The Athletics Association of Sri Lanka (AASL) buoyed by the sponsorship from Gnanam Foundation are revitalising their plans to qualify athletes for the Tokyo Olympics next year.
“It is great of Gnanam Foundation to come forward and support a sport for the first time. The funding will be utilised to conduct national athletic meets, development of athletes and to provide kits and equipment,” said AASL President Maj. Gen. (Rtd) Palitha Fernando stressing it won’t be used to foreign tours.
“In the past we had sponsors like Bank of Ceylon, Telecom and Dialog. All them were unhappy because we were not making use of that for development of athletics but using it for various other things,” he said.
Although the COVID-19 pandemic stalled the momentum of athletes after their unprecedented success at the South Asian Games in December where they pushed India to second place by securing 15 gold medals, the postponement of the Tokyo Games may have come as a blessing in disguise for some athletes to recover from injury and also AASL to focus on the busy schedule of events next year.
“We have got good results since I took over in 2017 but we have failed at Asian level competitions. The biggest reason is most of the countries import athletes from Africa and Caribbean Islands, especially West Asian countries. However, now we have started a special programme to overcome that problem,” he said.
“We have very competent coaches in Sri Lanka and have invited three coaches from abroad – one from Kenya and two from Cuba. They are working hard to reach the standard where we can win medals at Asian level,” he said.
A 27-member senior national pool has begun training in Diyathalawa, Nuwara Eliya, Ratnapura and Colombo.
“The middle distance athletes came down from Nuwara Eliya after a month’s training to do some tests. I am happy with their progress,” he said.
AASL is planning to conduct a selection trial meet in October followed by the National Championship in December. This is part of their strategic objective to select representatives for international events next year. Meanwhile, the AASL is also expected to conduct Junior National trials in November, depending on GCE (O/L) exam dates to select pools for Asian Youth Championship and World Junior Championship to be held next year.
More significantly the AASL chief revealed that they have identified the track and field events in which Sri Lanka has come close to Olympic qualification. They are women’s marathon, 4x100m men’s relay, 4x400m mixed relay, 800m men and women, long jump men and women, triple jump men and women, 3,000m women’s steeplechase and javelin throw.
“No one has qualified for the Olympics yet. Nilani Ratnayake is very close to Olympic qualification in the 3,000m women’s steeplechase. Marathon champion Hiruni Wijayaratne who is training in USA has improved a lot to reach the qualification standard and has a good chance at the Asian marathon. I have lot of hopes on 800 metre runner Indunil Herath. We may have couple of surprises as well,” Maj. Gen. Fernando told the Sunday Times.
Apart from Wijayaratne and Herath, AASL is banking on the likes of Dilshi Kumarasinghe (800m), Gratiean Dhananjaya (triple jump), Vidusha Lakshani (triple jump), Janaka Wimalasiri and V.P.A. Jayasiri (long jump) and Sumedha Ranasinghe (javelin) to raise the bar.
“We also have a team of 400 metre runners for mixed relay comprising Aruna Dharshana, Gunaratne, Dilshi and Nadeesha Ramanayake. In the 4x100m relay there is Himasha Eshan, Vinod Silva, Nupun Abeykoon, Dharmakeerthi and Yodhasinghe,” he added.
He said they hope to send many athletes to participate in the Asian Youth and Asian Senior Athletics Championships next year.