Tokyo. There are more than half a dozen track and field athletes who were among the top 100 athletes in the world in their respective disciplines including one who produced the 15th best performance of the world this year. They could not improve their rankings due to lack of opportunities to take part in top ranked Championships.
A championship in November might hurt athletes’ preparation for next year’s key events
by Reemus Fernando
Sri Lanka Army’s decision to schedule their flagship athletics event to November is likely to hurt top athletes’ preparations for next year’s major international events. The Army’s decision has come just a couple of weeks after Sri Lanka Athletics decided to windup the pandemic plagued season in October to allow enough time for off season as top athletes will have several crucial international competitions in 2022 including the Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games.
“Sri Lanka Athletics took the decision to conclude the season with the remainder of the National Championship in October in consultation with coaches as we have a busy schedule in 2022. Most of the coaches whose athletes had already completed their National Championship disciplines had started off-season training when the Army decided out of the blues to conduct their championship in November,” a senior coach told The Island.
Most of the top track and field athletes of the country are employed by Sri Lanka Army and athletes are bound to give equal prominence to the Army Athletics Championship. However, preparing them for the championship in November is likely to derail training plans of coaches who are eager to bring the best out of their athletes at two major international events in 2022.
Not having a proper Competition Calendar has been a problem that has hurt track and field athletes for decades now. Though Sri Lanka Athletics continue to announce their competition calendar in advance other stakeholders in the sport including the tri forces and the Sports Ministry have at times failed to announce theirs.
True the Covid 19 pandemic has hampered all schedules but it is important that all stake holders come together to take decisions vital for national athletics.
Despite the Covid 19 pandemic hampering sports events, Sri Lanka Athletics conducted a number of disciplines of the National Championship 2021 at the first leg in May to give opportunities for athletes who are closer to earn Olympic qualifying standards. The remaining legs of the National Championship 2021 which were rescheduled several times due to the pandemic will now be held on October 30 and 31.
The track and field governing body which will celebrate its centenary year in 2022 is eager to prepare strong teams for both the Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games as it has not experienced medal success at these championships for years now. Country has won 46 medals at the Asian Games. Of them 27 are from track and field sports. From the 11 gold medals it has won in the history of the Games ten have come from track and field. However, Sri Lanka has not won a medal in track and field after the men’s 4×400 metres relay team won a bronze in 2006. Sri Lanka has won only three track and field medals at the Commonwealth Games but non during the last two decades.
MJ to work as consultant during World Cup
Sri Lanka’s ICC T20 World Cup campaign has received a massive boost after former captain Mahela Jayawardene agreed to work with the team as a consultant during the tournament.
MJ will not be available for the entire campaign as his stint will last just one week, which means he will be only available for the qualifying round. He will not be available beyond the games against Namibia, Ireland and Netherlands.
SLC also stated that MJ has accepted a consultancy role with Sri Lanka Under-19 team for a period of five months lead up to next year’s ICC Under-19 World Cup. He will be working alongside his former SSC team mate Avishka Gunawardene, who is the Head Coach of the Under-19 side.
MJ known as a brilliant tactician in the game was one of Sri Lanka’s most successful captains across all forms of cricket. He was skipper when Sri Lanka won overseas Test matches in England, New Zealand and West Indies. He was also captain when Sri Lanka blanked England 5-0 in their own backyard. Under his leadership, Sri Lanka reached the finals of the ICC World T20 in 2012.
Since retiring from the game, he’s been a highly sought after coach having guided Mumbai Indians for multiple IPL titles and having worked with the England team as a consultant.
Sri Lanka coach Mickey Arthur welcomed the appointment. “I have worked with Mahela before and really looking forward to having him with us. He is one of the best cricket brains I have worked with and just very excited to have him with us,” he told The Island.
Sri Lanka Athletics gives priority to Asian Games
by Reemus Fernando
Sri Lanka Athletics will give priority to Asian Games over the Commonwealth Games as the two major sports events take place within five weeks from each other in 2022. The track and field governing body indicated their priorities at a meeting with the National Olympic Committee yesterday.
“Our best chances are at the Asian Games. We are trying to get the best out of the talent we have. To achieve that we have set our priorities right. Though we are going to select a team for both events at the same stage we might not send some athletes for the Commonwealth Games,” a senior official of Sri Lanka Athletics told The Island after a meeting with the NOC yesterday.
“For example our best chances for the men’s 4×400 metres relay team is at the Asian Games. We might not field that team for the Commonwealth Games,” Saman Kumara, the statistician of Sri Lanka Athletics said.
“In 2002 we had both the Commonwealth Games (July 25- August 4) and the Asian Games within a span of two months. We had three men who could run 400 metres in 45 seconds. We had the best chance of winning the 4×400 metres gold in Busan but the Commonwealth Games had its toll on the runners when the time came for the Asian Games,” said Saman Kumara who has experience as both a selector and manager of teams for these games.
While the 2022 Commonwealth Games will be held from July 28 to August 8 in Birmingham, the Chinese city of Hangzhou will host Asian Games from September 10 to 25.
“We are almost certain of fielding a men’s 4×100 metres relay team for the Commonwealth Games provided they meet selection criteria. The men’s 4×400 metres relay team will be reserved for the Asian Games.”
Though medal prospects are dim in track events at the Commonwealth Games, Sri Lanka’s men’s 4×100 metres relay team consisting of Himasha Eshan, Shehan Ambepitiya, Vinoj Suranjaya and Mohamed Ashrafu had a memorable outing at the last edition in Gold Coast where they established the current national record clocking 39.08 seconds.
That record will be in danger now with Italy based sprinter Yupun Abeykoon improving the national record this year and showing the ability to further improve the record.
Sri Lanka Athletics will update the current elite and national pools after concluding the remaining events of the National Championship at the end of next month. That pool will be maintained till March 2022 when the teams for both the Asian Games and Commonwealth Games are selected. The centenary National Championships in 2022 April (8,9,10) will be the final selection trial for both the Asian Games and the Commonwealth Games.
Sri Lanka Athletics will also target forming a mixed relay team for the Asian Games as there are two strong contenders to fill the women’s spots in Nadeesha Ramanayake and Dilshi Kumarasainghe. While Kalinga Kumarage and Aruna Dharshana are the front runners for the men’s sports in the mixed relay, the next few months will be crucial for the rest of the sprinters aspiring to win a place in the team for the men’s 4×400 metres relay.
Given their current form, the 100 metres, 400 metres, 4x100metres, 4×400 metres, high jump, long jump, and javelin throw, in the men’s category, 800 metres, steeplechase, long jump, and marathon in the women’s category and the mixed relay are the disciplines in which athletes have shown potential in reaching qualifying standards.
Sri Lanka has won the majority of Asian Games medals in track and field events though the country has not witnessed medal success after the men’s 4×400 metres quartet of Rohan Pradeep Kumara, Rohitha Pushpakumara, Prasanna Amarasekara and Ashoka Jayasundara won the bronze in 2006 in Doha. Since 2006 the country has won only two medals, both in cricket.
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