Developing sports is developing hopes

The Games of the XXXII Olympiad draw to a close in Tokyo today, with Sri Lanka and the rest of South Asia returning disappointing, subpar performances in each arena. Sri Lanka’s performance in Japan has polarised views back home, with harsh criticism from some quarters and a passionate defence from others. Ultimately, our contingent, which comprises local and regional champions of whom just two were direct qualifiers, lost not from a lack of enthusiasm or desire to do well, but from facing better competitors, from a dearth of preceding competitive events in these pandemic times, and notably, the weakness of the institutional frameworks that support these sports locally.

Elite sportsmen of the modern era don’t appear by accident: It takes years of hard work and dedication, well-managed training and conditioning, and well-planned strategies to get men and women of talent to the top and make them perform on the largest platforms. The investment in creating an athlete requires considerable resources. These investments are not limited to only the athlete. Instead, creating a culture of excellence in sports requires investment in the systems and structures that support each discipline, from their very grassroots.

Grooming athletes representing a given sport is the responsibility of the federation governing that sport, which is globally affiliated to the international federation of the sport concerned. The role of the National Olympic Committee of each country is to bring those federations under one umbrella and through that, to support the athletes to map the paths to their Olympic dreams.

For a country so obsessed with being the best and first and fastest, we are doing precious little to create such opportunities for Sri Lanka’s athletes over the next decade. Events such as these Olympics should serve as a reminder that identifying and developing talent must be a national endeavour, not just the responsibility of schools and parents and individual coaches. Underfunded systems, many rife with corruption, cannot and will not produce the goods. We need to overhaul our approach, ensure that stakeholders all speak with one voice, and entice sponsors to also support the trajectory of sports less lucrative than the cricket, rugby, football combination.

A nation needs its idols and stars, whether in sports or entertainment or any other field. Watching an athlete at the top of their game or an artiste at their peak is a privilege and a joy. Their excellence at what they do is a gift to their people; their will to keep improving and pursue greatness become inspiration for their countrymen. Their presence stretches beyond their celebrity; they can sometimes wield enormous influence in shaping how a nation believes in itself. That is why nations invest in sports and sportsmen; it’s why for big businesses, it makes absolute sense to play a role in developing and promoting sports.

In India, the Modi Government recently identified the importance of raising the profile of its athletes in improving its image globally (beyond dominating in cricket). It instituted wide changes to local sports administrations and drummed up support from private institutions for athletes, which generated high expectations ahead of the Olympics. But India’s contingent claimed just four medals and not one gold – proof that years of neglect takes much more than a burst of support to correct.

Sri Lanka too needs the private sector to actively partner in the development of sports. But for businesses, commitments must be met by clear deliverables, and this calls for an entire overhaul and professionalisation of the administrative structure of the Olympic sports. The process of professionalisation is long and arduous, and carries its own pitfalls – as made obvious in recent years by Sri Lanka’s cricketing ecosystem. But in aspiring for Olympic glory, the little steps must be taken now to create the right infrastructure and systems to support potential. Otherwise, every four years, the thing that makes the news about Sri Lanka at the Olympics will always be the size of our non-competing contingent.