What’s Become Of ABA’s Medal Plan?
SRI LANKA boxing has not won a medal at the Asian or Commonwealth Games for heaven knows how long, whilst its’ ultimate ambition of an Olympic medal remains an impossible dream yet. The last time boxing brought home a medal from a major competition was in the 2010 Commonwealth Games, but alas, the right to ownership of Manju Wanniarachchi’s gold was only fleeting– barely a month after its winning, he was asked to hand back the precious metal; forfeiture for a failed drug test.
Many reasons can be asserted for boxing’s failure, the most plausible being our boxers’ lack of will to attain success internationally; for them, contentment apparently is a thing called a national title; a medal from perhaps some insignificant international dual contest or metal of baser texture than gold at the SAF Games. And the reward of a secure, well-paid job earned through those modest achievements was … well, good enough for our boxers to embrace the belief that there’s more to life than boxing. Involvement in the sport, thus, became more duty and less passion; not quite the recipe for Games medals.
Whatever are the causes for this state of ne’er-do-well in boxing, a lack of planning by the ABA is not one of them – at least not lately. So, with the Asian Championships scheduled for May this year in Indonesia and the SAF, Asian and Commonwealth Games fixed for mid next year, the absence of an ABA plan, let alone physical preparation, for four major competitions over the next eighteen months is unusual to say the least. It wasn’t like that in the approaching months to previous Games
Consider the departure from the status quo that was: The ABA national squad, for a decade plus years, had always been under year-round tutelage of a foreign professional coach from Cuba. But since the last Cuban coach left in Jan. 2015, and despite two years elapsing, a replacement from overseas hasn’t been installed yet. But then, to be brutally honest, there was no need for a foreign coach over the last two years, given that Sri Lanka hardly figured in international competitions – even if it did, it wasn’t nearly as frequent as it was in the past decade or so. The upshot: without a foreign national coach, a national squad, if there’s one at all, has been reduced to redundancy; flotsam, really.
Recalling the international schedule the ABA adhered to in the past decade wouldn’t be irrelevant here. Before we get to that, firstly it must be mentioned that the ABA’s international schedule was programmed so that it dovetailed into the country’s preparation for 1/ SAF Games, 2/ Asian Championships 3/ Asian Games 4/ Commonwealth Games 5/ World Championships and 6/ the Olympic qualifiers. The idea was to give the boxers maximum international exposure so that they would be at their prime, both of mind and body, for the major competitions, particularly the Games. The investments put into the international program, preparations for which were year-round, needless to say, were huge. As one official of another sport so succinctly described ABA’s lavish treatment of its participants: “Santa Clause visits boxers every day — but never us.’
Consider the boxers’ largesse: 1/At least six international exposures each year, in competitions in Europe and Asia. 2/ an annual hosting of international dual contests against different countries, providing our boxers opportunities to pit their talents against boxers from a wide range of countries; India, Vietnam, Philippines, Kenya, Moscow and Singapore figured in these dual meets in Colombo. The opposition in these duals, admittedly, wasn’t an authentic sample of the visitors’ respective national strengths, and the Sri Lankans invariably ran out winners. These duals were staged not long before a major international contest in the belief that success here would help bolster our boxers’ confidence for the upcoming major contests– underlining the meticulousness and foresight with which past administrations drew up their plan of preparations each year. 3/ Prior to any Games, the selected boxers were provided a two-week specialized training session in a professional private club in England; 4/ Diet, medical attention, motivation classes were, of course, a given.
Over the past two years, however, these sort of heightened preparations before international contests have been conspicuous by their absence. The Asian Championships is less than five months away, and where earlier the national squad might’ve been in the thick of a planned program of preparations, including competing in international contests, what boxers were served was a diet domestic competition over the past two years.
The absence of the annual international dual since 2014 is especially regrettable; not only were fans denied their only share of international fare, but boxers too were deprived of performing before home audience, an experience which, as any boxer will tell you, is very special. That special feeling about performing before your countrymen was s best illustrated in the Moscow v. Sri Lankans contest some four years ago. Egged on by the roar of the home fans, Saman de Silva went on to defeat the World Junior Bantam weight Champion who represented Moscow. It was one of Sri Lanka boxing’s most soul-stirring moments – and even before the boxers had climbed down from the ring, at least one company presented de Silva with a hefty cash reward. His victory inspired that sort of national pride. Such wonderful moments in sport don’t happen accidentally – and in the case of Sri Lanka boxing, it happened only because the ABA had judiciously planned for it.
That history juxtaposed alongside the poverty seen in more recent years, it is excusable to suspect that the incumbent administration has chosen to view the future more parochially as opposed to the outward-looking administrations of the past.
One hopes that the less emphasis now placed on international competition by the ABA does not, God forbid, lead to a return to 1980s-90s, when the ABA, impoverished as it was, looked at the biennial SAF Games as the ultimate in terms of international competition. Prospects of showing the flag at any of the major Games then was… well, let’s just say as far as Cinderella is from the real world. Administrators in the new millennium threw such timid aspirations into the bins and declared ambitions of realizing the sport’s biggest goal: an Olympic medal, unachieved since the founding of the ABA in 1925. And so a series of international competitions, including the World Championships, were lined up for our boxers, who, incidentally, became the country’s second-most widely travelled sportsmen, next to our cricketers.
It is no secret the rags to riches transformation of our boxing was the sum-total of the contribution of the MAS Holdings-Dian Gomes combine. Gomes persuaded his then employers to invest in boxing – an investment that brought the company handsome rewards. Slimline BC became local boxing’s new force, emerging National team champions more than once, dethroning perennial champions, Army. It also initiated women’s boxing in the country, and went on to become national champions here too.
The dramatic resurgence triggered by the MAS Holdings-Gomes combination, sure enough began to be reflected in the international ring; the high-water mark was Anuruddha Rathnayake’s qualification for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, via the World Championships, no less. The enormity of Rathnayake’s achievement is best told by the fact that the last time a Sri Lanka vest was displayed in the Olympic ring was forty years before; H K Karunaratne’s presence in the 1968 Mexico Games. Of course, Rathnayake didn’t return home with a medal, but his qualification in 2008 was seen as a first step towards an Olympic medal; the ABA’s Olympic plan was working.
Since 2015, however, the ABA appears to have cast aside the plan and has evidently turned parochial in its ambitions. Irony or not, 2015 is also the year in which Dian Gomes and MAS Holdings parted ways; the former taking up appointment with Hela Clothing – and, not surprisingly, set up Hela BC.
His former and present companies are both engaged in the business of garment manufacture, and though it would not be admitted, there can’t be much of the old cordiality, born of trust, between MAS Holdings and its one-time CEO. But then, that’s the way it is in the world of business. The question, though, is whether the rivalry is infecting Sri Lanka boxing too. The Olympic medal plan was Gomes’ brainchild, and the neglect of that plan seems (repeat: seems) like a manifestation of the aforesaid post-2015 rivalry. If it is, then let’s go down on our knees and pray for Sri Lanka boxing.