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Tales of two future prospects

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Uditha Chandrasena had the ability to clear hurdles with both legs, an advantage in 400 metres hurdles. Here he takes part in an athletics event at Diyagama. (Pic RF)

 

Waiting for the next Olympic hurdler – Part VI

 

by Reemus Fernando

When one young kid called Ushan Thivanka from a little known school made the winning jump in the Under-11 long jump at a local meet, the talent scouts of Maris Stella College, Negombo made a beeline to the budding talent. No sooner he was recruited by the then athletics stronghold, Maris Stella, he came under the supervision of veteran jumping coach Philip Ranjith. There was no such attention paid to Uditha Chandrasena from Sri Gnanawasa MMV, Divulapitiya, who was placed second in the same event. He went home like all others, not knowing what the future holds for him. Neither Thivanka nor Chandrasena knew that they would soon cross paths again. Today, Chandrasena, who went on to record many outstanding 400 metres hurdles performances at national school level, is an officer in the Sri Lanka Air Force, while Thivanka, the Sri Lankan national record holder in the men’s high jump is perusing his Olympic dream in the US. According to World Athletics statistics, Thivanka’s 2.30 metres performance recorded in May is the 15th best feat in the world this year.

Maris Stella College, Negombo has been in the possession of nearly 100 hurdles since 2010 after the school administration took a bold decision to invest in track and field sports. The three sports schools in the Western Province, namely Henegama Central, Rajasinghe Central and Taxila Central, combined have less than half that number. However, the presence of hurdles does not produce hurdlers. It was by chance that the best hurdler the school has produced to date came under the supervision of the likes of Susan Thamel, Lalith Silva and Tony Silva at Maris Stella around that time.

Studious youngster, Chandrasena passed the grade-five scholarship exam and his mother who had seen the ‘majesty of the College situated adjacent to the Negombo hospital’ during one of her visits, wanted to admit her child there. But her efforts were to no avail as the school was allocating only ten spots for the grade five scholarship students.

But a rare opportunity came his way when Maris Stella conducted a workshop for young athletes. Chandrasena’s father heard the news that reputed sprint coach and Olympian Sunil Gunawardena, his wife Badra and their famous charge Shehan Ambepitiya were coming to conduct the workshop. After his father obtained permission, Chandrasena could attend it and would not miss the coaching eye of Gunawardena who later inquired from the school authorities about the child. “It was the wise words of Gunawardena that made the school recruit me,” says Chandrasena, who later commenced training under Philip Ranjith and surpassed Thivanka to win medals at Junior National level in the long jump.

A couple of years later Ushan Thivanka set his eyes on the high jump as he came under the guidance of Suranji Fernando. Winning the long jump at the national level was not enough for Uditha he wanted to try his luck at a new event, the hurdles.

Maris Stella was famous for allowing young athletes to take up more than one discipline as the points earned by them would come in handy when the national schools championship titles were decided. However, there was no overloading as training was done only three days per week. Uditha however had to take an extra effort to convince ‘Silva Sir’ (Lalith Silva) to take up hurdling. He trained alone before performing a hurdle clearance to convince Silva. It did not take long for him to produce results. In his first year as a Senior John Tarbet Under-16 hurdler, he was only second to Youth Asian Games medallist Anuruddha Vidusanka.

Then on one fine Saturday, he saw pole vaulters undergoing training. Uditha was taken up by the event and immediately wanted to try it. The first thing he did after returning home was to prepare a makeshift pole vault area. After he got substantial training by himself he went to the pole vault coach and exhibited what he could do. In his first year as an Under-17 athlete, Uditha won podium places in all three events, the long jump, hurdles and pole vault at the junior national level.

Uditha Chandrasena making one of his last appearances for Maris Stella. (Pic Nishan S. Priyantha)

Uditha was just over five feet tall when he entered the Under-18 age category but compensated for the height disadvantage with his ability to clear hurdles with both legs. His outstanding performances found him a place in the team for the first-ever Asian Youth Athletics Championships in Doha where he almost won a medal. St. Sylvester’s hurdler Dharshana Rajapaksa compensated by winning the silver. Sri Lanka had two hurdlers featuring in that final.

Both Ushan and Uditha were fighters and had the natural ability to overcome barriers. Thivanka tall and lanky and Uditha short in stature but stoutly built were the shining stars of Maris Stella when they reached their final years. But now only Ushan is pursuing a career in athletics.

“By the time I entered the final year at school I started to realise that if I failed in studies I would be left with nothing. I had missed studies. The good performances at the junior national level were not going to help me. With just six months ahead of A/L, I decided to put all my efforts just to pass the exam. I passed the exam in the maths stream. I could have achieved better grades if I tried again but with my father having to take care of my mother who was ill with cancer I decided to apply to Air Force,” says Chandrasena.

Chandrasena was good in his studies. He had obtained seven ‘A’s and two ‘B’s for the GCE O/L. By the time he left school, he had many junior hurdles records against his name. Certainly, he had displayed the qualities of a future Olympian and could have reached the top at international level like his friend Thivanka, had he received support at the crucial juncture. The search for next Olympic hurdler continues.

 

 



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Sri Lanka’s contingent prior to the opening ceremony

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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.

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Sri Lanka on course for consolation win 

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Avishka Fernando anchored the Sri Lankan innings after the hosts were set a target of 227 to win the third and final ODI against India at RPS yesterday.

 

By Rex Clementine

Sri Lanka looked on course for a consolation win the third and final ODI against India at RPS yesterday as they reached 92 for one at the end of 15 overs chasing a target of 227.  Avishka Fernando gave the hosts a solid start in the dead rubber and was unbeaten on 46 when this edition went to print.

Fernando played some exciting strokes and his pulled six off Navdeep Saini was the shot of the day. It reminded of the power hitting of another Moratuwaite – L.R.D. Mendis.

Bhanuka Rajapaksa was unbeaten on 28.

Spinner Praveen Jayawickrama and Akila Dananjaya came up with outstanding performances picking six wickets between them as India were bowled out for 225 after being 157 for three at one stage. 

Sri Lanka did three changes to the side that lost the second ODI while India came in with six changes handing debuts for five players, virtually playing a third string team.

Sri Lanka’s fielding that was a huge let down during the previous game showed some improvement as they backed up the bowlers to reduce India to 225 in 43.1 overs. 

Dananjaya started off poorly conceding three boundaries in his first three balls on his return to limited overs cricket and exhausted a review too in his very first over. Sri Lanka had indicated that they were going to consider the off-spinner only for T-20 cricket but were forced to bring him back following injury to Wanindu Hasaranga.

Jayawickrama, who had claimed 11 wickets on his Test debut against Bangladesh in May, bowled superbly as he claimed the wickets of three middle order batsmen in his second ODI. With the left-arm spinner striking at regular intervals, India never got any momentum in their innings.

Dananjaya dismissed Suryakumar Yadav when he trapped him leg before wicket and claimed two more wickets towards the tail end of the Indian innings.

Skipper Dasun Shanaka, who had got his act woefully wrong in the previous game, had things very much under control yesterday with some clever bowling changes. He himself sent down eight overs and claimed the key wicket of Prithvi Shaw for 49.

Rain had stopped play for 100 minutes during the Indian innings and the game was reduced to 47 overs.

A win is crucial for Sri Lanka as they would gain ten points in the ICC World Cup Super League.

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Meet Harijan, the 400 metres hurdler at Sydney Olympics  

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Waiting for the next Olympic hurdler – Part VIII 

by Reemus Fernando  

The last Sri Lankan man to run 400 metres hurdles at an Olympics is Harijan Ratnayake. That was 21 years ago. He will be in Tokyo next month. Ratnayake who holds the national record of the discipline will not be running hurdles there. Instead he is accompanying his charge Kumudu Priyanga for the Paralympics. Asian Para Games medallist Priyanga is not a hurdler. She will compete in the 100 metres and the long jump in the T47 category.  

“I do not have hurdlers training under me,” says Harijan who alongside Asian medallist Asoka Jayasundara are the only men to know how it feels like to have run the event under 50 seconds.  

Rajitha Niranjan Rajakaruna who won the bronze medal in the 400 metres flat event at the last National Championship is trained by Harijan. He clocked 47.21 seconds at the nationals. According to Harijan athletes willing to take up the 400 metres hurdles and ready to work hard are in short supply. “When Rajakaruna came to me he was running 400 metres in 57 seconds or somewhere around that. To become a 400 metres hurdler you have to be a good 400 metres sprinter as well. When the base is prepared he could be trained for 400 metres hurdles.” 

“I see many future prospects. But I can train only if they come to me,” says Harijan who earmarks Asian Junior Championship (2018) medallist Pasindu Kodikara as one.  

Harijan too was not a hurdler initially. He reached the pinnacle of his athletics career, established records and went on to represent Sri Lanka at Sydney Olympics when he trained under S.M.G. Banda, who was among the best in the business then. Harijan was introduced to Banda by incumbent president of Sri Lanka Athletics Palitha Fernando, who had been in the athletics administration since 1979. Things have change dramatically within the last two decades as athletes have continued to remain with their school coaches even after reaching senior level.   

After Duncan White won silver in the 400 metres hurdles in 1948 Olympics it took Sri Lanka more than five decades to qualify an athlete for the 400 metres hurdles. A clue to the question why had it taken so many years to unearth someone like Ratnayake might lie in a stack of books in an iron cupboard in the department of sports at the Ministry of Education. The event results of all athletics disciplines of the All Island Schools Games are carefully stored according to their year in a steel cupboard at Isurupaya. Our search for the 400 metres hurdles results of all Schools Games found that the event had been only introduced in early 90s. According to Sri Lanka Athletics statistician the Public Schools meet which was the forerunner to the All Island Schools Games had only the 300 metres hurdles.  

Had Ratnayake competed in 400 metres hurdles in his last year, the All Island Schools Games results of mid 90s should have had his performances. The name Ratnayake is not there in the final of any meet in that period. However in one particular meet heats performances shows an athlete from Dharmadutha Vidyalaya, Badulla being placed third in a heat. “When the championship was held in Anuradhapura I went to see the ruins after the heats. I did not even see the final.”   

However it took only five years for him to be Sri Lanka’s number one hurdler and win medals at Asian level and represent Sri Lanka at Olympics. The right athlete training under the right coach can bring the best out of both.

 

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