Legendary boxer Muhammad Ali
(centre) lit the Olympic Torch at the Atlanta Game. Here future Olympic
medalist Susanthika Jayasinghe and Sriyani Kulawansa pose with the
legend when he toured the Olympic village during the Atlanta Olympics.
Legendary boxer Muhammad Ali’s presence to lit the Olympic torch was
one of the most iconic moments in sports and for Sri Lankans the Games
was memorable for Sriyani Kulawansa’s record breaking feat and Sugath
Thilakaratne’s giant killing performance in the men’s 400 metres heats.
by Reemus Fernando
twenty four years ago on this day, brushing shoulders against the
world’s best, Sriyani Kulawansa clocked 12.91 seconds in a photo-finish
in the women’s 100 metres hurdles at the Atlanta Olympics. She missed
the semi-final by the skin of her teeth but it was a remarkable
achievement as she made the presence of the Asian continent felt at the
world’s biggest stage. She was the only Asian to reach that higher in a
field dominated by European and US counterparts and to date the 12.91
seconds feat remains the women’s 100 metres hurdles national record.
Two decades after the impressive feat Kulawansa regrets that her record
had remained untouched too long.
“It had remained unbroken
means that we (Sri Lanka) haven’t made progress in this event. That is
something that I regret though I have lot of fond memories from the
Games when I look back,” Kulawansa told The Island in an interview.
are different today. Young people look for instant results. With
knowledge available in the internet, what you want is at your
fingertips. Running hurdles is not easy. You have to train hard for
that. Young people are not willing to put their bodies under so much of
stress,” assessed Kulawansa who also takes part of the blame for not
persuading enough as a coach to bring the best out of hurdlers.
Kulawansa is the only Sri Lankan hurdler to have clocked sub 13
seconds over the 100 metres hurdles. Picture courtesy Gettyimages
to two decades ago now we have few hurdlers who are competing against
each other. That is something that we can be happy. When I competed I
had to ask for 100 metres sprinters who were not hurdlers to take
starts with me. When I was attempting records I made sure I got athletes
like Jayamini Illeperuma, Thamara Samandeepika, Damayanthi Menike and
co to take starts with me. Rules those days were such that for a record
to be recognised you had to have at least five athletes competing.
Hurdling was not something that girls liked though I remember there was
crowd attraction for it. When I first established the national record
in 1991 I remember that there was a huge crowd alongside the 100 metres
track at Police Park to witness me hurdling,” recalled Kulawansa.
who is currently attached to the Ministry of Education as a project
officer said that the current education system was also discouraging
many to take up sports.
a parent myself I know the mind set of parents. They want their
children to follow university education. Qualifications in sports alone
do not guarantee a place in university. So parents do not encourage
their children to take up sports. There are only very few former
athletes who are financially secure. So it is natural for parents to
not influence their children to take up sports,” opined Kulawansa.
only a handful of female athletes have run the 100 metres hurdles
under 14 seconds, Kulawansa is the only Sri Lankan to have clocked a sub
13 seconds according to Athletics Association of Sri Lanka
statistician Saman Kumara.
Hurdling was not a discipline that Kulawansa put much thought into when she was at school. She was selected in the netball, volleyball and track and field (high jump) national pools simultaneously. And it was at that point that Lakshman de Alwis (former national athletics coach) instructed her to choose one discipline. She took hurdling seriously under Dervin Perera’s guidance and first took the national record under her belt in 1991 and from then on there had been no one closer to breaking the record. Hurdling took her to unprecedented heights as she represented Sri Lanka at almost all major international MultiSports events and medal success at Commonwealth Games, Asian Games, Asian Championships and SA Games.