The Sunday Leader

AIBA Change Age-Limit; Manju’s Chance To Seek Redemption

MUCH water has flowed under the bridge since Manju Wanniarachchi handed back the gold medal he won at the 2010 Commonwealth Games, the consequence of a failed drug test. Two-plus years on, and you’d expect the boxer to have moved on, with the forfeiture of his proudest possession now a less painful memory. Right? Not quite.
“Enduring the hurt, shame and the two-year ban was difficult, but with my final appeal (to an independent court in Lausanne) pending, it still was bearable – I was hopeful of being exonerated. But when powerful Ministry officials (covertly) forced the withdrawal of my final appeal, my world crashed,” explained Wanniarachchi.“There was no other way left to prove my innocence,so I decided to retire and get on witha lifeaway from boxing.’’

Clearly his retirement, announced in early 2011, was more the outcome of emotion than conviction.“Retiring at the start of the ban was as good as admitting guilt, but there was no other option. But then no self-respecting boxer wants to be remembered as a cheat –and the only way to rid the stigma would be to get back into the ring, win an international medal or two and then retire” – which is why no sooner had he served out the period of ban, last October, than the “retired’’ boxer jumped back into the ring, last January, and punched his way to become the National Bantam weight champion, which he was for eleven straight years before the ban.
He had hoped to redeem his good name via a medal atthe next SAF Games, scheduled for this March, in New Delhi. But that opportunity presenting itself wasn’t a sure-fire thing, given the SAF Games’ reputation for postponements. And sure enough the March 2013 SAFwas put back, though not due to any political disturbance in the host country or member countries’ indifference to a regional competition that’s no Olympics –common reasons for past postponements.

This time round, however,the reason is more legitimate: Dissensions within India’s NOC had compelled the IOC to revoke its membership late last December, so rendering New Delhi ineligible to host the SAF Games. The restoration of India’s membership in the IOC, however,is thought to be only a question of time,though exactly when is anybody’s guess. “From what we’re hearing, the IOC suspension is expected to be lifted early enough so as to make a December-staging of the Games possible,” said Lt. Col (Retd.) Hemantha Weerasinghe, ABA official and international judge.

December, however, would be too late for Wanniarachchi’s redemption bid:On December 2 this year Wanniarachchi would’ve turned 34, the age-limit set for boxers competing in AIBA-sanctioned meets, of which the SAF Games is one. Divinely last month, though, fate’s hand moved to extend the age limit by six years, from 34 to forty years. “The extension of the age-limit had been on the table for some time, but AIBA approved it only earlier this year,’’ says Weerasinghe, “and Manju can’t help but see the timing of thechange as a sign of destiny awaiting him.’’
The next Commonwealth Games is to be held next year in Glasgow, Scotland, for which, under the old rule, Wanniarachchi would’ve been overage, a fate he had accepted andhad resigned himself to the fact that thewon-and-lost 2010 Commonwealth Games gold was irredeemable – that is,until last month. “Since he heard the news (of the age-limit change), he’s like, ‘I can’t wait for the next Commonwealth Games to begin’. It seems as if he has seen the day of redemption on the horizon and can’t wait for its dawning, ’’ said Weerasinghe.
Wanniarchchi’s dizzy imaginations areunderstandable, given that the chance to prove his innocence, and so reclaim the gold medal, in the first instance, was deniedhim – all because, well, you know the story … of powerfulNOC and Sport Ministry officials kowtowing before the Commonwealth Games Federation in the belief that withdrawal of the boxer’s appeal might favour Hambantota’s bid for the 2018 Games (butdid not, as it turned out).

Now, through an extraordinary turn of events, the boxer finds himself with a chance to end what otherwise might’ve been a lifelong regret. Forgivably, he sees all this as destiny – of getting back what he believes was his: the gold medal.
But hence forth, however, destiny is something he will have to fulfil by the sweat of his brow. His pursuit of that goal won’t lack support from the ABA.In fact, arrangements have been made for the boxer to undergo a prolonged program of advanced training, beginning next month, in a reputed UK boxing academy. He returns in July and prepares for two major internationals: the Asian Championship and the AIBA World Championship next August and October respectively.

After which Wanniarachchi is to be kept in wraps until the July 2014 Commonwealth Games, prior to which another stint of overseastraining is planned. “Manju is getting on in years and you don’t want to subject him to a crowded fight schedule. As well, with 2014 being the year of the Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games, AIBA hasn’t scheduled any other major international meets for next year,’’ said Weerasinghe. “From Manju’s point of view, it’s a good thing he won’t be fighting internationally after this October’s World Championships– so that when he gets into the Commonwealth Games ring in July next year he’d be something of a caged tiger let loose.’’
All this, on paper, reads rosy prospects for redeeming the boxer’s good name, and the forfeited gold medal. But practically, the odds are huge. For a start, a gold medal in 2014, at 35, is going to be doubly difficult than it had been in 2010, aged 31. As well, his selection to Glasgow isn’t anything but automatic, unlike during the pre-banyears.

At the 2012 Nationals he might’ve proved he’s still the best bantam around, butconfirmation of his old invincibilitycan come only after further post-ban examinations.In his first comeback competition, Wanniarachchi disposed of his two main challengerswithout much fuss: soldier W R I Weerakoddy by a seven-point margin in the final, and Slimline club mate Gayan Jayaweeraretired in the third-round of the semi-final. It should, however, be noted that age is on the side of both of his potential successors – the soldier is eight years younger than the 33-year old champion and the club mate, 12 years.

Wanniarachchi is expected to confront his two younger rivals atleast three times (in the 2013 Clifford Cup, Layton Cup and Nationals) before the 2014 Commonwealth Games, and, given the experience of the duo’s respective first meetings, in January, with the comeback champion, the youngsters can be expected to offer a more confident challenge. The national bantam champion, so, will first have to overcome local opposition before he can turn his attention on the foreign opposition in Glasgow.
The path to redemption might’ve magically appeared before Wanniarachchi, but that’s just the beginning of what would be his Calvary.

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