Boxing And Dian Find New Heart
THE ABA’s failure to get one of its boxers on the 2012 London Olympics flight is deeply disappointing. After the sport had ended its forty-year Olympic hiatus in the 2008 Beijing Games, huger investments were made to ensure continued presence in the 2012 Games. And indeed boxing’s progress chart overall showed it was on a trajectory northwards with rapid expansion in the provinces; boxing’s health was bubbly, and so the prospect of Olympic representation looked cheery.
Anuruddha Rathnayake’s qualification in 2008 was achieved in the tougher of the two Olympic trials, the World Championship, no less, in Chicago, which featured 620 boxers from 131 countries. (The second Olympic qualifier was the Asian Championship). The Slimline BC boxer finished fifth (from a field of sixty flyweights) by virtue of three successive wins in the preliminary rounds. Had he extended the sequence to a fourth win, he would’ve assured himself of bronze, with, potentially, a chance to enhance the texture of the medal to silver or gold.
“If you are the fifth-best flyweight in the world then it’s a reasonable assumption that you’re not far from at least a bronze in the Olympics,” said Dian Gomes, Rathnayake’s corner-man and benefactor. “While we had reason to be hopeful that, given a favourable draw, Rathnayake could bring home a medal, we were mindful that the Olympics are quite another event, and if overawed by the event’s grandness, Rathnayake might not be the boxer he is. And that’s exactly what happened – he virtually froze. He himself couldn’t explain what became of him in the Olympic ring.”
So while an Olympic boxing medal continues to remain elusive, Rathnayake’s qualification, however, left a healthy legacy. “Our Olympic perspective changed (after Rathnayake’s qualification). The 40 years of failure to qualify had us believe that the Olympics were beyond us, diminishing our ambitions to regional goals,” said Gomes. “Rathnayake’s qualification dispelled such negativity – the other boxers began to believe that if Rathnayake can succeed so can they.”
But boxers of Olympic worthiness are not made overnight. And the problem with Sri Lanka boxing was that its established men’s boxers had dominated the national team from nearly turn of this century and so prevented the emergence of new names at the top. “I am not sure if having virtually an unchanged national team over a long period of time is a good thing for the future. But then when there’s no one to beat the established champions, there’s little you can do but persist with the seniors. We did try out some new boxers at lesser-important international meets but clearly they were yet a long way away from being Olympic candidates,” said Gomes. “So it was the seasoned boxers we had to fall back on for London qualification – and high on that list was Manju (Wanniarachchi). He would be 32 at the time of London Olympics, which is just the right age, and with his vast international experience, it made sense to make much of the investments in him.”
The first milestone on his planned journey to London was the 2010 Commonwealth Games – where he won gold. What became of that gold, you know very well. But it has to be said that his side of the story wasn’t given a fair hearing. The NOC and the Sport Ministry which should have supported the boxer’s bid to reclaim his gold instead pressured him to withdraw his appeal to Court of Arbitration for Sports in Lausanne– in the naive belief that pursuing the appeal would jeopardize Sri Lanka’s bid to host the 2014 Commonwealth Games. The upshot: Wanniarachchi’s gold medal was lost without efforts made to save it, and the expensive bid to host the Commonwealth Games proved money flushed down the drain. When the NOC and the ministry think nothing about selling out one of its own sportsman in hopes that Commonwealth Games authorities would give Sri Lanka the green light to host the 2014 Games, then there’s a sense of poetic justice about the bid’s failure.
Unable to appeal against the ban on Wanniarachchi meant that ABA’s plans for qualifying for the 2012 Olympics was dead in the water. “Without Manju, Olympic qualification (in the men’s competition) was pretty much impossible. We did try our hand at qualifying via the Asian Olympic trials by sending three less experienced boxers, but honestly this was done more in hope than faith. They just didn’t have the experience of Manju to cope with the intensity of an Olympic trial,” said Gomes.
But there was hope that where the men’s boxers failed, the women might show the Sri Lanka vest in the London ring. Two women boxers had hopeful credentials: Nilmini Jayasinghe was a gold medalist in the 2009 Russian Invitational International tournament, a virtual duplicate of the World Championship; as well, she was ranked ninth in the world. Anusha Kodituwakku was an Asian Championship gold medalist. The duo had done much of their final preparation for the Olympic qualifier (held a fortnight ago in Mongolia) at the Elite Performance Academy in Nottingham, England, and in Bangkok where the duo joined the Thai and Australian national teams in a weeklong joint training camp.
Such thorough preparations were, however, to be of no avail: both Jayasinghe and Kodituwakku were eliminated in the first round of the Olympic qualifier in Hubei, China.
The failure to have a Sri Lankan boxer in the Olympic ring must surely hurt the ABA. In its determination to repeat Rathnayake’s 2008 achievement, the ABA cast its nets wide, hoping it would discover some prodigy who could instantly fit the Olympic bill. No such luck.
But frankly, our chances of Olympic qualification were always pinned only one boxer: Manju Wanniarachchi, his vast international experience being his greatest virtue. But fate conspired to pull the rug from under his boots. This is not to suggest that his failed drug test was a fake, but if there’s a chance to argue that the test was improperly conducted, and that chance is denied, overtly or covertly, by the Sport Ministry and NOC then… well, you have to question if officials of those two powerful bodies have the moral right to preach patriotism to our sportsmen/women.
The ABA’s despondency over the failure to qualify for the 2012 Olympics is palpable. But unlike other sports where failure to win Olympic representation were mostly due to indifferent management and insufficient investment in the athletes, the ABA’s failure wasn’t because of a lack of trying. The boxers were well-equipped to stake their claims for Olympic qualification, with the ABA providing the pugilists just about all the requirements, from the services of a professional Cuban coach, to specialize coaching overseas and countless international exposure.
In the end these weren’t enough to take a boxer to London. So, ask Gomes if this is the beginning of another four-decade wait before we see another Sri Lankan boxer climb up to the Olympic ring. “Not if I am alive and still have my hands in boxing,” says the man who has taken the ABA from penury to prosperity. “You shouldn’t forget that for forty years the Olympics were never even mentioned in the ABA. And when Rathnayake qualified in 2008, optimism might have come easily to the ABA, but in reality we had only entered a world of which we knew little about. The 2012 failure tells us of our shortcomings in our grooming of Olympic candidates. Obviously a better plan of action for the 2016 Games is required and that’s something we’ll have to sit down and discuss with our coaches and boxers – and if need be, even look for help from foreign experts, probably from India who have five Olympic qualifiers, behind only Cuba and the USA who have six qualifiers each..”
Gomes doesn’t engage in empty prattle, as his success in the corporate world and his wondrous transformation of the ABA testify. So his promise of Sri Lanka boxing’s reappearance in the 2016 Olympics provided “(1) I am alive and (2) still have my hands in boxing” is not to be taken as a cavalier boast. Those two conditions were not made in seriousness, but rather was a manner of speaking. But had those two conditions been mentioned late last March, they might’ve had a different connotation.
Let Gomes himself tell the story: “Last March, on my way to the Asian Women’s Championship in Mongolia (at which three Sri Lankans competed) I spent a few days in Singapore, and with time on my hands, I thought I’d get a spot medical check. The results were disturbing. Basically what it said was an angiogram was required to get a more specific condition of my heart – and soon. So, I abandoned the trip to Mongolia, flew back home and consulted cardiologist Dr Mohan Rajakaruna, a friend of mine from schooldays. The angiogram was scary: six blocks in my arteries, one of them a 100-percent block. All of which meant having to undergo an eight-hour heart bypass surgery” – after which he was ordered three months of “doing nothing”.
And after the long period of recuperation ends this month, would his involvement in boxing be less? “Not at all – I have a new heart for boxing.” Sri Lanka boxing might’ve no place in the 2012 Olympics, but mercifully, the sport has Dian Gomes yet. Bless his heart.