Recriminations for the underwhelming showing from team Sri Lanka have been unfairly levelled in some quarters, but the reality is that this contingent ought to be celebrated
After weeks of gruelling competition, the Tokyo 2020 Olympics drew to a close this past week and with it team Sri Lanka returned home.
The nine-strong team was among the smallest contingents sent to the Games by any nation, but even then there was some cautious optimism that there could be some medal winners in the group.
“I’m hopeful that someone from our contingent can come back with a medal, the talent is there, and we know the desire is definitely there. But whatever said and done we’re extremely proud of what they have achieved so far regardless,” National Olympic Committee of Sri Lanka President Suresh Subramanium had said ahead of the games.
Sadly, while the medals were not forthcoming, the latter part of his statement certainly still held true; these athletes had prepared to compete at the 2020 Games in sub-optimal conditions to say the least, as the pandemic caused chaos in their training regiments, but they nevertheless gave it their all.
The performances of swimmer Mathew Abeyesinghe and sprinter Yupun Abeykoon highlight this point particularly well. Both had gone into the games in high spirits – Abeyesinghe as Sri Lanka’s most decorated athlete, and Abeykoon as South Asia’s reigning fastest man – but both fell short of their personal best times on the big occasion.
Abeysinghe was in fact leading at the halfway mark in his 100m Freestyle heat, but his lack of conditioning began to tell as he faded into last place in the home stretch. He would finish 48th out of 71 competitors – still no mean feat.
Abeykoon meanwhile came 6th in his 100m Heat, timing 10.32s, well short of his personal best of 10.15s. Had he matched his personal best time, he would have qualified for the finals, but these are the fine margins at play at the highest levels – margins that can only be bridged through consummate preparation and conditioning, both things lacking in a pandemic-saddled year.
Then there’s the case of Nimali Liyanaarachchi, who had among the most disrupted build-ups to the games, having spent most of 2020 recovering from an injury and then not having any competitions to compete in once she had regained fitness. It was little surprise then to see her fall some five seconds short of her personal best in the 800m event, finishing 43rd out of 46 competitors.
Despite these setbacks though, there were certainly positives to grasp hold of. While it’s true that many of the Sri Lankan contingent qualified through Universality or the Tripartite Quota – places set aside for athletes who fall short of entry requirements or are from countries that have only a few representatives at the games – this was also largely down to the pandemic causing havoc in terms of preparations and qualifying events.
That said, three of the athletes – Milka Gehani (Gymnastics), Mathilda Karlsson (Equestrian) and the aforementioned Abeykoon – all qualified based on their international performances.
This is an achievement in its own right, and one that should be lauded and built upon. As Subramaniam correctly pointed out, “the talent is there”.
Judoka Chamara Dharmawardena and badminton star Niluka Karunaratne have impressed at previous Olympics, even if their performances would have left them disappointed this time around.
And despite finishing 32 out of 33 competitors, Aniqah Gafoor is just 18 years of age and the experience of competing against and alongside such world class talents would have been invaluable. The same can be said for shooter Tehani Egodawela, who finished 49th out of 50, but will have savoured the experience.
Recriminations for the underwhelming showing from team Sri Lanka have been unfairly levelled in some quarters, but the reality is that this contingent ought to be celebrated. The Olympic dream is not one that is made overnight, nor is it one that can be extinguished just as swiftly; for many of these athletes the journey will continue, day after day, through hard work and perseverance.
As Sri Lankans, they are unequivocally the best of us, and it is the nation’s duty and obligation to provide them with the platform and expertise to maximise their potential and continue defying the odds.