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Waiting for the next Olympic hurdler

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Tokyo Olympics – 8 days to go

by Reemus Fernando  

The 400 metres hurdles, a discipline in which the country won its first Olympic medal has lost its popularity from being probably the most popular track discipline in 1948 to be the least-interested athletics event among school children today. The lack of facilities and neglect by officials at Divisional and Zonal level is contributing to making the event less attractive and killing the interest of potential athletes who could one day win medals at the international level.  From lack of knowledge of coaches to train the technical event to lack of proper facilities (grounds), there could have been many other factors that had contributed to making the track discipline less appealing but there had been a number of athletes who have beaten the odds to win medals at the junior international level, proving that it is not a case of the dearth of talent.

After Duncan White won the country’s first medal at the 1948 London Olympics it took more than half a century for a Sri Lankan male even to earn an Olympic berth in that discipline. It also took more than five decades since Independence for a Sri Lankan male to win a 400 metres hurdles medal outside the South Asian region. In 2000 Harian Ratnayake won the Asian Athletics Championship silver and became the first Sri Lankan since Duncan White to take part in an Olympic 400 metres hurdles. Despite being the first Sri Lankan to run the distance under 50 seconds and winning silver at the Asian Championships, Ratnayake could not find a place in the semi-finals at the Sydney Olympics. Saudi Arabia’s Hadi Al-Somaily, Asia’s fastest that year went on to win a rare silver.

The 400 metres hurdle has been dominated by athletes from English speaking countries at the Olympics. While the competition among the English speaking countries has made the event faster than it had been a half-century ago, the standard of Sri Lanka’s 400 metres hurdles have remained stagnated.

When White finished second behind Leroy Cochran of the USA at the London Olympics he was just 0.07 seconds behind the winner who established a new Olympic record. The then world record was 50.6 seconds. During the last 73 years the world record has been improved by nearly four seconds. On the first of this month, the Norwegian champion Karsten Warholm broke the world record with a feat of 46.70 seconds (the record is subjected to World Athletics ratification).

The country’s national record of 49.44 seconds held by Ratnayake is more than two decades old now. Ratnayake, trained by S.M.G. Bandara and Asian Games medallist (relay) Asoka Jayasundara, trained by Sunil Gunawardena are the only athletes to have clocked sub 50 seconds in that discipline. The country’s top-level athletes today are much slower than the duo who won at the Asian level in their heyday.  At World Level more than 90 athletes clocked sub 50 seconds this year. Of them, 19 are from Asia. Sri Lanka’s fastest 400 metres hurdler this year is not even among the best 50 in Asia.

“Most of the current 400 metres hurdlers are athletes who had taken up the event after joining the Army. The motor abilities of an athlete have to be developed from a young age if he is to become a good hurdler. It takes years of training to become a good hurdler. Not many who take up hurdling at school level persevere,” says Asoka Jayasundara, the Asian Games medalist who trains several hurdlers.

The reason that many athletes do not take up 400 metres hurdles at school level could be attributed to the absence of facilities at the grass-root level. The vast majority of the country’s Divisional and Zonal schools athletics competitions are conducted on 200 metres tracks, which makes it impossible to conduct a proper 400 metres hurdles event. What the majority of organizers of Divisional meets do is to promote the few athletes who have applied for the event to the Zonal level. It is at the Divisional level that a young athlete first sees the event live. At a majority of Zonal meets too athletes competing in the 400 metres hurdles are given turns to run on a single set of hurdles. After finishing their turn, they wait around the timekeepers till all complete their turns to see who has produced the fastest time.

To be continued……….



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Sri Lanka Athletics gives priority to Asian Games

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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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SL begin World Cup preparations today

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by Rex Clementine

Sri Lanka’s cricketers who are in a bio-secure bubble at the Cinnamon Grand in Colombo will end their three day quarantine today and will start group training. Following the group training, there will be full squad training stimulating match situations and after ten days of practices in Colombo, the team will leave for Oman where they will play two T-20 Internationals.

Former captain Kusal Janith Perera, who sustained a hamstring injury during the South Africa series and was doubtful for the World Cup is in the bubble and The Island learns that there is a good possibility that he will recover by the time the World Cup starts.

KJP was axed as captain after just two tours and he missed the home series against India with a shoulder injury. He then tested positive for COVID and missed the ODI leg of the South Africa series and hurt his hamstring during the last T-20 International against the Proteas.

Sources said that KJP will tour with the squad to Oman but he is likely to be kept out of the games there and will be available for the qualifying round of the World Cup.

Sri Lanka’s bowling too is thin on experience for the Oman leg with SLC freeing Wanindu Hasaranga and Dushmantha Chameera, who are contracted with Royal Challengers Bangalore in the IPL. Both players are expected to join the squad just before the World Cup qualifiers.

Sri Lanka are slotted alongside Namibia, Netherlands and Ireland in the qualifying round and need to win two of those games to qualify. The games against Namibia and Netherlands will be played in Abu Dhabi while the crunch game against Ireland will take place in Sharjah. While Namibia and Netherlands do not pose much of a threat, Ireland can challenge Sri Lanka given all the troubles they have had in T-20 cricket in recent years.

Sri Lanka’s form lead up to the World Cup is not ideal having been blanked 3-0 by the Proteas at home. The two match series in Oman hopefully will give them momentum ahead of the World Cup qualifiers.

Apart from the squad of 15 players, the ICC allows four travelling reserves to be with the squad in case of replacements are needed in these uncertain times. Sri Lanka also are carrying five additional players at the board’s cost so that they will not be caught off guard in case of an emergency.

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SLC keen to help Pakistan and looking for a window

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by Rex Clementine

Sri Lanka Cricket is keen to help Pakistan once again after cricket in the country came to a standstill with New Zealand and England pulling out from their bilateral tours. Pakistan cricket chief former Test captain Ramiz Raja had reached out to his counterparts at SLC requesting the possibilities of a short tour. However, SLC is cramped for room for an immediate tour but will consider travelling to the country for a white ball series, possibly this year, SLC sources told The Island.

Sri Lanka are set to leave for Oman on the 3rd of October and that ruled out a series in Pakistan before the ICC T-20 World Cup. Soon after the World Cup, Sri Lanka will host West Indies for two Tests and the board will look at the possibility of touring Pakistan after that series.

Cricket in Pakistan stopped after the 2009 terror attack on the Sri Lankan team in Lahore. Pakistan were forced to play their home games in UAE, an exercise that cost the PCB an arm and a leg.

In 2017, Pakistan made a huge step forward when the last game of a bilateral series against Sri Lanka was played in Lahore. In that series, two Tests, five ODIs and two T-20s had been played in UAE and the final T-20 in Lahore.

Since, then Pakistan has hosted Bangladesh, West Indies and Zimbabwe in limited overs cricket while South Africa had played Test match cricket. Sri Lanka had toured Pakistan for both white ball and red ball games.

PCB was looking to bring all international teams back to the country but the pulling out of New Zealand in the 11th hour followed by England’s no show have been massive blows. Pakistan officials have been bitter about the cancellations and have promised to take up the matter with the ICC.

SLC was highly impressed by the security arrangements that were in place for the team and officials during all their visits and had sent senior Air Force officer Roshan Biyanwala to assess the situation before the team travelled to Pakistan. Biyanwala had given a clean slate and the tours completed successfully.

Pakistan has been one of Sri Lanka’s strongest allies in cricket. Several Pakistan players including former great Wasim Akram played a hastily arranged exhibition match in Colombo along with leading Indian stars before the 1996 World Cup when Australia and West Indies pulled out due to security reasons.

Much before that, Pakistan was a pillar of strength when Sri Lanka applied for full member status with the ICC in 1970s. Abdul Hafeez Kardar in his capacity as Chairman of the Pakistan board aggressively pushed Sri Lanka’s case. He was responsible in training Sri Lankan coaches and curators in Pakistan to uplift the standard of the game in the island.

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