COLOMBO (AFP) – Sri Lankan badminton champion Niluka Karunaratne is heading to England next week where his Commonwealth Games career began — a swansong almost derailed by his bankrupt country’s financial crisis.
Tournament organizers and Sri Lanka’s cricket board are funding the island nation’s biggest-ever Games contingent, with 114 players, along with coaches and support staff, set to travel to Birmingham in the coming days.
Sri Lanka’s economic crash has left local sports federations dry, with players in recent weeks doubting whether they will be able to compete at all.
“Sports is our life, it would have been a big, big disappointment,” said Karunaratne, a three-time Olympian at every Commonwealth Games since making his debut as a teenager in Manchester in 2002.
“Fortunately the Sports Ministry and the National Cricket Board did a great, great job of finding the funds,” the 37-year-old told AFP.
Sri Lanka has faced months of food and fuel shortages, blackouts and runaway inflation.
Public anger over the recession this month led to massive crowds at the home and office of the country’s president, who later fled abroad and resigned.
At a time when the coronavirus pandemic has swept across the country, wiping out athletic sponsorships from local businesses, sports federations This crisis has hit hard.
Federations were left without enough cash for athlete uniforms and plane tickets when the post-pandemic travel bounce drove up airfares.
Sri Lankan team chef de mission Dumpath Fernando said administrators have lobbied for support for their determination to do everything possible to give the country a chance to compete.
“The main game brings a lot of good things, a lot of joy,” Fernando told AFP.
“We want to keep our backs straight, our heads strong, in front of our flag, as a proud nation, like any other nation, and we want to do our best.”
Commonwealth Games organizers were made aware of Sri Lanka’s financial struggles and responded by promising to sponsor a large part of the traveling team.
Sri Lanka’s cricket board, which recently hosted Australia, paid more than 22 million rupees ($60,000) to cover the remaining shortfall, despite fears that political unrest would derail their seven-week tour of the island.
‘We have a responsibility’
With one silver and five bronze medals at the Gold Coast in 2018, Sri Lanka’s deteriorating economy has posed other obstacles for the country’s athletes and their determination to improve.
Fuel shortages have made it difficult for some competitors to travel to practice, while budget constraints have left sports federations short of clothing and other essential equipment.
Fernando said the resilience of the players has made him and his teammates determined to field the contestants in the Games starting next Thursday.
“This is not the first time that we as a country have faced these kinds of battles,” Fernando said, noting that the decade-long civil war and tsunami killed more than 30,000 compatriots.
“It’s a dream for the players to participate,” he added. “We have a responsibility to fulfill that dream. Just because we’re facing a financial crisis… doesn’t mean we’ve forgotten about it.”
Disruption and unrest have now become part of daily life in Sri Lanka and many players have tried their best to do so.
“Anyway, I can’t control it,” said Ganga Senavirathne, 19, a swimmer preparing for her Commonwealth Games debut.
“The things I could control, like my training, I was able to manage everything well,” she told AFP.
“Politics is not a conversation I like.”
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