Winning an Olympic medal is the pinnacle of athletic achievement. Sri Lanka won its first Olympic medal in London in 1948 when Duncan White hurdled his way to a 400m Silver. It was 52 long years before Susanthika Jayasinghe, “The Dazzling Gazelle”, grabbed Silver in the women's 200m sprint and inspired young women across the country to participate in elite sports. Tomorrow, striving for Olympic glory continues to be the pinnacle of our national sporting aspiration.
The objective of Suresh Subramaniam, President of the National Olympic Committee of Sri Lanka (NOCSL) for elite sports, is another Olympic medal, which has eluded Sri Lanka for more than two decades. He observes, “Now winning a medal is easier said than done, it entails a lot of work. There are trainers that concentrate on training the kids, the kids need to be disciplined enough to go through the training, there are physicians, there are doctor. But one of the most important things that I looked at was this - to win a medal we need at least 50,000 participants. Now, how do we get 50,000 participants?”
To find champions, sporting bodies must reach out to athletes from every corner of the island. And it is critical that these athletes feel safe in their sport and their sporting community.
Subramaniam points out that all forms of harassment, sexual harassment in particular, need to be identified and rooted out, so that a nourishing environment prevails for aspiring athletes.
Eradicating sexual harassment, he says, is a particularly formidable challenge “...because when it comes to sexual harassment nobody wants to talk about it – not the injured party or the other party.”
Subramaniam, a number 1 ranked Tennis player in 1981, a former President of the Sri Lanka Tennis Association and Secretary General of the Asian Tennis Federation, recalls the early 2000s when reported incidents of sexual harassment had been brought to light but were eventually swept under the carpet.
"Those athletes, even now when we talk to them, they are scarred. They are angry that nobody has taken them seriously.”
Faced with this immense challenge, Subramaniam enlisted Niloo Jayatilake, Chairperson of the Women's Committee - NOCSL, to head a separate committee tasked with taking this initiative forward. With the help of other volunteers with expertise and links to the sporting arena, the Sexual Harassment and Abuse Policy (SHAP) has been developed. SHAP is a foundational, game-changing document with the power to change Sri Lankan sport forever.
Sadly, all forms of harassment are present in Sri Lankan sports tomorrow. It is only now that these conversations are entering the mainstream and the sporting community beginning to take serious action.
Subramaniam says, “If the sport is safe, then the parents are happy to send the kids. We have to give that confidence to the parents and the children. We must make sure there is no sexual harassment, no match fixing, no trauma, bullying, we have to stop all that.”
With the SHAP now operational, action is the highest priority.
Jivan Goonetilleke, Legal Counsel and Partner at D. L. & F. De Saram, and co-author of the SHAP agrees.
“Justice delayed is justice denied. This is more so when it comes to the aspect of sexual harassment. That process could take several years, at the time of which the perpetrators would have gotten away, circumstances would have changed and so much could happen in the interim. With the SHAP we are looking at a fast track, expertise-oriented process where everybody will have proper redress, and everybody will be given a fair opportunity with considered mechanisms in place to implement decisions.”
Success, he says, is all about momentum.
“When you get more and more people coming into this and trusting the system and using the system, the moment they see that meaningful steps are being taken to protect their rights, you’ll be surprised at how huge clusters of complaints are likely to come flooding in. If people see that this system actually works, that complaints are being acknowledged, complaints are being acted on, that will instill confidence in all stakeholders in sport as a whole.”
Subramaniam and the NOCSL are also working with the Minister of Sports & Youth Affairs Namal Rajapakse, to educate communities nationwide on this issue, especially in rural areas, across federations and in schools. Heightened awareness and public dialogue will empower victims and whistle-blowers, and also deter perpetrators from committing crimes against our young men and women.
The NOCSL now has the right personnel, the right plan and the right policy to move Sri Lanka sports in the right direction. We all want our athletes to do well and be well. With your active commitment to this cause, our children will be able to flourish within a safe and supportive sporting community.
To report incidents of Sexual Harassment or for more information please visit www.olympic.lk/harassmentisnogame.