By Susil Premalal
Former Sri Lanka table tennis star Lalith Priyantha says he is continuing to wage a battle to free the sport which he alleges is held in the bondage of affluent parents who are influencing decisions made by the governing body, instead of veterans who have shed blood, sweat and tears for the sport.
“It is sad but a fact that parents of some players are controlling the sport. They are like a mafia. During the last two years the wrong person is in the association. Some people who have never held a table tennis racquet in their life have come into the association because of their children and even go as managers whenever the Sri Lanka team goes overseas. It is very unfair and unethical,” alleged Priyantha who fought tooth and nail throughout his career to battle both opponents and critics alike.
“Now table tennis, more than being a sport, has become a big business. Those without knowledge of the sport are running the show,” said Priyantha who like most players took up coaching once his playing days were over.
“I am happy to say I have still not given up playing table tennis and I am still the national champion (in veterans) for the last 15 years,” quipped the 53-year-old who coaches some schools and institutions but was rejected for the position of national coach for the 2018 Commonwealth Games.
“This is the humiliation that people like us who have dedicated their life to the sport have to undergo when it is governed by people who have never played the game,” said Priyantha, whose passion for the sport is perhaps unrivalled.
He not only overcame physical challenges since he suffered from sinus in one eye to achieve the unique distinction of becoming national champion, being ranked number one, captaining Sri Lanka, coaching the national team, serving as a selector and also becoming president of the governing body of table tennis in the country. He is undeniably an icon of the sport as far as Sri Lanka is concerned just like Jothipala Samaraweera and N.H. Perera were household names in table tennis before he entered the arena.
However, an amendment to the Sports Law enacted in 2013 which disqualified those “directly or indirectly interested in the manufacture, assembly, sale or production of any sports goods, gear or equipment” from holding office in any sports association means that he is ineligible to contest again.
“The biggest drawback for table tennis is that the new Act disqualified those who genuinely loved the sport and wanted to develop it. I told then Sports Minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage, that cricket is different from table tennis which is played by mostly middle class and low-income background people. Nowadays players take up coaching after they finish playing,” claimed Priyantha who denied that he had profited from the sport despite being an agent for Butterfly products.
Priyantha also slammed current national players for engaging in coaching while they were playing.
“What happens now is national players are also coaching. Then their speed, spin, endurance reduces. They go for a tournament without having match practice,” said Priyantha who got the highest world ranking of 239 when he won more than 50% of the matches during his participation at the World Championship in Germany in 1989.
“This is detrimental to their playing careers,” he said. “They play very well and are dedicated to get into the national team. After that when they go for international competitions, they don’t have interest because they haven’t practiced. To earn a few dollars, they focus on coaching than training ahead of a tour. This is the situation in the country. We should find a solution,” said Priyantha, adding that he wanted to take up this issue with Sports Minister Dullas Alahapperuma.
Although he agreed that a coach need not be an outstanding player, he said there was no comparison with other countries where those who have played at club level are top players.
“When I was playing top level table tennis, Dietmar Doering invited me to play in second division. Other players had to play in lower divisions in Germany. A coach of a fourth division side can coach our Sri Lanka national team. But for someone in Sri Lanka who has not had that exposure, how can they coach the national team? Our level of competition and standard is less. We are at the SAG (South Asian Games) level,” he said.
“In Sri Lanka they say there is no need to be a national champion to be a national coach. But according to our standard, we need a former national champion to be a coach unlike in other countries,” he said also querying why former champions are not taken to the national selection committee.