The Sunday Leader

Manju Gambles On Comeback To Rid Shame

Wanniarachchi – on the comeback trail

GIVEN thecircumstances in which Manju Wanniarachchi retired from boxing in 2010, a comeback didn’t seem possible.  At the time of quitting, the undefeated National bantam weight champion was 30, an age when a boxer contemplates retirement anyway.
He might probably have pushed his career for two more years, but to stage a comeback at the widely accepted age of retirement just doesn’t make sense. So what prompts this change of heart? Since retirement two years ago, the boxer, his handlers say, hasn’t exactly been idle, a reason that probably made a second calling irresistible. “His weight is the same as it was during his fighting years, and he remains yet a bantam, ‘’ says  Dian Gomes, boss of  Slimline BC, “although he’s not been boxing (since 2010), Manju pretty much trained like a boxer in competition would.”
So ah, one thinksthat when Wanniarachchi publicly announced he had hung his gloves and boots on a nail on the back of his bedroom door, something else might’ve been on his mind – which brings us to the real reason for his two-year absence. “It was aforced retirement,”confessed Wanniarchchi. “I had won the gold at the Commonwealth Games, and with the (2012) Olympics some eighteen months away,retirement was not on my mind.”
It’s now, of course, common knowledge that Wanniarachchi’s retirement came in the wake of a failed drug test at the 2010 Commonwealth Games, ending in the withdrawal of his gold medal as well as an AIBA-imposed two-year ban. The boxer, however,claimed that he wasn’t allowed to exercise all options available to prove his innocence – options laid down by the Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF), no less. “I felt particularly crushed by the attitude of the Sri Lankan authorities – they wanted me to withdraw my final appeal (to the independent Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne). So rather than withdraw, I quit and let my appeal go unheard by default.”
Wanniarachchi, and indeed the SLABA, had been hopeful of exoneration as investigation during hearingsof his earlier appealto the CGF (in Malaysia) revealed flaws in the Chain of Custody document which records the movement of his urine sample from the time it is taken to its testing in the laboratory.  “There was a five-hour gap between handing of the sample to the laboratory and its testing. And given that the urine sample can be tampered within 15 minutes(as demonstrated in the hearing), the five-hour gap in the Chain of Custody document presented a valid case to argue in favour of Manju on grounds of tampering,” said one of the lawyers who were due to appear on behalf of the boxer in Lausanne.
But all this was irrelevant rigmarole to ears of some powerful officials of the NOC and Sport Ministry who were unbending in their resolve to bring the 2018 Commonwealth Games to Hambantota, and believed that theboxer taking his brief before independent adjudicators in Lausanne might hurt the country’s bid – as, in the event Wanniarachchi’s drug test verdict were reversed, the CGF was going to be deeply embarrassed. That was something that the CGF obviously didn’t want, given the embarrassment already caused it by charges of corruption and collapsing Games constructions.
Because it is only the concerned individual sportsman/woman who has the right to appeal – not the ABA, NOC or Sport Ministry – there was no way the powerful officials could’ve prevented the boxer to not take his appeal to Lausanne. So the Sport Ministry resorted to doing what only it could do: it dissolved the ABA and placed two inconsequential Sport Ministry official in charge of the sport, claiming the composition of thegoverning body was flawed as itincluded phantom clubs who had voted in favour of the incumbent regime –disguising what really was third-degree method to pressurize the ABA to force out from the boxer the withdrawal of his appeal. Hence his retirement so as “not stand in the way of the future generation” – and open sesame, the door to the ABA was open to an elected committee.
The consequence of those powerful officials willingness to be subservient so as to secure the 2018 Games is now public knowledge: the expensive Games bid were lost and the country’s solitary gold medal was given up without a fight. Wanniarachchi’s careerwas supposed to end there; resigned to the fate that time would obliterate the scandal surrounding his retirement.
In his mind, however, was another plan, which doesn’t include regaining the gold medal he gave back after holding it for just about a month. “The comeback is not about chasing medals. I’ve medals from the Asian and Commonwealth Championships and countless numbers from lesser internationals – the only medals I don’t have are from the Olympics and the Commonwealth, both of which are now unrealistic dreams. I’d be 36 and 34 years when the next Olympics and Commonwealth Games comes along (respectively) – much too old to be hunting for medals,” said Wanniarachchi, eleven-time National bantam weight title holder.
“I am returning to the ring to try and clear my name. Personally, these two past years have been very difficult. People think I retired because I was caught taking drugs – and the only way I can change that opinion is by fighting again and winning.”
And he’s careful not to overreach too soon, one day at a time, if you like. The next international, an eight-fight duel with India, is due later this month in Colombo, a tempting chance to make a splash given that his first ever international gold medal was won against India back in 1995. “It would be foolish to step into international boxing within a month of a comeback, especially when you’ve not had a fight even domestically,” says the former Vidyartha boxer, eight-time Stubbs Shield winner. “I’ve earmarked the National Championship (in early December) for my first comeback fight.”
He might’ve remained an undefeated bantam before “retirement’’, but this time round there’s no assuming the title. Behind his back, as it were, a boxer poised to take his mantle has come to the fore: Sanjeewa Jayaweera, just turned 21, a product of Vidayarthana Pirivena MV, in Horana, four-time Stubbs Shield winner and twice Junior National champion.
As a schoolboy he finished runner-up at the Nationals in 2008 and 2010, after which he represented Slimline BC and was Nationals runner-up in 2011 as well. This year, however, signs of his blossoming were made clearly evident, winning the Layton Cup and Clifford Cup, meets next in importance to the Nationals.  “If you’ve been a winner at the Layton and Clifford Cup meets in the same year, then taking the National title (of that year) is virtually a given,” says Lt. Col (retd.) Hemantha Weerasinghe, ABA official. “But  the prospect before Jayaweera, however, is different – the unknown quantity standing in his way is, ironically, Manju.”
The former champion might’ve been in training during the period of ban, but ring-rust cannot be removed by fitness but only by the blood, sweat and tearsdemanded by competitive boxing. “All I know at this point in time is that the national title is not going to be as easy to take as before. Apart from my skills, my reputation too made it easier for me earlier,” said Wanniarachchi, undefeated bantam champion, 1999- 2009. “(but) being two years away from the ring makes you just another competitor – your opponents look at you as beatable. That wasn’t the way they viewed me when I was (defending) champion. I know what I’ll be up against, but I’ll giveit my best shot. ”
It’s a gamble he’s taking. Should he be defeated in the Nationals, his epitaph might well be: career that was ended by defeat, which might be kinder than: career ended by cheating, a stigma he’s endured over the past two years. It’s to remove that shamethat he steps back into the ring.
Should he again become national bantam weight champion, then, he’ll look beyond : the SAF Games next year. “If I win a medal at SAF, I’ll feel vindicated,” says Wanniarachchi, “… the feeling will be just as sweet as it was when I won the Commonwealth gold – but this one will be for keeps. That’s when I’ll retire of my own free will.”

1 Comment for “Manju Gambles On Comeback To Rid Shame”

  1. JBD

    Dear Manju,
    You may get our strength and fly like a butterfly….
    Best wishes from Friends at Vidyartha College, Kandy

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