From Balapitiya To London; That’s How Far Niluka Has Gone
ASK any athlete what it takes to achieve, no not medals, but mere presence in an Olympic arena and… well, you’ll get stories of sacrifices and hardships on the tap. They’ll tell you of the friends and relations they’ve long lost touch with, and inquire about the old, familiar haunts they once frequented; as well, they’ll tell you of a longing for the forgotten taste of ice cream and chocolates and, perhaps, also a yearning for the crispy tang of cold beer on a tongue long in lent; and, ah, to dive into that everyday staple of a simple plate of rice and curry once again – all of which are on the list of taboos for an athlete bidding for a place in the Olympics.
For hopeful Olympians, it’s a life without the sorts of comfort others consider necessary; a year or two of many sacrifices which one past English Olympian so aptly described as “life in a Taoist monastery’’.
“To qualify for Olympic participation requires a huge commitment. It’s not a question whether an athlete is willing to make the commitment, rather if he is mentally and physically capable of undertaking the commitment,” Oliver Guruge, former badminton champion and long a close friend of the Karunaratne family.
“Some of the sacrifices asked border on cruelty, like missing funeral, weddings and birthdays because of training. Enormous self- discipline is required. You’ve got to be one with unbending resolve.”
That stern resolve, however, is less difficult to acquire for an athlete whose childhood has been fraught with difficulties, as Niluka Karunaratne’s was. “For single-minded determination Niluka is hard to beat. You shouldn’t forget that he is the first Sri Lankan to qualify for the Olympics; the others got-in via wild cards, virtual handouts to developing countries,” said Guruge. “So it takes tremendous discipline and resolve to win a place in the Olympics on merit; Niluka had both qualities from childhood.”
By any measure it’s a remarkable success story – a story that began nearly two decades ago when Niluka was as an eight-year old living in Balapitiya, his home town. “The closest badminton court was some four miles away, at Dharmasoka Vidyalaya in Ambalangoda,” recalled the 26-year old London Olympic-bound shuttler. “The distance wasn’t so much an inconvenience as the time we had to practice – from about 7 pm to around 10 pm, the time our friends are asleep in bed. ‘’
The inconvenient hours of training had all to do with papa, Lois Karunaratne’s rather unusual lifestyle. He was an employee of the Timber Corporation, but to all intents and purposes he was primarily a badminton coach, and still is. “He used to coach the Dharmasoka badminton team; his three sons then were all below 10 years and obviously couldn’t be included in the coaching of the seniors.
So whilst the seniors were on court, the three siblings were sent to the far end of the hall to perform a Lois-designed drill: to endlessly hit the shuttle on to the wall and not let it fall to the floor,” said Guruge, captain of the National team at the first ever World Cup in 1979 in China.
Naturally, Lois wanted to make champions out of his son too. So once the training session with the seniors was done and dusted, he turned his attention to his three boys.
“Any time wasn’t too late to coach his sons. Nor was he the sort who’d give preferred care to his off-springs at the expense of the school’s team– had he, then, Dharmasoka wouldn’t have been the undisputed schools badminton champions in the mid-90s under his tutelage.
They were champions’ at all levels, from under 11 to 19,” said Guruge. “Naturally, Lois’ biggest ambition was to make his sons champions – so, if the seniors were over and done with at 8 p.m., then his session with his sons would begin at 8.15 pm – and ending at midnight wasn’t unusual.”
Brothers Karunaratne would thus sweat it out on court while Balapitiya went to sleep. “There were nights (after practice) when public transport had thinned out to the extent that taking a bus ride home meant about an hour’s wait – when you’re exhausted and hungry waiting an hour is torture,” said Niluka. “So, there were times we would hitch a ride on lorries carrying goods to Colombo,” said Niluka.
Any eight year old, given a choice, would rather be in the snug environment of home, curled up in bed with a story book or be asleep – than be on dim, deserted roads. “Niluka, like any eight-year-old might’ve preferred to enjoy the comforts of home after sunset – but his father had the final say in matters of his badminton,’’ said Guruge. “When you’re compelled into making sacrifices as an eight-year old, then, making sacrifices in later life isn’t difficult.”
So it wouldn’t be incorrect to say that the first steps of his journey to the London Olympics were taken on the street between Balapitiya and Ambalangoda. Later in the journey, he moved to Colombo and Royal College, and, at 16 years, became the youngest National Singles champion, a title that was to become his personal possession for a record ten years, nine consecutively. His international record, however, was far less impressive, and though the setbacks were distressing, the depth of his determination didn’t shallow. If anything, he dredged deeper into his resolve.
In 2011, however, there was an astonishing transformation in his international performances, winning titles in five continents: Iran Open (Asia), Kenya Open (Africa), Puerto Rico Open (South America), Miami Open (North America) and Welsh Open (Europe). And where his world ranking in April 2011 stood at 239, zoomed to 47th last April. “Clearly, this was a new Niluka we were seeing. He had no doubt made the crossing from a Sri Lankan champion to a first-class international player,” said Guruge.
It is, however, no accident that his awesome run of overseas success in 2011 coincided with his appointment as Brand Ambassador of McLarens Group, who’s Chairman, Rohan de Silva, is a badminton devotee. “I knew enough badminton to reckon that Niluka’s future is not in Sri Lanka but overseas.
He had the potential to be an international star if given the opportunity to play in the foreign circuit,” said de Silva. “So we decided last year to invest in him and make it possible for him to compete in as many overseas tournaments as possible, with of course Olympic qualification in view.” And qualify he did last month, finishing 30th in the IOC’s list of thirty eight qualifiers.
McLaren Group’s multi-million rupee investment in Niluka is the first case of corporate sponsorship of an individual player in badminton history.
“There have been bits and pieces sponsorship, but nothing on the scale of McLarens support for Niluka – it’s virtually an investment in the future career of the player,” said Guruge. “It’s a long shot – if Niluka wins a medal in London, then I am sure companies will break down badminton’s office doors to follow McLarens example.’’
As Sri Lanka badminton awaits with bated breath for a new dawning, ask McLarens honcho, Rohan de Silva, that were he not a badminton junkie, would his company have supported Niluka Karunaratne – and he replies coyly: “That’s a tough question; I think not.”
But fate works in strange ways. Niluka’s painful sacrifices since childhood deserve more than what a financially impoverished SLBA can give, which is next to nothing.
And, here is this chief of a successful company who, come rain or shine, wants his daily hour of sweat on the badminton court. The two inevitably cross paths – and sesame, new horizons appear before Niluka Karunaratne, the boy from Balapitiya, who travelled to Ambalangoda to learn his badminton, came to Colombo to clean up all the prize tables and then set out to conquer titles in five continents. Next stop: London Olympics.