Susantha: Powering the passion of running at Walala


by Reemus Fernando

Winning medals at junior Asian level is no big deal for Ratnayake Central, Walala, for the schools athletics stronghold has produced athletes of such calibre to excel even at senior Asian level during the last two decades. But there was something special when the athletes of the premier Sports School of the Central Province helped Sri Lanka team win the Under-17 girls’ title at the recently held Asian Schools Cross Country Championship. The lasses of Ratnayake Central made a clean sweep winning the first, second, third and fourth places for Sri Lanka to win the Under-17 age category in the Cross Country Championship held in Hong Kong .

Ratnayake Central had been dominating the field of athletics for more than two decades now.

Head coach Susantha Fernando, who has served athletics both as an administrator and as a coach for more than two decades now is credited for transforming the school from a third place winner at the Central Province Athletics Championship in early 90s to the All Island Schools Games champion outfit by the end of that decade and maintaining that status for nearly two decades.

In a recent interview with The Island, the unassuming official shared the credit for Ratnayake Central’s success among a plethora of officials and explained how the team won at the Asian event. Here are some excerpts.

"The athletes who won the first four places (at the Asian Schools Cross Country Championship) were all 800 metres and 1,500 metres runners. We give priority to their endurance and running six kilometres is not a big deal for them.

They were the first four finishers at their pet track events at the All Island Schools Games Athletics Championships. They win those events comprehensively. We had no idea about the standard of the competition in Hong Kong. We were not the favourites. Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam and Hong Kong were among the favourties in the Under-17 age category but our girls turned tables on them. China won the Under-15 championship. The training these athletes got for their track events stood in good stead for them to win in Hong Kong," said Fernando.

The participation of the two teams (boys and girls) in this championship was doubtful due to financial constraints at one stage. And the touring officials of the Sri Lanka Schools Athletics Association struggled to obtain permission for their travel due to the obstinate bureauracy at the Ministry of Education. "At one stage the participation at this championship was doubtful. The intervention of Colonel Manjula Kariyawasam of the Ministry of Education was crucial. His intervention stood us in good stead. He worked hard to get the Sports Ministry funds for tickets. I would like to sincerely thank him for the job done."

Fielding four athletes for one discipline

The top four finishers at the Asian Schools Cross Country championship were also the top finishers in the 1500 metres in the All Island Schools Games Athletics Championship 2017. Can a school field more than two athletes for a single discipline at competitions conducted by the Education Ministry?

"Had we not been allowed to field four athletes for one discipline at meets we would not have achieved this result. In the 1984 circular which was prepared when Sunil Jayaweera was the Director of Sports at the Ministry of Education there was provisions for schools to field more than two athletes if they reach certain qualifying standard. There had been occasions when more than two athletes were allowed to compete in one event. But there was no consistency. The rule changed from time to time. There are provinces which are traditionally strong in certain disciplines. For example Central Province is strong in middle and long distance events. Western Province shines in sprint events. If you limit the number of athletes taking part in those strong disciplines then you will be hindering the progress of a few potential future winners for the country. One constructive step taken by the Education Ministry when a new circular on sports was issued in 2016 was to not to include a limitation. Administrators of some Provinces are still reluctant to allow schools to field more than two athletes for a single discipline," opined Fernando.

With the teams for the Asian Schools Cross Country Championship struggling to find expenses there were press reports urging support for the team. Were there positive responses?

"I would like to thank Singer for their support. Singer felicitated the team in Hong Kong. The officials who went with the team said that was the moment the team actually felt that they had been appreciated for a job well done," said Fernando who was not a part of the team that toured Hong Kong.

Fernando also pointed out the steps taken by Chief Minister Sarath Ekanayake to increase the nutrition allowance for sports scholarship holders from rupees 2,500 to 5,000 in 2017 and increase the allowance for Sports School Instructors from rupees 1,000 to 5,000.

"From 1995 it was Rs. 1,000 and it was increased for the first time from June this year(2017). The Central Province is the only Province to do that. We are thankful for the Chief Minister’s intervention and helping athletics. That was a real shot in the arm "

Fernando also credited recent exposure in Kenya where he joined some leading coaches of the country to gain experience in coaching long distance runners.

"I was the only coach from the Ministry of Education to travel to Kenya for training. Others were from the Sports Ministry and Tri Forces. I thank the Minister of Sports Dayasiri Jayasekara for granting me the opportunity. I feel that I can gather more knowledge if I get more opportunities to upgrade my knowledge."

Fernando is the Assistant Director of Education- Sports and Physical Education at Wattegama Zonal Education office. He has held that position for many years now and coaching does not come under his duties. He coaches Ratnayake Central as a volunteer. As the Assistant Director of Education- Sports and Physical Education at the Wattegama Zonal education office he has an enviable record. Of the 98 Zones in the country, the Wattegama Zone has been among the best two zones of the country during his tenure alongside strong Colombo Education zone. His Zone has been winning medals in eight sports.

"I manage my time between coaching and administration work carefully. The help and the understanding of Hema Kumari Wijeratne, Zonal Director of Education at Wattegama is vital for my work..Ms. Wijeratne understands the importance of my work both as a volunteer coach and as an administrator. I am also thankful to the help given by Central Province Director of Education Thilak Ekanayake and the Department of Education of the Central Province to the sports school.

Fernando is a former secretary of the Sri Lanka Schools Athletics Association and the incumbent president of the Kandy District Athletics Association, one of the very few active district athletics associations. Fernando was also instrumental in making a change in the administration of the Sri Lanka Schools Athletics Association in 2012 and the SLSAA has been able to upgrade the knowledge of schools coaches apart from conducting athletics championship after this change.

He is also the founder president of the Sri Lanka Schools Athletics Coaches’ Association which in conjunction with the SLSAA and the Ministry of Education of various Provinces have been able to upgrade the knowledge of schools coaches.

"We were able to train teachers and PTIs of 16 districts and help upgrade their knowledge. Our efforts have resulted in some not so well to do schools producing results at meets."

Susantha has accompanied Sri Lanka teams as a coach and manager to many an international event.

During the last 28 years as a coach, 49 of his charges have gone on to represent Sri Lanka at different levels (junior and senior). The athletes graduating from Ratnayake Central has represented the country at numerous international events from South Asian Junior Championships, South Asian Games, Asian Youth Games, Asian Junior Athletics Championships, Asian Athletics Championships, Asian Games, Commonwealth Games, World Youth Athletics Championships, World Junior Athletics Championships, World Cross Country Championships, Youth Olympics, Olympics to World Championships.

Ratnayake Central athletes have also accounted for a rich haul of 64 international medals and have owned 67 national titles (from John Tarbet Senior Championships, All Island Schools Games, National Relay Championships).

Incidentally, the leading Sports School does not have a proper ground to train. The doctors of the Sports Medical Unit of Peradeniya have stated that the 200 metres track at Ratnayake Central was not deemed for high level training.


Where does athletes come from and how the talent scouting is done?

Some critics have cited that the Sports School of Walala had been recruiting athletes from across the country. But a document prepared by the School to present to concerned parties show that a vast majority of athletes recruited are from schools of Central Province. And they had not been prominent athletes at the time of recruitment. They had improved from just winners at inter house and division level to medal winners at All Island Schools Games at Ratnayake Central. The document show that most of them had changed their first pet disciplines after joining Ratnayake Central to be trained to achieve podium finishes at National Level.

Scores of junior athletes leave Ratnayake Central after winning All Island Schools Games and other junior competitions every year. But how many of them remain in the field to continue athletics?. Susantha considers that financial constraints of their families and the interest shown by some to pursue different careers as major reasons for them to leave athletics.

"Many join College of Education to pursue careers as Physical Training Instructors and teachers of various subjects. Some leave athletics to get jobs and look after their families and most of them do that due to financial difficulties."

Susantha has been at the helm of coaching at Ratnayake Central since 1990. From a third place finisher at the Central Province Championship that year the school improved to win the Girls’ Overall Title of the Province by 1993 and continued to maintain it.

Ratnayake Central won its first All Island medal in 1991(D.A. Indika) under Susantha’s tutelage. By 1995 the school won an Age Group Shield at an All Island School Games. In 1995 the school produced its first Sri Lanka representation (Samantha Perera participated in a Junior Championship in China in 1995). Then D.A. Inoka won the silver medal in the marathon at the 1995 SAF Games in India. That was the first women’s international medal in the marathon for Sri Lanka. Incidentally, Niluka Rajasinghe, Sri Lanka’s first women’s marathoner at Olympics too had her abc of athletics under Susantha at Ratnayake Central.

The School won the first Over All Championship at an All Island Schools Meet in 1998 (Girls Over all Championship at the Sir John Tarbet Senior Championships). Their boys won the Overall Title of an All Island Schools Games in 2000. In 2001 they won both Girls and Boys titles at the Relay Championship, All Islands Schools Games Championship and the Sir John Tarbet Senior Championships there had been no turning back for the school from then on.

Despite producing athletes of highest calibre Susantha has kept a low profile and despite not receiving due returns for his toil, he had not grumbled and has continued to train athletes at all age categories.

Susantha thanked his assistants at Ratnayake Central namely Yamuna Ratnayake, Swarna Palitha, Ivon Abeywickrama, Ravindra Amarakoon and Mihirani Seelaratne and the Principal of the School Dhammika Herath while also crediting efforts taken by former secretary of Education at the Central Province Education Ministry, Palitha Elkaduwa in making Ratnayake Central a Sports School in 1995.

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