By Susil Premalal
While expressing his pride at still holding the national 400m record, former star athlete Sugath Thilakaratne said that athletes could not rest purely on their success at last year’s South Asian Games in Nepal.
“The men’s 400-metre Sri Lanka record I set 22 years ago has still not been broken. I am happy about this personally. However, as someone who loves athletics, I cannot be happy that this record has stood for so many years without being broken. That is if you are thinking of the present state of athletics and future of the sport in the country. Further no one has been to able to run the 400 metres in under 45 seconds from 1998 to 2020 since I achieved this feat more than two decades ago. I don’t know whether it is due to lack of skilled athletes or not having good coaches. In this backdrop, I doubt whether Sri Lanka could aim for medals at Asian, World Championships or Olympics,” said Thilakaratne.
One of the finest sprinters to emerge in the 1990s, Thilakaratne clocked 44.61 seconds in the 400 metres at the Asian Athletic Championship in Fukuoka, Japan in 1998 to set a new Sri Lanka and Championship record.
Winner of gold, silver and bronze medals at major international events such as the South Asian Games (SAG), Asian Athletic Championships, Asian Games and Commonwealth Games, Sugath Thilakaratne also represented Sri Lanka at the World Athletic Championships and Olympic Games.
In Sri Lanka’s athletic history, Thilakaratne is the only athlete to break the 45-second barrier in the 400 metres (44.61) and clocked under 21 seconds in the 200 metres event (20.69), and was ranked number one in the 400 metres in 1998 and 1999 in Asia and among the top eight in the world.
Thilakaratne became the owner of the 400m Sri Lanka record held by W. Wimaladasa which had stood for 24 years after he won the gold medal at the 1974 Tehran Asian Games clocking 46.21 seconds.
Nicknamed as the ‘Vidulipura Lightning’ because of this athletic prowess during his school days, Thilakaratne got involved in sports administration becoming president of the Athletic Association of Sri Lanka from 2015 to 2017. He was one of the youngest administrators in the history of athletics to serve at the helm of AASL.
“During the last two decades there were some athletes who displayed potential to emulate me in the 400m but they failed to continue in the sport. In the recent past I have seen Aruna Dharshana as one athlete who could go places in the 400m event. It the responsibility of coaches and officials of the association that he is retained in the sport and his speed and power improved,” he said.
“To become the top athletic nation by bagging 15 medals at the 13th SAG after a lapse of 28 years is a significant achievement. We should appreciate that. But like a Sinhala proverb I must say you cannot swallow medicine without letting the throat know. The level of athletic competition was not very good this time. It is difficult to compare the standard of Indian athletes when Sri Lanka triumphed in the 1991 SAF (SAG) in Colombo to the those who took part in the 2019 SAG. That is because there were no Sri Lanka records or personal best performances achieved by our athletes,” he said.
More significantly most of the athletes who excelled at the 1991 SAF Games maintained their standard for nearly 10 years and went onto win medals at SAG, Asian championships, Asian Games, Commonwealth Games, World Championships and Olympics, he said.
The success of athletics in the country and aiming for glory in the future depends largely on the dedication of coaches, who did not seek monetary gain or seek rewards in the past, unlike some officials nowadays who are driven by the commercial aspects of coaching.
“When I was president of the Athletics Association, I gave priority to provide welfare benefits for both coaches and athletes. It was supported and appreciated by Yoga Sir (late Yogananda Wijesundera),” he said.
Thilakaratne feels he could serve athletics better as a coach than an administrator by developing the talents and skills of athletes instead of driving them to win by using various other means.
“Coaches should have discussions with athletes to address shortcomings or where they went wrong,” but he did not see this happening nowadays.