Nurturing young sport talent for global feats | Sunday Observer

Nurturing young sport talent for global feats

21 August, 2022

Go to any so-called popular school in Colombo and you will see a swimming pool, an indoor sports arena, a playground with an athletic track and cricket nets and myriad other sports facilities. Thus, the children attending these schools have all the sports (and educational) facilities to excel at national and even international level.

This was exemplified by the slogan “Colambata Kiri Apita Kekiri” which was often heard during the 1988-89 youth insurrection. Although this literally means “milk for Colombo and Cucumber for villages”, the underlying meaning is much deeper. It showed the huge gap between the City and the Village when it comes to facilities for schoolchildren and youth.

Rural children and youth have an uphill task in competing against their counterparts in the cities in the sports arena. In the first place, their families are likely to be impoverished and in some even unable to afford three square meals a day. Boys and girls who engage in sports require a protein-rich diet replete with chicken, fish and eggs, but more often than not their parents cannot afford such items, which have now become luxuries for the average family, with a kilo of fish or chicken costing well over Rs.1,300 and even a humble egg costing an astronomical Rs.60.

Then comes the lack of facilities, places and equipment for training. Not many families can afford to buy, say, running shoes which cost well over Rs.40,000 per pair. Everything else from cricket bats to badminton rackets are very expensive. Most rural schools have little or no training facilities for any kind of sport. Sometimes children have to travel 30-40 Km to the nearest City to access indoor or outdoor sports facilities, especially swimming pools and good athletics tracks. The rural schools also lack teachers who have any knowledge of sport. Sometimes these children get a Physical Training (PT) period, which is their sole exposure to sport apart from the impromptu games they play during the interval or after school.

Bringing honour and fame

Despite all these shortcomings and difficulties, there have been sportsmen and women from rural areas who have reached the international stage, bringing honour and fame to Mother Lanka. Susanthika Jayasinghe is a prime example. Jayasinghe who won the Silver Medal at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games, (Sri Lanka’s second Olympics winner after Duncan White), hailed from a rural area and reached the pinnacle amidst many difficulties. Sriyani Kulawansa too has a similar story to tell.

Their magnificent feats on the international arena inspired a whole new generation of young people in both rural and urban areas of Sri Lanka to take up various sports at school and national level. They showed that it is possible for young people from rural areas to go all the way to international level with the right level of conviction, commitment and courage even if one is poor in material terms.

Nethmi Ahinsa had not even been born when Jayasinghe accomplished her phenomenal feat in Sydney, but today hers is a household name throughout Sri Lanka. Ahinsa won a bronze medal in the women’s 57 Kg freestyle wrestling event at the Commonwealth Games (CWG) 2022 in Birmingham. The 18-year-old successfully secured victory over Australia’s Irene Symeonidis by technical superiority in the bronze medal match, entering history as the first Sri Lankan to win a medal in Wrestling at the Commonwealth Games.

Ahinsa, speaking to the media on returning to the island, said she is glad that she could win a medal and achieve fame to Sri Lanka in face of current situation in the country, adding that she expects to make up for all the weaknesses which made her unable to win the gold medal, while preparing to qualify for the Olympics in Paris (2024).

Ahinsa’s feat is phenomenal since she chose an unconventional sport for a schoolgirl and because she comes from an underprivileged family which did not have the financial means to provide a her a rich diet and training equipment and facilities. However, amidst great difficulties they provided her everything needed to the greatest possible extent. She also had the services of a committed coach. Unlike some of her compatriots who did the vanishing trick in England, she returned to Sri Lanka with the aim of furthering her career to bring fame to Sri Lanka.

It was more or less a similar story with the other Sri Lankans who bagged medals at the CWG 2022. Dilanka Isuru Kumara (bronze medal in the Men’s 55kg weightlifting event) and Palitha Bandara (silver medal in the Men’s Para F42-44/61-64 Discus Throw) also faced many trials and tribulations in their journey towards success. Sri Lanka has minimal facilities even for able-bodied athletes, so achieving success in a paralympic event at this level is a great feat.


Even the Italy-based Yupun Abeykoon, who won the bronze in the 100 metres sprint at CWG 2022, had complained that the level of support he received from Lankan authorities was very low. It is only later that Sri Lanka Cricket and several other organisations came forward to sponsor him as he is a real prospect for the next Olympics.

Apart from the CWG, the young athletes who represented Sri Lanka at the World Athletics Under 20 Championship in Cali, Colombia (which was held almost simultaneously with the CWG) suffered so many hardships due to bureaucratic bungling and other factors beyond their control. At least one athlete had to compete in her event just one hour after landing in Cali after a 36-hour flight (transit times included) because Sri Lankan officials had not done her ticketing in time.

Young talent

In the light of these events, it is important for sports and also education authorities to get their act together to nurture young sports talent from schools, universities and other educational institutions. There must be hundreds of individuals like Nethmi in the Lankan school system whose talents lie dormant. We need a proper sports plan for all schools in the country, with talent scouts from various sports disciplines going in search of hidden sports stars. There was a plan earlier to build fully-equipped sports centres in every province so that athletes in each province can train and hold camps there. Para athletes should be able to access all these facilities and they should be granted the same level of recognition as their able-bodied counterparts.

But one centre per province may not be enough if we are to reach international level in a number of sports. It is better if this can be done district-wise, though the initial expense will be high. In some cases, such as swimming pools, one cannot expect the Government to construct 25 Olympic Size swimming pools, but at least two or three selected schools/universities in each province should get this facility.

Like Nethmi, girls (and also boys) must be encouraged to take up unconventional or ‘difficult’ sports. Sports such as wrestling, gymnastics, weightlifting or swimming, which necessarily require sportswear that reveal certain parts of the body, may also be culturally sensitive in rural areas especially in the case of females.

Religious or cultural factors can also prevent girls from certain communities from taking up team or individual sports. These taboos must also be broken in order to widen the talent base for sports.

‘Captain Cool’

The authorities must also provide sports equipment equally to all sports and universities. In fact, some sports such as Judo and Karate do not even require very expensive equipment. More national level sports events must be held to identify potential medal winners from schools, universities, Police and Security Forces and even private organisations.

As done in the case of Yupun, more public and private sector organisations must come forward to help our promising young athletes, both able-bodied and differently-abled. More training camps must be conducted for them and a proper diet must be ensured. Our mainly rice-based diet (all three meals) is not exactly conducive for high performance sport.

The authorities should also focus their attention to team sports, the biggest of which in Sri Lanka is cricket. This is the only sport in which we have become world champions (Lahore 1996) and by a happy coincidence, the very man who led Sri Lanka to victory on March 17 that year, is now heading the Sri Lanka Sports Council. We can expect a lot from ‘Captain Cool’ Arjuna Ranatunga in this new role, as he has already pledged to cleanse sports administration in the country of corruption and other irregularities. He must get rid of political interference in the administration of sport and even team selection in some sports. Sports Minister Roshan Ranasinghe has given his full backing for these plans.

Observer-Mobitel School Cricketer of the Year

Talking of cricket, it is heartening to note that rural girls have taken to cricket in a big way and with their eager participation, they might equal the men’s 1996 feat one day. This newspaper was the first to recognise and reward the achievements of girl cricketers in both rural and urban areas through the Observer-Mobitel School Cricketer of the Year Contest. This has hopefully inspired girls all over the island to take up cricket and indeed, other team sports (despite the expense involved, with the help of sponsors).

Netball is an exclusively girls’ sport that we can develop further, since we have already reached Asian and international level in this sport. Our world standing in soccer is very poor but more rural students should be encouraged to take it up. We should try to move up at least 10 more places in soccer in the FIFA rankings within the next 10-15 years, for a which a talent pool must be identified now. Volleyball, Basketball and hockey are sports that can easily be developed islandwide. Moreover, rugby authorities should work to lose the elite tag associated with the sport, which is mainly played by schools and clubs based in Colombo and Kandy and introduce rural schools to it.

Sheer unpredictability

Then there are sports such as cycling, tennis, badminton and table tennis that can be done in an individual capacity or in small teams. With proper coaching, fitness regimen and dietary control for a cycling team, we might one day be able to send a team to even the Tour De France. Sri Lanka has done quite well in the Davis Cup tennis tournament so far, but more could be done to develop the sport here. And even though golf is a horrendously expensive (and for me, somewhat incomprehensible) sport, who knows whether Sri Lanka has a Tiger Woods in waiting?

Cricket is well-known for its sheer unpredictability, but actually all sports go down to the wire. Winning or even participating in an international sporting event is no easy feat and several of our young people have done exactly that amidst all odds. They should be nurtured further as many of them have long careers ahead of them. All who can support them in whatever capacity should not shirk from this national duty.