4th July, 2004  Volume 10, Issue 51

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Boxing is safe, but fans sorry  

By T.M.K. Samat

M. H. MARZOOK's impressions of present-day Sri Lanka boxing, in the Let's Chat column of last week, was not going to pass-off without comment. And it didn't. After all, some of the comments by the one-time Asian Championship bronze-medallist were provocative; you can't say things like, the manly sport has gone to the women and get away with it.

Significantly, however, much of the reactions were in support of the former undefeated national feather weight champion _ obviously fans with fond memories of the 60s, the era of Marzook, whose long lament, in essence, was that present-day boxing ''is some other sport" _ not the blood and thunder of yore.

A vast majority of the supporters of the 60s unhesitatingly say modern boxing has lost its appeal. They concede, albeit grudgingly, safety measures are necessary, as boxers' lives need to be protected as far as possible. But not all believe that the stringent precautions introduced by AIBA, the world body, are the only reason for its dimmed glamour. ''Sure, blood and pain make it attractive, but that doesn't mean that without the gory, boxing should be less appealing," said one 60s fan. ''The magic of boxing was as much as hitting the opponent as evading his punches." 

It's just the sort of words ABA president Dian Gomes, a defender of the present-day art, loves to hear. ''The knockout punch, like it or not, has been virtually removed from modern amateur boxing _ and AIBA obviously had good reason for doing that. Once that fact is accepted, then, you work on evolving yourself to the new system, which is more about the speed, rather than the power, of punches," said Gomes, himself a product of old school. ''Not that our boxers are ignorant of the ways of modern boxing, but coached at the school level by boxers of a past era, the knockout tendencies are hard to suppress. Our boxing is caught in two minds _ between the old and the new."

Some explanation of the new method is necessary to grasp better Gomes' theory. AIBA's raft of safety regulations in the 80s was obviously prompted by the incidence of ring deaths worldwide _ deaths that clouded the future of amateur boxing. It was necessary to give amateur boxing a different profile to the professional version. Administrators of old apparently differentiated amateur and professional boxing by 1/ the rounds of a fight, three to amateur and 15 to professional 2/ amateurs wear vests to set them apart from the bare-bodied pros and 3/ one has no money at all and there's a fortune to be made in the other. In spirit, though, the two were one of a kind: to cause pain and draw blood.

The idea of AIBA was to draw a big, broad border between the two and remove the perception that amateur boxing is the kid brother of the professional. ''Once AIBA brought in the safety measures amateur boxing was always going to be different, and not quite the sport for a bloodthirsty audience," said Gomes, National Junior Middle weight champion in 1975.

So what are these changes? The practical ones _ compulsory wearing of headgear, gum shield and cup protector _ doesn't stop the blood letting half as much as the re-written fight rules. The old rule of applying the mandatory count of eight only if a boxer hits the canvas was consigned to the dustbin. Instead: the fighting stops and the mandatory eight-count taken at the first hint of any disturbance detected in boxer's eyes or knees, even though the boxer might be on his feet. A fight's duration of three rounds of three minutes each were converted to four rounds of two minutes each. ''Amateur boxing became a different game," said Gomes.

Tell Gomes that the new method won't help fill stadiums, and he'll protest. ''If overseas someone boxes like the way most of our boxers do, they'll be booed off the ring. That's because the ways of modern boxing are well entrenched and appreciated in those countries. I suppose our fans _ and for that matter boxers _ yet live in the past when boxing was about knockouts. Now it's about the speed of punches and how many of them land on the scoring zones," said Gomes. ''And the new style is filling stadiums overseas. It's a question of time when our boxers get over past's hangover and the sophisticated art of modern boxing develops into second nature. I am sure we will then fill up our stadiums."

But DIG Jayakumar Thangavelu thinks otherwise. ''If there isn't blood and pain, I doubt we are going to have willing audiences coming in the numbers they used to. I am not saying the new safety measures are wrong, but my concern is that the aggressive intent of old is lost. Because the new safety measures have made boxing a safer sport, I think, the coaches are taking a softer approach," said DIG Thangavelu. ''The appeal of boxing will always be its links to barbarism, to man's past, the will to survive in a world of harsh uncertainties. Okay, the knockout is virtually unachievable these days, but it doesn't mean that it is forbidden. Boxers, while taught the art of accumulating points, ought to be encouraged to acquire the killer instincts _ that I reckon isn't happening at training."

And while on the subject of training, he spoke of how it was then. ''We didn't have modern gyms, and toughened ourselves by climbing ropes and chopping wood. The place where we trained smelled of blood, sweat and embrocation. Boxers of old were uncompromising because they were reared in a tough and unforgiving environment," said the DIG. ''These days they train in air-conditioned gyms."

Gomes, himself a boxer from that tough old world, won't argue against DIG Thangavelu. But he takes a more philosophical view. His reasoning runs somewhat on these lines: since the advent of computers, life wasn't going to be the same, boxing not excluded. The old sight of judges, pen and pencil in hand, jotting down points on the score sheet between rounds has departed from ringside. The old system of assessment was subjective, based as it was on the impressions of the judge. Not so now _ the computer calculates the winner after the judges, through a push of button, have instantly fed it with the punches struck, blow-by-blow.

''Computer scoring has brought profound changes to boxing because it's now all about who gets in more of the punches," says Gomes. The modern credo, in other words, is: better throw punches quick and fast than waste time waiting to unleash your haymaker. Sri Lanka adopted the computer scoring system barely three years ago and clearly coaches and boxers haven't yet to come to terms with all its intricacies. ''I think we're about two-three years away from total transformation," says Gomes. That is to punch to buzz the computer _ than to satiate the bloodthirsty.

Donald Munasinghe, coach and ABA official since the late 60s, thinks that boxing lost its appeal not only because of AIBA's safety measures and computer scoring _ but also, take a deep breath, the loss of the Burghers. ''We all know the contributions of Burghers like Eddie Gray, the Henricuses and Dr Larry Foenander to boxing. Their organization flair was tremendous for Sri Lanka boxing," said Munasinghe. ''The Burghers also gave us brave boxers; the VanCuylenbergs, VanHeers, de Zilwas, Vansandens _ all of whom brought St Mary's Dehiwala Stubbs Shield honours. They went on to excel at the higher levels too". Before that, St Sylvesters were in command _ again on the power of the Burgher blood: the Bulner, Hepponstall and Marshall brothers, Ellsworth Pereira, Lloyd Hope, all products of coach Derrick Raymond. 

And here's Munasinghe's punchline: ''Along with the Burgher boxers came the Burgher girls, all dressed prettily to cheer their blood brothers. And where the girls are, the boys flocked _ and the halls packed." He might have added, blood or no blood. Munasinghe has likely whispered this to ABA president Gomes, whose Slimline and Unichela factory girls, bussed out from Pannala and Panadura, make up the majority of the spectators. They make a colourful spectacle _ flag-waving, singing, dancing and cheering as the egg on their hired papara-papara musicians to a crescendo. Unfortunately, the action in the ring wasn't half as exciting that final night of the Layton Cup.

All's not lost though: boxing has the girls, plenty; now for the boxers who can excite.


Ask old Zainu to stay at home

M. SALIM ZAINUDEEN, the Rugby Union's Administrative Secretary till only the other day, can't help but chuckle over the irony, as he slips into retired life after thirty years of work, the last 14 with the SLRFU.

''Back in 1990 the Union wanted me so badly that past president Y C Chang came home, bundled me into his car, drove me to office, sat me behind a desk and said 'now start work'," said Zainudeen, who by then had learnt the ropes of rugby management through a dozen years as secretary of the Schools Rugby Association. "After 14 years, I am again summoned from home, no car this time, and as good as told 'you can stay at home from tomorrow'." He walked away from office for the last time some weeks ago, a cheque of two months salary for leave un-utilized in hand.

The 64-year-old one-time schoolmaster spoke not so much in rancour as sadness. "Retirement is not far away for someone of my age. I accept that _ in fact I thank Allah for keeping me in employment this long," says SLRFU's first ever employee. ''But the farewell could've been more civilized _ and by that I don't mean speeches and ceremonies, and a Rolex. The usual three-months notice would've been enough." 

To be fair though, all of the SLRFU staff was warned months ago of an impending restructure of the union that might entail the shedding of workers. "I believe the union had me on top of the firing list. It is their prerogative to choose whom they want and don't want _ I have no quarrel about that. What disappoints me is their indecent haste," says Zainudeen. "Here I was sick at home, but they insist I come over at once as the matter can't wait another day. And then they tell me I need not come to work next day."

The parting was not quite exactly like "you're fired, now go." The dismissal decision, of course, was final; the question was when Union officials told Zainudeen that he has accumulated holiday leave of about two months, which, "if you wish to, you can while away in office doing nothing" or "take the two months pay and stay at home."

It was, however, made known to all that under a restructuring plan, authored by Technical Director George Simpkin, a New Zealander, the Union is to downsize, largely through computerization of the office administration. Zainudeen belongs very much to the era of the typewriter and clip-file. Remind him of that, and he'll admit it _ but re-remind you that isn't his grouse. "It's the way they asked me to go."

His disappointment is justified. It is fair to say that it was he who performed much of the backroom works connected with transforming Sri Lanka rugby from a strictly amateur sport to professionalism. That means all the nitty-gritty of sponsorship, from securing to signing, new ways of accounting, just about everything in the commercialism that accompanied professionalism.

"I won't say Zainu had become a dinosaur. For someone who has seen through so many changes, he's got a wealth of experience that wise officials could tap into. There's no clear-cut evidence that his retrenchment is personal, but it looks pretty much that," said an official on condition of anonymity. "He was an institution in the rugby office _ you don't send him away like some unwanted domestic."

The fact, however, is that, with the rapid commercialization of sport the old rules of fair play have been fed to the shredder. On the field its ''perform or perish" and in offices, the guiding philosophy: "hire 'n fire". Zainudeen is just one of the many casualties of a pitilessly competitive world. Legally, the Union isn't wrong in asking its first Administrative Secretary to stay at home, though, morally, the union's decision won't win it many admirers.

A quiet, modest man given to take the life's path of least resistance, Zainudeen won't allow that one rude experience on his final day in office to contaminate the happier memories. "It was a pleasure working under presidents like Y C Chang, Malik Samarawickrema, Lionel Almeida, Gamini Fernando, Dr Maiya Gunasekera, Anton Benedict. They didn't think they were too big to give a well-done tap on our shoulders after a good day's work; they didn't think that beyond the salary, they owed us nothing," said Zainudeen, a father of two. "Some of the present day officials act too much the part of 'I am the boss'."

What ever the present-day administrators think of Zainudeen, past presidents have shown their appreciation of his contribution to rugby in tangible terms. "During Malik Samarawickrema's term I was sent to the 1992 Asiad in Seoul and Dr Maiya Gunasekera had me as chef-de-mission of the squad for the 1998 Asian Games in Bangkok _ both fully paid for by the Union as rewards for the work I did," said Zainudeen, an old boy of Hindu College, Trincomalee. 

And the work he did? "As the one-man office, initially, I was clerk, typist, peon and errand boy," said the ex-teacher of Isipathana, Royal and Zahira. "There were no CEOs or directors _ I did their work on the instructions of the executive committee."

These days, however, the Union has expensive CEOs and directors  - and a frugal working capital. So, ask old Zaniu to leave forthwith.


W'chair tennis gears up for Para olympics 

By T.M.K. Samat 

J K D Manatunga and Bertie Silva will start fine-tuning for the Para Olympic Games Wheelchair Tennis competition, in Athens this September, by competing in the Dutch and Belgian Open events this month. 

Manatunga and Silva, the first ever Sri Lankan wheelchair tennis players to qualify for the Para Olympics, are being sponsored by the ITF for the two US $15, 000 European Open events. They will compete in the individual singles and doubles events. The Dutch Open is to be held from July 6-11 and the Belgian, July 13-18.

Both players scored outstanding successes during a three-week tour of New Zealand and Australia last January. The pair won the B division doubles title at the New Zealand, Melbourne and Sydney Open events. Manatunga won the C division singles title in New Zealand, gaining promotion to B division for the Australian events that followed. He proved a winner at the elevated level too, winning the B division singles in Melbourne and Sydney.

Though making its international debut in 2002, Sri Lanka's wheelchair tennis has made vast strides, winning regularly overseas. Before the successes at the B division level in Australia, Sri Lanka made an impression by winning in the D and C division category in Bangkok (2002) and Paris (2003) respectively. 

The ITF has made generous investments on the development of Wheelchair tennis. Local companies too have leant support. Aggreko was the first to come forward, and more recently South Asia Gateway Terminals (Pvt) Ltd came up with a hefty Rs.1m. contribution to launch SLTA's Wheelchair Development Fund.

''The SLTA initially undertook wheelchair tennis as a contribution to the many disabled soldiers who has sacrificed their limbs in defence of the country. We didn't expect it to rise to Olympic level so fast _ and we're delighted it has. We now obviously have to look at it as sport that has the potential to bring big-time international fame and make the sort of investments it deserves," said SLTA president, Suresh Subramaniam.


Time to face up to the real problems 

Sri Lankan cricket has fallen into the trap of thinking too much about a single player. Along the way it has burdened that player with a heavier weight than anyone can reasonably be expected to bear. Moreover, the attention paid to Muttiah Murailtharran has meant that skilled contemporaries have been neglected. Not the least attraction of the current brief series in the northern parts of Australia is the opportunity it has provided for other players to reinforce their reputations.

  Sri Lanka has done wonderfully well since entering the Test arena and sometimes it seems that expectations have risen too high. Winning the World Cup was a memorable achievement that was celebrated for about the next two years. Perhaps, though, it also created complacency about the country's position in cricket and the steps that still needed to be taken so that a  competitive edge could be retained..

Rather than regarding the Cup triumph as a joyous occasion that could be used to stimulate interest and build facilities, Sri Lankan cricket sat back in satisfaction. Meanwhile the rest of the world set about the task of improving standards. Alas the years following that stirring victory in Lahore were wasted and those responsible are responsible for their failure to seize the moment. Ousting the President of the cricket a few weeks after the trophy had been paraded around Colombo was not much of a way to start the new era. Indeed it told the tale of greed  and opportunism.

  Murali has been a mixed blessing to Sri Lankan cricket because he has papered over these cracks. Ian Botham played the same role in England in the 1980's and Brian Lara is in a similar position in the West Indies. These men are outstanding cricketers capable of winning entire series more or less single-handed. After a couple of spectacular performances from them officials are inclined to say " We are winning. What are you all worried about?'

  Unfortunately Sri Lanka has made little progress in the last decade, a time when money has poured into the game. Precious little  has been invested in nets, grounds, coaches and players . The national team has enjoyed some fine days but what lies ahead? Unless the proper structures have been put in place, the work has been done behind the scenes and the right men have been appointed in the important positions, sooner or later the house will come tumbling down.

  Accordingly Sri Lanka must start preparing for life without its demon spinner. Far from whining like English football supporters after a defeat, local cricketers must renew their efforts in an attempt to prove that there is a lot more to Sri Lankan cricket than a wizard with a freakish action.Most especially a concerted effort must be made to produce incisive spinners and battle-hardened batsmen.

  Replacements will be needed because Sri Lanka's best players are long in the tooth Chaminda Vaas and Sanath Jayasuriya have been mainstays of the team. It has not been only Murali. Both men are popular but their cricket has been underestimated. Chaminda is a superb bowler , a point he confirmed with his  haul in the first innings of the current Test match. Previously he had bowled well against the same opponents at home but without any luck. Sanath is respected wherever the game is played as a rustic player from the sticks who has the courage to open the batting and the audacity to treat every bowler alike.

 Soon these men will hang up their helmets and then will come a day of reckoning. Accordingly Sri lanka must encourage emerging players, not by pampering them but by forcing them to practise till their skin is raw . These fellows are following in the footsteps of admirable professionals and must not let the side down. Cricket is not a game to be taken lightly and the aim is not to cut a fine figure but  to strive for excellence. No good comes of protecting youngsters let alone telling them that the only thing stopping Sri Lanka succeeding is an conspiracy hatched by jealous anglo-saxons.

  Sri Lankan cricket must look itself in the mirror. Has every possible rupee been spent on promoting the game? Has a proper programme of improving facilities been put in place? Tomorrow is never as far away as it seems. Sri Lanka  must prepare properly for the forthcoming challenges and can start by winning matches without its champion. After Murali will not last forever.


TCK Class of '94 - 10th Anniversary Reunion 

The Class of '94 of Trinity College Kandy will be celebrating its tenth anniversary in grand style at the Kings Park Hotel in Kandy on 17 July from 7.30 p.m. onwards. Tickets are priced at a nominal Rs. 800/- per head, which include entrance, barbeque dinner and liquid refreshments. There will be entertainment provided by a DJ, entrance gifts, entrance ticket draw, competitions, surprises and much, much more. The event will commence with a meeting to appoint new committee members and discuss future plans, followed by a batch photograph. The organisers stress that the presence of members at the meeting is important. Members of the Class of 94' are requested to contact the under mentioned members for tickets and details.

Buwaneka Weerakoonon 0777-861756, Keshan Thalgahagoda on 0777-374227, Ashan Welagedara on 0777-766722, Suchitra Aluwihare on 0777-358199, Kavinda Nanayakkaraon 0777-719467, Ranil Prematillake on 0777-381805, Gerald Daniel  on 0777-514450


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