12 March 2016

There are races Roshan Askey won without even running

And 32 years later: Askey (far right) with friends from the Class of '83 at the Big Match this year (2016)
The year was 1984.  My last year in school.  My first and last ‘Royal College Road Race’.  Honours were guaranteed because I was in the Over 19 category and there were only three competitors.  Around the half way mark I realized that there was the guy ahead of me was beyond my reach and the guy behind was too far behind to challenge me for second place.   For me, therefore, there was no drama beyond that point.  Until I passed the Thunmulla Junction. 

Ramli Mohammed, a sprinter and a coloursman and Sampath Agalawatte, the school’s rugger captain came by on a bike and screamed, ‘Stride Malinda, stride!’ By that time, the ultimate winner had already crossed the finishing line, but I remember sprinting for about 200 meters. 

That was a nothing-story, really.  THE STORY had happened 20-30 minutes before.  There would have easily been over 500 contestants but there were only two real contenders.  One had already won the Road Race twice, setting a record in the process.  His victory, to his mind as well as those who knew these athletes well, was a foregone conclusion.  He hadn’t broken away though.  The two had been way ahead of the pack and being friends had been running together. 

Roshan Askey had never dreamed of becoming an athletic.  He was crazy about football.  He was fast and this he knew, but knowledge of speed is not the same as recognizing potential.  As laidback, humble and self-effacing as he is now, all he did was have fun.  But he was ‘discovered’ and not by a coach or a teacher, but a classmate who even today Askey refers to as ‘my mentor’.  Ramli Mohamed.  

Ramli was an athlete.  A sprinter.  Fast.  He had recognized ‘speed’ in Askey one day when the entire class was playing a game of tap-rugger.  Askey not only had speed but had stamina as well.  The coaches realized this.  The legendary coach, K.L.F. Wijedasa was of course an important factor in Askey’s emergence from just another fun-loving student to an accomplished athlete.

His first race, interestingly, was the annual Royal College Road Race.  Askey was just 16 years old at the time.  He not only came first in his age-category (Under 17) but was second overall.  His potential to become one of the Golden Boys of Royal College Athletics was thus established and what he accomplished in his first Public Schools Athletics Meet put the matter beyond any shadow of doubt.

The Under 17 1500m race was his first.  Naturally he was nervous.  It was his first race at the national level. There were known athletes.  Even today, at 50, he remembers how nervous he was: 'I went to the toilet 6 times before the race!'

And yet Askey was determined.  At that time St Thomas' Mt Lavinia had been ahead of Royal in terms of overall points.  A win here would have meant 10 points and that would have pushed Royal ahead of their traditional rivals.  Twenty meters into the race tragedy struck.  Someone wearing spikes accidentally (Askey insists) stepped on his foot. His shoe came off partially .

'The natural instinct was to drop out of the race, but immediately I thought of the points and decided that even if I came 3rd I'll still secure 5 points.  So I tossed the shoe aside and ran.  One shoe and on the other foot just the sock.'

And Askey won the race. Royal emerged champions.

The 800m and 1500m were his favorites (his records still stand, more than 30 years after he set them), but he also has the unique distinction (for a middle-distance runner) of being part of the school’s gold-winning 4x100 relay team.  That’s heart.  He gave it his all. 

Back then there was commitment and loyalty to the school.  They were all fierce competitors but very few had grand ambitions outside of bringing glory to the school.  Askey smiles when he speaks of that time.

‘We used to bring lime-juice from home.  We would eat a slice of pineapple.  That’s all.’

It was a different time.  Parents not only didn’t get involved but for the most part didn’t even know what their sons were up to.  No special ‘gear’, just whatever was there or was affordable.  Nothing fancy.  They were heroes who didn’t even know they were seen as such. 

I hadn’t seen Roshan Askey in over 25 years until I ran into him at the Big Match a few years ago.  In fact that as the first time ever that I spoke with him, although we were in the same grade.  But I knew him and admired him, both for his amazing athleticism and his heart.  And that’s the big story of that 1984 Road Race.    

Roshan Askey had the energy.  He had the speed.  He knew the race was his.  But Askey was Askey.  Mild-mannered.  Generous.  As they ran, he kept asking his running-mate ‘umba yanavada, mama yannada?’  (will you go, or shall I?).  He was essentially offering his team-mate the victory.   His query, repeated several times, was responded to with silence.  And then the other boy ‘took off’.  Without a word.  The edge of surprise was with the other boy.  But then again, he was taking on Roshan Askey.   Askey was fast.  He had stamina.  He had heart.  He broke his own record that day. 

And typically, he had no harsh words for the runner-up: ‘mama umben ahuvane!’  (essentially, ‘I asked you, didn’t I?’).  Askey hasn’t talked about this incident, but it’s a story I heard way back in 1984, shortly after the race.  Ramli Mohamed had told me what happened.  Yesterday (March 10, 2016), at the Big Match, I told Roshan Askey something I had never told him: ‘You were one of my heroes and I’ve told this story to many people over the years whenever I wanted to make a point about competition and heart’. 

Askey confirmed Ramli’s account. 

‘There was no envy, nothing like that.  I had already won the Road Race twice and broken the record.  That’s why I asked him that question and asked it several times.  I knew I could win because I have the speed.’

He is still very fit and in response to a question Askey said that until a couple of years ago he could defeat both his sons in beach races.  His sons play rugger.  Ovin is an exceptional place-kicker and the full-back of the school’s First XV team.

‘But all that is not important.  What’s important is  how we did things back then.  We weren’t pampered by anyone.  I only had the lime-juice I brought from home and an annaasi kaella (slice of pineapple).  Hard work.  Commitment.  We were competitive and gave everything we had to bring glory to the school.  And that’s what mattered.’

And as a footnote one could that all this was affirmed in the role that Ramli Mohamed played in the Roshan Askey story.  There are lessons there for all sportspersons and for those who are out of school as well. 

There was a race that Roshan Askey won in 1984, 20-30 minutes before I crossed the finishing line.  There was a victory that he had registered even before he broke the tape and with it his own record.  He was way ahead of all of us competing in the Road Race and most of us who were his ‘batch-mates’ the moment he asked, Umba yannada, mama yannada?   

This article was published in the Daily News (March 12, 2016).  Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer and can be reached via email: malindasenevi@gmail.com


ramli said...

Malinda, thanks for taking us back to a simpler time, where values of loyalty and friendship were treasured, not just used as phrases in speeches or annual reports, People like Askey are heroes not just for their accomplishments but for the fact that they have lived life by the values we were taught in school by our wonderful teachers, like your mother and so many more