Independent Ceylon was just a few months old when she won her first ever silver medal at the 1948 Summer Olympics in London.
For the new nation it would have been a proud moment; and a propitious omen of triumphs to come.
At that time, in this place, reasons for optimism abounded. Young Ceylon was better placed than most – if not all – other newly independent nations. We enjoyed universal franchise, free education and health systems, a comprehensive welfare scheme and an ample foreign exchange surplus. We did not have to endure a brutally bloody civil conflict of the sort our giant neighbour, India, had experienced. Compared to most of our Third World brethren, we had a populace which was better educated and healthier, functioning institutions (including an independent bureaucracy and a top-notch judiciary) and civil cohesion.
There was every reason to believe in a peaceful and prosperous future. There was every reason to think that Duncan White’s Olympic Silver would be followed by many more Silvers, Golds and Bronzes.
The omens were wrong. It would take Lanka 50 plus 2 years to win her next Olympic medal – Susanthika Jayasinghe’s Bronze which was upgraded, subsequently, to a silver. Since then it has been downhill again, with an abysmal performance at the London 2012 Olympics marking a fresh nadir.
We had the potential to become the Switzerland of the Third World. Switzerland houses three ethno-linguistic groups (Italian, French and German) and owns a history marred by violence. Yet it did succeed in leaving its past behind, in the past, and marching into an infinitely more felicitous future. The tiny landlocked nation, unaided by any colonial exploitation, became a haven of safety and prosperity in a tumultuous Europe.
In 1948, as Ceylon celebrated her first Olympic triumph, there was no reason to regard a similar achievement beyond her reach.
The Need for a New Identity
The first Lankan Olympian was a Burgher; the first Lankan Gold medalist at the Asian Games was a Tamil, Dr. Nagalingam Ethirveerasingham.
Their triumphs were indicative of what this country could have amounted to if she had not taken the wrong path towards racism and war.
Post-war we have another chance to redeem ourselves, to forge a genuinely Lankan identity. Will we take it? Or will we remake the same old mistakes?
A Sri Lankan identity, a Sri Lankan unity cannot be created by glossing over and denying the very real differences which exist in this country, and will continue to exist in this country.
Denying Lankan plurality means refusing to accept that different ethno-religious and socio-economic groups can have common interests as well as specific interests and, and even contradictory, interests.
Without accepting this reality, a strategy which seeks to balance the different interests or reconcile the conflictual one cannot be pursued. Without such a strategy the nation-building project cannot succeed.
Comments will be edited (grammar, spelling and slang) and authorized at the discretion of Daily Mirror online. The website also has the right not to publish selected comments.