With country bankrupt, cricket comes to rescue of Sri Lanka’s Commonwealth Games-bound athletes

A little more than a month ago, the Sri Lankan government told its Olympic association to “forget” about participating in the Commonwealth Games to be held in the UK. With the island nation bankrupt, out of fuel and short on food supplies, its government was in no mood to entertain the request to fund what would be Sri Lanka’s largest-ever contingent for the Games, which begins in Birmingham on July 28.

“The Treasury said they don’t have money. Forget about it,” Sri Lanka’s chef de mission Dampath Fernando told The Indian Express from Colombo on Friday. “We fell into a difficult, desperate situation.”

But just when the doors were seemingly shut on them, the athletes were rescued by an unlikely source — the country’s cricket board, which contributed 22 million Sri Lankan rupees.

“It’s a fairly big amount,” Fernando said. “Ours is a small country, we (administrators) know each other very well. In a crisis situation like the one at present, we need to appreciate that the cricket board volunteered to help the Olympic association. That’s very unique.”

With the money, the government bought air tickets to Birmingham for some athletes and officials, while the national federations will use a part of it to organise competition attire. From boxers to track-and-field stars, including sprint sensation Yupun Abekoon — the first South Asian to run 100m in less than 10 seconds — dozens of athletes stand to gain from the helping hand extended by Sri Lanka Cricket.

In fact, Abekoon will continue to get direct monetary support from the cricket board for the next two years to continue training and competing abroad. The women’s cricket team, Fernando said, will be funded separately by the cricket board.

Amidst the unprecedented economic crisis and massive protests, Sri Lanka Cricket has managed to remain insulated due to broadcast deals and ticket sales. Recently, for the first time since the start of the pandemic, crowds were allowed into the stadiums for the series against Australia. The board reportedly donated revenue generated from the Australia series, approximately $2 million, to public welfare initiatives.

Sri Lankan Olympic Association secretary general Maxwell de Silva said officials have adopted severe austerity measures for the Games although funding has been secured.

For instance, at the opening and closing ceremonies, instead of wearing traditional attire made by designers, as was the case at the Tokyo Olympics, Sri Lankan athletes will emerge out of the tunnel of the Alexander Stadium wearing basic tracksuits.

“We are going with bare minimum… making it as simple as possible,” Fernando said. “We are issuing only three t-shirts, one tracksuit and one bag to each athlete. Other than that, nothing — no new shoes, no new shirts… we can’t afford that. But we will make sure athletes are comfortable.”

Yet, there are routine reminders of the struggle they have had to endure. In May, De Silva says he was attacked at his home with knives by two unknown people. “They took my vehicle and left. However, I later got it back. I don’t know if the attack was politically motivated or because of sports, the police are investigating,” De Silva said.

Earlier this week, Fernando held a meeting with the officials and athletes from across disciplines, urging them to focus on their training and resist taking part in the protests. And on Thursday, the boxing team, Fernando says, reached out to him, saying they had run out of nutrition and medical supplies at their training base in Colombo.

“It wasn’t as if we ran out of supplies. The situation was such that we did not have fuel to transport it to the boxers. I had to engage the sports ministry’s medical unit,” Fernando said. “Transport has become a big issue, there’s no fuel in the country… Most senior managers come to work on bicycles. The same situation is being faced by our athletes, coaches and officials. It puts us in a very difficult kind of situation.”

Sri Lanka will send a total of 114 athletes — 60 women and 54 men — to Birmingham, 34 more than the 2018 edition. At Gold Coast four years ago, the country won three medals each in boxing and weightlifting.

De Silva and Fernando said they hope for an increased tally this time. “The media is asking why are we spending so much money to send a contingent of this magnitude when there’s a big crisis in the country? But our participation is critical. None of this is the fault of our athletes, who can send a message of hope and positivity with their performance,” Fernando said. “In difficult times, we shouldn’t go on the back foot. We must go forward and make our mark.”

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