ABA Yet Cling To Hopes Of A Place In Olympics
- Men fail Olympic qualification test; now it’s the turn of the women
SINCE a two-year ban was slapped on Manju Wanniarachchi in the aftermath of the 2010 Commonwealth Games (for reasons too well-know to warrant repetition here) and the retirement of Kamal Sameera last year , the prospects of a Sri Lankan men’s boxer qualifying for the London Olympics was always going to be bleak.
The experienced duo had long been the central figures in ABA’s plan for 2012 Olympic qualification, so that the suspension of one and the retirement of the other, both not bargained for, left the ABA in the middle of nowhere: with the duo’s availability beyond recall, it was too late in the day to nurture fresh Olympic hopefuls.
Typical of its “can-do” spirit, the ABA wasn’t prepared to sit and mope amidst the ruins of its broken dreams. It turned to its younger boxers to pursue its ambition of Olympic representation, albeit more in hope than faith. “The official line of the new campaign was: the making of new champions, which it was. After all, replacements for the likes of Manju and Sameera had to be found,” said Mahesh Dahanayake, ABA Secretary. “Of course, it would’ve been naïve to think the new campaign would produce a qualifier for the London Games, but honestly, we secretly wished it would, miraculously.”
And so the miracle was chased – in Incheon, South Korea and then in Baku, Azerbaijan, places to where three relatively fresh-faced boxers were dispatched for the Asian Championships and the World Championships respectively. In both championships, the Sri Lankan boxers were eliminated in their respective first fights. What these first-round eliminations, especially in the Asian Championship, conveyed was the chance of any Sri Lankan boxer qualifying for the 2012 Olympics was, well, the same as a cow has of flying.
Impossible as it was, the ABA couldn’t be dissuaded from chasing the miracle. It went ahead and chose two boxers for the recent Asian Olympic qualifier in Kazakhstan, disregarding the fact that the same two boxers had been eliminated in the first round of the Asian Championships last July. No great surprise that both were beaten in their respective first fights in Kazakhstan.
Bantamweight Dhamith Wijeratne was outpointed, 9/22, by his Kyrgyzstani opponent, who himself failed to finish in the top four in his weight class and qualify for the London Games. Flyweight, Dilanka Suresh’s margin of defeat was identical to his team mate’s, but at least there was some consolation that his Japanese opponent went on to qualify for the Olympics, finishing third in his weight.
The bottom line: the miracle didn’t work. The ABA’s Olympic qualification might’ve been over ambitious, but you can’t help but admire its perseverance. After all, with Wanniarachchi and Sameera out of reckoning for Olympics selections about a year before the Games, the sensible thing to do would’ve been to give up on the 2012 Olympics and divert resources expended on a wild goose chase to, say, youth development. Such conventional wisdom, however, is in disharmony with ABA’s “can do” spirit – a sprit which told in boxing parlance would read: clamber back on to your feet when the floor seems a better place to be.
“It would’ve been marvelous if one of the boxers somehow qualified for London. But no regrets that we tried by participating in every international competition that was there on the calendar prior to the Games – participations which we think were not a waste,” said Dahanayake. “If anything we’ve gone some distance in the search for new champions. The two boxers who fought in Olympic qualifiers are 24 and 23 years and yet to acquire full maturity. And with a crop of emerging champs too in the national training pool, I am confident that when the 2016 Olympics come along we’ll have boxers who’ll compete with a more realistic chance of qualification.’’
It should not be forgotten that Sri Lanka ended a four-decade absence from the Olympic ring only at the last Games in Beijing; Anuraddha Rathnayake being the representative. “The continuing failure (to qualify since the 1968 Olympics) had a huge psychological impact on our boxers: they began to accept the Olympics are beyond them. But with Rathnayake’s success local boxers believed the Olympics is not the impossible dream it seemed,’’ said Dian Gomes, the Godfather of local boxing.
“It is important that the boxers preserve this new-found belief – and the only way to ensure that was to continue qualifying for future Olympics. Otherwise, there’s the danger that we might be consumed again by the habit of failure.”
So, lest the 2012 failure gets to be a continuing sequence again, the ABA is setting yearly targets all the way to the 2016 Games. Its most immediate goal is the SAF Games next February in New Delhi. For a six-nation competition, Sri Lanka’s record of achievements should’ve been far better than what’s recorded. Apart from the 1991 Colombo event, in which 3 gold, 2 silver and 5 bronze were won, our performances in the 28-year biennial event has been less than impressive.
Sri Lanka has won a total of only five gold medals, three by Sumith Prasanna alone (in 1991, 93 and 99). The last gold was in 2004, thanks to the Pakistani vanquisher of Harsha Kumara in the final failing a drug test.
“Rather than calculate in terms of 2016 Olympic qualification, I think it would be wiser if officials stress the importance of winning SAF gold – a prize we have not won once in eight years, i.e. in three Games, which is not a happy record in a competition that has just six countries,’’ said a coach, requesting anonymity. “Let’s be honest: before we talk about our Olympic chances, we ought to be bossing in our own backyard.”
Don’t tell that to the ABA. It still nurses ambitions of showing the national vest in the London ring – via its women’s boxers. Frankly, a woman boxer winning Olympic representation had been less of a day-dream than the men’s bid. There was good reason to think the women might succeed where the men failed, especially after Nilmini Jayasinghe’s gold medal success in the 2009 Russian Invitational International tournament, a virtual duplicate of the World Championship. Anusha Kodituwakku, an Asian Championship gold medalist, was another Olympic hopeful.
After the recent Women’s Asian Championship in Mongolia, chances of Olympic qualification, however, took a dip. Jayasinghe and Kodituwakku fared far less than the less-celebrated Shiromali Weeraratne, who secured bronze. But the welterweight policewoman can’t be a candidate for the Olympics. Women’s boxing makes its Olympic debut in London, and owing to time constraints, women’s boxing will feature only three weight classes; Weeraratne’s welter isn’t one. Jayasinghe and Kodituwakku were eliminated in the first round of the competition.
“Shiromali’s bronze was commendable given that she’s a newcomer to international boxing. But Anusha and Nilimini’s defeats in the first round were obviously disappointing. I am not making excuses; Nilmini was fighting above her weight. Her body weight is 55 kilos, a category excluded for the Olympics. So she stepped up to 60 kilos which is included in the Olympics. Conceding five kilos was too huge a disadvantage to overcome,” said Dhilhara Seimon, Manageress of the team and ABA assistant treasurer.
“Anusha was unfortunate to be hampered by a knee injury. She was six points ahead of her (Mongolian) opponent at the end of the rd.2. But in the final round she was reduced to virtual immobility as her injury worsened –she was keener to see the end of the fight than stay in it. Having led by six points, she lost by a margin of 9 points. She was as good as a punch bag in the third round,” added Seimon.
Whatever the reasons are for the failure of Jayasinghe and Kodituwakku, the earlier optimism that one of them might appear in London has diminished. For the ABA, though, it’s not the end of the road. At least the two central figures in its long term plans for Olympic qualification haven’t been banned or retired. “We might’ve failed in the Asian Championships, but we at least know now the areas where improvement are required and working hard in those areas,’’ said Seimon.
The two presently are undergoing specialized training at the Elite Performance Academy in Nottingham, England – from where they will directly fly to Sport Authority Training Centre in Thailand to join six other national teams, including Thailand and Australia, in a multi-national training camp.
The Sri Lankan duo faces their moment of truth at the Asian Women’s Olympic qualifier, May 9-20 in the Chinese city of Qinhuangdao, Hubei. Practically, they’ve done just about all that’s required to stake a claim for a place in the London Olympics – a prayer or two, however, might be useful.