Did Sri Lanka throw away an Olympic medal in 1976?
Must these names be written in Sri Lanka's history with due dishonour as the major officials who denied Sri Lanka an apparent Olympic medal in 1976 at Montreal? The answer depends on the balance of the levels of patriotism and nationalism in your blood.
They were alleged to be the men behind successfully upsetting Sellapuliyage Lucien Benedict Rosa aka S.L.B. Rosa winning a medal in Montreal Olympics in 1976.
View Rosa's performances here >>
Rosa's story has been written by many writers. This is a story which reveals the names of the 'villains' too who are accused of cutting off an Olympic medal for Sri Lanka, according to Rosa and many other Sri Lankan sports writers.
Sri Lankan marathon legend S. L. B. Rosa said to media he had had no ambition to compete under the Olympic flag when the country pulled out of the 1976 Montreal Olympics. It was an apparent option before him. He could run under the Olympic flag instead of a country flag. But Rosa said that the Sri Lankan official who was present there had filed objections against such a move.
The official who was so firm in the government's decision to boycott Olympics even to the length to prevent anyone except himself participate in the event was Shirley Illesinghe. Can we blame him for that? Sri Lanka was hosting the summit of Non-aligned Movement a month later in Colombo. Rosa was to run in Montreal Olympics in July 1976. Sri Lanka was elected to the chair of the Non-Aligned Movement in August. The country was full throttle in preparations for the summit.
Actually, Sri Lanka's expressed decision to boycott 1976 Montreal Olympics which rationalized denying Rosa the chance to run for an apparent medal for Marathon was controversial. Why on earth the Sri Lankan chef de mission Shirley Illesinghe had been there flying Sri Lankan flag high if the country actually boycotted Olympics according to a collective decision of 22 countries of the Non-Aligned Movement? The boycott was organised by Tanzania to protest the facts that the New Zealand rugby team had toured apartheid South Africa and that New Zealand was scheduled to compete in the Olympic Games. Rosa says the African countries that actually boycotted had neither hoisted their flag nor sent officials to Montreal.Was Illesinghe on an Olympicnic like the Sri Lankan train to Rio these days?
In fact Rosa had more chance of winning an Olympic medal thanks to the boycott of Africans who were the top long distance runners. In 1976, Sri Lanka was so close yet so far from an Olympic medal in 1976.
S.L.B. Rosa was a village boy from Ampitiya, Kandy and educated in a humble Christian school in Kandy. His father died when he was four years old. His mother brought up the boy and he excelled in athletics as a long distance runner after he joined Army Engineers' Corps. His emergence marked with defeating R.J.K. Karunananda in 5000 meters in National Championships of 1965. Karunananda received a standing ovation at 1964 Tokyo Olympics due to the courage he showed ending the 10,000 meters as last man, even after a full round lead from his nearest competitor.
Rosa established a new Asian Games record for the 10,000 metres with timing of 29 minutes - 55.6 seconds. He won the 5,000, meters with timing of 14 minutes. 32.2 seconds. His 10,000 meters timing was bettered by only five Olympic champions at that time. It was 1970 Asian Games in Bangkok. He represented 1972 Munich Olympics and practiced hard targeting a medal in Marathon. By then, he was a student of University of Wisconsin Park, USA.
Analyzing the performances of Rosa and the numerous victories he had achieved in USA, Lalith Gunawardena in his 2004 book ‘Visikala Olympic Padakkama Rosa’ (Rosa the thrown away Olympic medal) suggests that Rosa had a good chance of winning a medal in Montreal.
Rosa established a new Sri Lanka record in Japan, months before the Montreal Olympics. His time of two hours 14 minutes and 31 seconds placed him 11th at the Fukuoka Marathon, which was considered the world’s top marathon at that time.
‘The Island’ claimed on July 18, 2012, it had in its possession a copy of a draft of a letter believed to be sent by the Sri Lankan official at Montreal to the International Olympic Committee authorities, preventing Rosa from competing in the Olympics. The newspaper described the incident in its report like this:
The letter, addressed to an IOC official, clearly states that Rosa should not be allowed to participate in the marathon, as an entry from Sri Lanka. It also clearly states that the Sri Lankan Olympic Committee will not be responsible as regards his stay in the Olympic Village.
As it transpired in the letter, the country had entered Rosa as its participant for the marathon earlier and had withdrawn same on July 7.
That was 10 days before the Games proper started. The Montreal Olympics was held from July 17 to August 1.
The Sri Lankan official at the Montreal Olympics had seconded its earlier decision to withdraw the entry via the letter dated July 23, which was just a week before the marathon. The marathon was held on July 31.
The 1976 Olympics marathon was won by Waldemar Cierpinski of East Germany, and USA’s Frank Shorter, with whom Rosa had run several races in the USA won the silver, finishing 50 seconds behind the winner.
Did Sri Lanka actually throw away an Olympic medal in 1976?
Was it wrong from the part of Sri Lanka government to maintain its dignity in international relations as the would-be chair of the Non-Aligned Movement without betraying a common struggle for the sake of an Olympic medal?
But wasn't it fair from the part of Rosa to question why he who was in Montreal under US sponsorship was not allowed to run under Olympic flag?
1976 summit of Non-Alignment Movement was the first international conference hosted by Sri Lanka and it took the island's name to the world. For the past 40 years, we have been reaping its outcome indirectly in tourism, commerce, industry and many other sectors. But we had to wait for 24 years more to win the Olympic medal we missed then.
Was the politics in 1976 worth more than an Olympic medal? Even after 40 years, I have no answer.
- Ajith Perakum Jayasinghe