NOT that our little world of sport was at peace with itself last week and so free of issues that might warrant critical scrutiny. If there was such bliss for seven straight days, then, it must’ve been in some other land; over here (where, as the popular joke says, God deems it unnecessary to station guards at heaven’s door as its own people ensure no one of their kind gets through the door), sure enough this week threw up its share of controversies.
Sample1: The appointment of one Lasantha Silva as advisor to the Sport Minister on matters relating to the country’s tennis caused many eyebrows of SLTA officials to furrow. Not surprising, really. After all, it’s not as if the sport hasn’t renowned and knowledgeable people (like P.S. Kumara, Lam Seneviratne and Arjun Fernando, for instance) who the Minister might call on for advise than have to go to… well, Silva, who?
Apparently, Silva had intended to contest for the job of president of the SLTA’s Playing Section, but in the face of opposition from a majority of members who questioned his credentials, as a past player and an administrator, Silva was forced to abandon his presidential ambitions. “You don’t have to be a detective to reason out what followed his rejection. He obviously sought political influence to get the job of advisor – and succeeded,” said a SLTA official who wished to remain anonymous.
“Given the history of his appointment, there’s fear he might want to get his back on those Playing Section members who opposed him. It’s all very unsettling – and already the story doing the rounds is that his appointment is the first step to a (government-appointed) interim committee. Don’t forget that about a year ago tennis was run by an interim committee – so the reason of precedence exists for appointing another IC. ’’
Sample 2: The Squash Federation is aghast over the inclusion of a third representative to the Commonwealth Games. The NOC had allotted only two slots for squash, and the Federation had duly picked one each for the men’s and women’s events. “The Federation is happy about being allotted a third slot, but who should fill that slot is the job of the squash selectors. That didn’t happen,’’ said Oliver Guruge, Squash Federation President.
“Apparently, representation by interested parties was made to the Sport Ministry and a player on the selectors’ standby list was chosen, willy-nilly. Two were on the list, and which of the two is more suitable has to be the decision of the squash selectors. The way the selection (by the ministry and NOC) was made, it seemed as if the Federation didn’t exist.’’
Both of these issues are founded on serious allegations and, admittedly, deserve critical probing. But then such probing will inevitably reveal that the reasons for the controversies would be no different to reasons behind issues focused previously, week-in-week-out, in these columns – i.e. political influence pandering to interests of loyalists, relations and friends.
So, let’s leave any probing on the controversies blighting our tennis and squash for another day, put aside the criticism’s sharp implements for this week – and lend an ear to a real-life fairytale. The story of Anusha Dilrukshi might not exactly be stuff of Cinderella – after all, the 28-year-old, is a mean boxer, and the ring which is so much a part of her world, is hardly the place for a royal ball. No matter; as in the fable, a dream came true for the boxer, too.
You might wonder why Anusha’s ‘achievement’ is being hailed on such a Cinderella-ish scale when over the past weeks there’s been little in the media to suggest a feat of such proportion was accomplished. Seen in cold light, her achievements at the recent AIBA World Women’s Championship in Barbados are indeed modest at best. The Sri Lanka light-fly weight champion won her two opening fights (defeating opponents from the USA and China, 8:1 and 7:5 respectively) before being brought to grief by a Filipina, 3:6.
Were this Anusha’s record at any other international meet, any expressions of disappointment would be justifiable. But with 306 boxers representing 75 countries, the Barbados event was not just another international. The number of participants was 50 percent more than the 2008 World Championship, while country-representation soared from 42 to 75 – evidence of heightened global interest in the sport following the IOC’s decision to introduce women’s boxing in the 2012 Games.
“It is fair to say, Anusha took on the world – and her achievements in Barbados ought to be seen from that perspective,’’ said Dian Gomes, one-time ABA president and presently Slimline BC representative at the ABA. “Even though she didn’t win a medal, you shouldn’t forget she won against an American and Chinese – two countries considered world powers in boxing.’’
A medal she might not have won, but history she wrote: Anusha is the first Sri Lankan to advance to the quarterfinals of a World Women’s Championship; Sri Lanka has participated in the three of the six biennial championships. “In the two previous world championships (in 2006 and 2008) our boxers were eliminated in the first or second round. So Anusha’s achievement (in Barbados) is historic,’’ says Gomes.
A more telling description of her achievement would be to say she was one win short of a medal. Had she defeated her Filipina opponent, she would’ve qualified for the semifinal – the stage where even the loser wins bronze. “The knowledge that I was one win away from a bronze overwhelmed me. The tension and pressure got to me, and my hands and legs turned like stiff and tight in the ring,’’ said Anusha.
“In that tensed situation a boxer tends to over-try and gets into deeper trouble. That’s what happened to me – I tried to use only my fists, not my head, to get out of trouble. When my opponent took the lead, I got desperate – which is what happens when you know that a medal is only a few punches away.’’
She regrets that a winnable bronze was lost. She reckons her Filipina quarterfinal opponent “wasn’t that much better’’ than the Chinese she overcame in the previous fight. “If I fought half as fluently against the Philippines’ boxer as I did the night before (against the Chinese), I think the bronze would’ve been mine,’’ said the Slimline Garments’ Human Resources executive. “Obviously, it’s very disappointing that my form deserted on a crucial night.’’
The post- Barbados world rankings, however, placed the Sri Lankan boxer at an admirable no.5. Offer this as consolation for the missed bronze, and she responds: “It’s not the same as a medal.’’
Re-reel her life story back to her youth and you’ll marvel that this story is written at all. As a student of Hamangala MMV, her mind was set on music, and in fact obtained the necessary GCE A/Level marks to enter university and graduate in oriental music. “I was on my way to a job in music, as anything from a teacher, singer, dancer, violinist or tablalist,’’ said the second in the family of a CTB foreman. “(But) with a household of five, it wasn’t easy to get by on father’s salary alone – so I had to look for a job, and finding one wasn’t easy.’’
The Slimline factory was some 12 miles from her village and seemed the logical place to look for a job. “At the time Slimline was setting a women’s rugby team, and being an athlete at school, I suppose made me a worthy candidate for a berth in the three-quarter line – and that got me the job,’’ recalled Anusha. Not only did she play for Slimline, she also went on to represent Sri Lanka at the Hong Kong Sevens in 2003, her first year in rugby. “I was utterly delighted to be a national player in my first year and play in the Hong Kong Sevens, no less. I felt I had found my sport in rugby.’’
But if you’re an employee in Slimline Pannala, inescapably, you live in a boxing environment. You have your meals in a canteen that has a ring looking down on you; a turn down the corridor and you could well stumble into a gymnasium, and, should it be around 3.30 pm you’re likely to be greeted by the sound of leather pounding on flesh and boots rushing on canvas as boxers spar in deadly earnest. And bumping into the likes of Wanniarachchi, Sameera or Olympian Rathnayake on the office corridor is routine.
In such an environment, boxing was going to make approaches to Anusha. “Boxing didn’t have an instant appeal on me – I was happy with rugby; I was virtually a permanent in the national team and also seeing a bit of the world. I wasn’t willing to divert attention to a new sport at the expense of losing my passion for rugby,’’ says Anusha. “But in Slimline they can be pretty persistent about getting you involved in boxing – and when there’s encouragement from Dian sir (the CEO) too, then, what can you do but slip on gloves.’’
Slip on gloves she did – and climbed all the way up from Novices champion to National light-fly title holder in her very first year in boxing, in 2003. Since then she hasn’t surrendered her national title, and hasn’t lost to any local opponent, bar one. “I lost once to an opponent from the Army, but have beaten her in every other of our countless meetings.’’
She also won her national vest in her first year – and won bronze on debut, in the 2003 Asian Women’s Championships in India. Since then she’s winged the world, from Ho Chi Minh City, in Vietnam, to Barbados, in the West Indies. In between she set foot on the Philippines, Chinese-Taipei, many times India, Kazakhstan and Moscow. And in her journeying, the single-girl picked up a gold medal at the 2006 Asian Championships; bronze medals in the 2008 Asian Championships, the Invitational International meet in Moscow last year and the 2009 Asian Indoor Games.
By any measure, this village lass’s rise is remarkable – a far better story to tell than the many squabbles of sport officials. Anusha is the essence of sport; the squabbling officials, parasites that feed on the blood and sweat of athletes.