A tough challenge awaits the track and field athletes – The Island
Commonwealth Games 2022
by Reemus Fernando
Athletics is one of only four Olympic sports to have brought Sri Lanka medals of all colors in the history of the Commonwealth Games, although the sport has not found much success in the last two decades at the biannual event. But when the latest edition of the multisport event gets underway in Birmingham today, the six-man track and field team is in a slightly better position to challenge its rivals than most of their predecessors who have competed over the past two decades.
The team, consisting of sprinter Yupun Abeykoon, 400m specialist Kalinga Kumarage, thrower Sumedha Ranasinghe, long jumper Sarangi Silva, middle-distance runner Gayanthika Abeyratne and steeplechaser Nilani Ratnayake, is the smallest track and field team at a Commonwealth game since A. Premachandra competed alone at the 1978 Edmonton Games.
There have been top athletes, including Olympic champion Susanthika Jayasinghe, who have appeared on SL teams from Manchester 2002 to the Gold Coast 2018, but none have matched the performances of previous medalists, namely Duncan White (1950 Auckland: gold in 440-yard hurdles – 52.5 seconds), Shriyani Kulawansa (1998 Kuala Lumpur: silver 100m hurdles – 12.95s) and Sugath Thilakaratne (1998: bronze 400m – 44.64s) in the last two decades .
With the sport’s new figurehead Yupun Abeykoon making great strides from his base in Italy, fans can look forward to exciting performances in the men’s 100m. Abeykoon has become the first 100m sprinter to represent Sri Lanka after Shehan Ambepitiya attended the 2010 Delhi Games. Ambepitiya, a superb sprinter with multiple medals against his name at the Commonwealth Youth Games, wasn’t even in the top 100 athletes when he went to the India Games. But today, thanks to the determination of Abeykoon and his coaches, the South Asian record-holder is among the top performers in the world. His pre-World Championship recorded performance of 9.96 is in the top 16 in the world. There are at least eight Commonwealth athletes who have done better than Yupun this season, but the Olympian’s plan to reach the finals seems like a realistic goal.
Rio Olympian Sumedha Ranasinghe failed to impress at the 2018 Gold Coast Games. With a best time of the season of 82.18 meters, the athlete trained by Pradeep Nishantha is in better shape. His best performance this season is among the top 30 performances in the world. Featuring some of the best athletes in this discipline from non-Commonwealth nations, he has fewer than half a dozen top competitors to compete against. However, they include several leading athletes, including newly crowned world champion Anderson Peters.
Long jumper Sarangi Silva skipped the recently ended World Championships to focus on the Games. Her season best of 6.65m has given her confidence as she beats the gold win of the 2014 edition. 2018 was a different story when Canada’s Christabel Nettey won with a performance of 6.84m. She has a best time of the season of 6.80 meters. She is not the only Commonwealth athlete to have covered that distance this season, as several others, including at least one from the hosts, are also hoping to make the podium.
The strong Kenyan presence will give Nilani Ratnayake a tough challenge in the women’s 3,000m steeplechase, but her training partner Gayanthika Abeyratne has a chance to improve on her performance at the 2018 games. It took Abeyratne 2:04.72s to retire in the 800m heats in the last edition. With a national record of 2:01.44 seconds against her name (from April), she should do well in the heats.
Kalinga Kumarage also faces a major challenge as he heads into the men’s 400m with a season best of 45.88 seconds. It took Sugath Thilakaratne an outstanding performance of 44.64 seconds to take bronze at the 1998 Kuala Lumpur Games long ago. It would be an achievement if Kalinga could advance from heats.
With the Commonwealth of Nations representing some of the powerhouses in athletics, Sri Lankans face the challenge of competing against the world’s best athletes at these Games. Take the case of Olympic medalist Susanthika Jayasinghe with her performance of 11.08 seconds in the 100m final, her best time of the year that year, at the Manchester edition. She was the 11th fastest athlete in the world that year, but that performance of 11.08 seconds was a millisecond slower than Bahamian bronze medalist Sevatheda Fynes as Debbie Ferguson stopped the clock in a game record of 10.91 seconds to win gold .