06 May 2016

A one-sport nation is nothing to brag about

Cricket and nothing else? 
Last night I went to an amazing place; a gymnasium with all kinds of strange looking gadgets.  Now I have been to gymnasiums and have seen exercise machines. I’ve seen television programmes where well built men and women with what are taught to believe are ‘perfect bodies’ go on and on about the virtues of such equipment.   I haven’t really paid much notice to these things. 

This was the Sports Ministry gymnasium. I went to hand over something to a friend.  It was a holiday and so there were just 3 individuals there, diligently going about their work. Well, ‘play’ according to them: ‘api hemadaama enava sellam karanna (we come to play everyday)’ my friend said.

One of them was walking on a machine.  He increased the speed of the belt he was standing on and soon he had to jog and then actually run.  Another was doing sit-ups and my friend was lifting weights.  All of them were muscled, ‘in shape’ and looked quite athletic.  Being totally ignorant about such places and such equipment, overwhelmed actually, I asked questions.  How is this one used, what does this one do, how often must this one be used, are there alternatives to exercising in this way, are those who don’t exercise more susceptible to sickness, I asked  They were kind, these young boys. They answered. 

My friend introduced me to his friends.  I got to know that one of them, Ranjana Tharanga was the National Gymnastics Champion for more than 10 years in a row.  I was surprised because all exponents of this sport I had seen on television seemed pretty young, especially the girls, who didn’t seem a day older than 15.  Ranjana was 36.  I asked him to explain.

‘It has nothing to do with me.  You are right.  The top people in this sport have to retired before they reach 20.  So the fact that I can win the National title even at this age says less about how good I am than about the current situation of the sport.’

Ranjana told me that gymnastics is a ‘hidden sport’. That was the first time I had heard the term.  He explained:

‘Children know about cricket. There’s a lot of money in cricket. It is a glamour sport.  So it is always in the news. It is in your face whether you like it or not.  Now this is not a bad thing. The only problem is that cricket is so huge that other sports don’t get seen.  We are all in cricket’s shadow.’

I immediately thought of a huge tree with branches spreading out in all directions, effectively shutting out all sunlight from reaching the ground beneath and therefore making it impossible for other (lesser?) plants to thrive. 

‘It is good that cricket is getting that kind of exposure and prominence,’ he interjected.  ‘The problem is that when one or two sports are privileged it is not healthy for the nation,’ he opined. 

Made me think of mono crop cultures, as such were promoted by the Green Revolution (which promised much and ended up as a disaster).  We are a nation that gave the world a unique form of diversified agriculture, ‘the Kandyan Home Garden’.  Our people harvested things from a few inches beneath the ground (manioc, sweet potato and other root vegetables) to 40-50 feet above the ground (coconut). In between there were all manner of vegetables, grains, pulses, a wide range of leaves (mallun), spices, fruits etc. 

No sport should be a ‘child of a lesser god’.  All sports are good, and they all have special qualities that hone a particular strain.  All sports develop discipline, dedication, team-spirit, sacrifice etc.  The point is that not everyone likes Sport A and not everyone can be good at Sport B.  This is why we need to promote all sports and not have one sport outshine other sports into oblivion and extinction. 

Chandrishan Perera once said that a study had revealed that until the age of 15, Sri Lankan children had superior hand-eye coordination to children of all other countries.  He pointed out that we don’t have a system to identify potentialities and develop them and therefore after some time these same children are surpassed by others who were blessed with lesser natural endowments. 

I remember Ranjan Madugalle playing table tennis in the Royal College gymnasium.  ‘It helps develop reflexes and improves the eye,’ the late Col A.N. Perera, one time Master-in-Charge of Cricket at Royal and my neighbour explained to me when I mentioned it to him. He was talking about hand-eye coordination.  Skill in one sport can feed into another.  Chess will teach patience, the virtue of effective strategizing, the importance of thinking and out-thinking opponent.  Not all ‘brawn-games’ are brain-less.  I’ve had numerous conversations with ruggerites and cricketers and have found that there is more thinking happening than one might imagine.  Col. Perera, for instance, has told me many stories about how Col. F.C. De Saram, long time cricket coach at Royal (and later S. Thomas’ College, Mt. Lavinia) taught his charges how to think and to out-think the captains of opposing teams. 

We are proud of our cricket team. We are proud of Susanthika Jayasinghe and the glory she brought our country.  We are proud of M.J.M. Lafir for winning the World Billiard title in 1973.  We are proud of every achievement big and small of our sportsmen and sportswomen.  We are not exactly a top notch sporting nation, but we can always be better, we can be as best as we can be (although we are not, right now). 

We can be a one-sport nation of course.  We don’t have to be.  There’s a cloud over ‘small sports’, Ranjana is absolutely correct.  A National Gymnastic Champion who is 36 years old is nothing to brag about, he concedes.  His is a lament.  Someone should hear him out.

This article was first published in the Daily News (May 4, 2010).  Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer who contributes a weekly column to the Daily Mirror titled 'Subterranean Transcripts'.  Email: malindasenevi@gmail.com. Twitter: malindasene.