No rest, No masseuse just untameable grit and passion

Sri Lanka’s journey at 18th Asian Junior Athletic Championship

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They were a bunch of juveniles, they did the unthinkable; a whopping medal tally of 9 consisting 3 Gold, 4 Silver and 2 Bronze, from a contingent that numbered 13. The Sri Lankan Junior athletes who participated the 18th Asian Junior Athletic Championship (AJAC) made the fellow countrymen proud and the rest of the world sit up and take note.  The island’s Athletics have woken up from their long slumber.

Related – Gold for Men’s 4X400 as Sri Lanka finish 5th in overall standings

  • How they fared

Quarter-miler Aruan Darshana became the most glamorous athlete of the competition winning the Men’s 400m Gold clocking an astonishing time of 45.79secs which wiped out the previous Asian junior championship record of 45.85secs held by Qatari Salah El Din Bakar, recorded in the 1999 edition held in Singapore. This incidentally was also the first time a Sri Lankan dipped under 46 secs since 2006 in the event. Pasindu Kodikara ran a well calculated race to win the Silver medal in the same event. 17 year old Parami Wasanthi shaved over 15 secs from her previous best clocking 10:21.54 which itself is a remarkable achievement and went on to win Gold in the Women’s 3000m steeple chase. Despite competing with athletes two years her senior Parami showcased immense potential and has already put a marker on the 2020 Asian Junior Gold.  Dilishi Kumarasinghe won Silver in the women’s 400m while she had to be satisfied with a Bronze in her pet event Women’s 800m due to stiff opposition that she faced from the two Japanese runners. Dilishi managed to better her personal best in both events clocking 53.26secs and 02:04.53secs respectively.  The junior Sprint queen, Amasha De Silva collected two silver medals in the 100m & 200m sprint. Originally a 400m hurdler, Amasha was converted into a sprinter just last year. In both the 100m & 200m sprint she was not amongst the best starters as she was slow off the blocks despite managing to finish second in both races. Amasha reportedly had a hamstring niggle that she managed throughout the competition but managed to renew her personal best time in both events running 11.71secs in the 100m and 24.47 in the Women’s 200m.  Sri Lanka finished off the Asian Junior Athletic Championship winning the final event with a Gold medal in what was fitting finish to a memorable Championship.  In the Men’s 4X400m final  Sri Lankans were the pre-race favorites with the Gold winning Aruna and Silver winning Pasindu in their ranks. Sri Lankan quartet had no challenge from word go as they sped away to the finish line with ease to secure Gold ushering nostalgic memories of by gone era where Sri Lanka ruled the event in the Asian circuit.   

  • Some comparisons

The AJAC 2018 was a rollicking passage as the athletes managed to win the Island’s highest medal tally over the 18 editions of the championship. The previous best being the 15th which was hosted in Sri Lanka where the count stood at 7. This year’s 9 were even more special, as Sri Lanka only managed 3 medals in the 16th in Taipei and were medal-less in the 17th in Vietnam. This sudden slump was a direct result of mismanagement of talent and the lack of a proper synthetic track as the Sugathadasa stadium was out of commission shortly after the 2012 Asian Athletic Championship. The Diyagama Mahinda Rajapakse stadium was the sole synthetic surface remaining and was in a deplorable condition due to overuse, causing many injuries.

  • Prelude to AJAC 2018

In the run up to the AJAC, the South Asian Junior Athletic Championship (SAJAC) was hosted in Colombo in May this year. The newly-laid Sugathadasa stadium was handed-in for 56th Junior National Championship which was held a week prior to the SAJAC with construction incomplete.  It was at the Junior Nationals that these young athletes fired the first warning shots providing a glimpse of what was to come. On a brand new ‘A Grade’ surface, 29 meet records, including a national record and 9 sprint records were established proving that given the infrastructure this Island possessed capabilities to challenge the world.

Related – 56th Junior National Championship; Double record duo steal limelight

At the SAJAC, Sri Lanka was only second to India in the overall tally gathering 41 medals with India finishing on top with a total of 51.  Sri Lanka however, looked glamorous blistering through most of the track events beating the colossal neighbor each time. The Sri Lankan athletes smashed 8 meet records at the competition.

Related – Sri Lanka baptize new track with fire; 41 Medals & 8 Records

  • Selection gaffe

A squad of the 13 was chosen for the Asian Junior Championship, but controversially the junior women’s 4X100m team which won Gold medal at the SAJAC clocking an impressive time of 46.23 which was also a new Sri Lanka Junior national record was mysteriously not selected. They bettered the previous one that stood for 24 long years which was established by the relay team which comprised of stalwarts Susanthika Jayasinghe, Damayanthi Darsha, Nimmi De Soyza and Amanda Wanigatunga. The omission sent shockwaves across the fans; the best junior women’s 4X100m team to emerge from Sri Lanka and they didn’t make the squad.

Record breaking run by the Women’s 4X100m team at SAJAC 2018

In the 4X100m final at the AJAC, Hongkong took bronze clocking a time of 47.00secs which would have been an unquestionable bronze for the Sri Lankan lasses and pushed a possible silver. The justification for not including them in the squad was that the time of 46.23secs they recorded at the SAJAC did not meet the pre- fixed qualification mark of 45.94secs taking to account the last three bronze medal timings.

A sports ministry directive, which reportedly demanded that only athletes who can win medals be sent on tours was the rationale that was given when questions were raised. This policy of only sending athletes who are assured of medals should surely be authentic to Sri Lanka and just to some sports? India who ended up placed third at the Asian junior championship with a medal tally of 17  fielded a total of 68 athletes, surely not following neighbours strategy.

  • Handicap

The Sri Lankan Junior contingent landed in Gifu, Japan on the 6th of May with only a few hours and one sleep ahead of first day of the competition on the 7th. The team did not have the services of a masseuse, a necessity for athletes who have to face a grueling regime of events in the span of 4 days in alien conditions. Even school athletic teams come equipped with a masseuse for local competitions. Again, concerns raised by the media fell on deaf ears.   

  • Blessing in disguise

However, there was a guardian angel hovering over the little Sri Lankan athletes. Passion for a sport is a like a virus that never leaves your system. May be dormant, but can surface at the tiniest stimulant, prompting you to do everything in your power to get behind the sport you love.

This ‘angel’ was Dinesh Kumar, the protagonist of the sub-plot that ran behind the scene during the Asian Athletic Championship. It had been a while since the former Maristonian athlete, Dinesh, wore a pair of spikes and ran his lungs out. But having watched the youngsters from Japan, not even the 450km between Gifu (where the Championship was held) and Joso (A city near Tokyo where Dinesh resides) tamed his passion of the opportunity to cheer the youngsters he knew can contest the world.

Having valiantly tried to provide the visiting Sri Lankan team with footwear, and having to abandon it to lack of interest of others, he took it upon himself to travel the distance and present Young Aruna Darshana and Dilishi Kumarasinghe with running cleats in a remarkable gesture. Also having been notified  the lack of a masseuse on tour, he made arrangements for a Japanese masseuse to be commissioned for the entirety of the championship from his own pocket and that of a few friends.

  • no protests, they just ran  

One of the favorite responses by Sri Lankan administrators when the shortcomings faced by the athletes are raised is that “They should try to do their best without always trying to give excuses”. Sri Lankan squad to Asian Junior Athletic championship was made to use the same running kit used for the South Asian junior athletic championship – no protests, they just ran! While the other nations sported full competition kits, this team only had a T-shirt and a track bottom in the cold climes of Gifu – no protests, they just ran. The team did not have adequate rest or time to practice in Gifu prior to the competition –  no protests, they just ran, ran Sri Lanka to the best medal tally in the history of the competition.

The junior athletes have now showcased their capabilities despite the numerous disadvantageous they have had to face. It is time the authorities take notice. It is time that we – the sport loving public of Sri Lanka and corporates make it our duty as well to standby these young gems just as Dinesh Kumara did in Japan or it will be a very long wait until we see the lion flag on an international podium.

Officials from the Sports ministry and the Education ministry were present at the Airport on the arrival of these champions, falling over themselves in congratulations. The Hon Sports Minister Faizer Musthapha was also present and stated  “We competed with 35 Asian countries and to be able to win 9 medals with a team of 13 athletes is a remarkable achievement. We are hoping to put a long-term plan in place for these kids and through that to achieve great milestones even at the Olympics with the help of able coaches”.

The team will next be off to the IAAF World Youth Championship which will be held in a couple of months, join with ThePapare.com and let’s support them.