Manju: between the hero and the villain


Manju Wanniarachchi and his mentor Dian Gomes at the Delhi Commonwealth Games boxing competition where he won the gold.

by Reemus Fernando

The visuals filled with emotions are still afresh in the mind. Manju Wanniarachchi kneeling and breaking down in tears of joy near Dian Gomes, his mentor, as a mark of respect after he made history at the Delhi Commonwealth Games, winning country’s first boxing Gold medal in many years. There was another memorable moment for Wanniarachchi five years ago. It was when he was edged out in the first round perhaps due to a senseless draw at the South Asian Games in Colombo. Manju who cried for joy and Manju who cried because of the agony of defeat at an isolated corner of the Sugathadasa Stadium certainly were two different pugilists. And between them was Dian Gomes representing the cooperate world capable of both building and destroying future prospects.

Manju, according to the media arm of Dian Gomes, has announced his retirement in front of his admirers at Pannala where he works. Put into real meaning, it means he has abandoned his fight to defend his innocence against doping allegations which cost him his Commonwealth Games gold medal. A conspiracy theory which is being ‘marketed’ round with his retirement is that his act would benefit Wales’ Shan Mc Gold whom Wanniarachchi beat narrowly. He would then get the gold and the Wales in return would cast their vote for Sri Lanka in their bid to win the hosting rights of the Commonwealth Games in 2018.

Whether Manju likes to believe it or not he was destined to abandon it like this. Continuing the fight against doping allegations will only harm the cooperate entities who bolstered his image out of real proportions. If he loses, which means the allegations are proved, that would be a real embarrassment to those entities. Manju has to die a death of a villain and should become part of history, like Anuruddha Ratnayake, for the cooperate world to build their next generation hero. Although Manju gave a glowing tribute to his mentor, as we are told by Dian Gomes’ media officials, the humble villager who knew only to fight — but not the cunning tactical retreats that are mastered mainly by business tycoons— has been sidelined by his master who in fact overshadowed him at the time of his triumphs.

In business you look for returns, in sports it is triumphs. But triumph doesn’t always come in the form of medals and trophies. It seems a reality that someone within the organisation that created this mess has failed to understand.

Despite not winning at least a single medal at the Olympics, feats that of L. P. Handunge are a legend in the boxing folklore of Sri Lanka, yet Manju, who was supposed to be the closest to winning an Olympic medal (at least according to his publicity campaigners) in this decade, will now be dumped into the backyard of history with a black mark hanging over his head. His is probably the worst tragedy to hit boxing of this country for which sports authorities (sports minister included), the corporate world, us, the journalists and the fans should share the responsibility.

Wanniarachchi was not the only product of Gomes who had to hang his gloves with a career tarnished by a record of a positive drug test. When Anuruddha Ratnayake dominated the scene, the cooperate entity erected billboards round the country, prior to the Beijing Olympics, and many were prepared to forget that time that the pony-tailed pugilist had served a two-year drug ban. Probably the authorities, who nurtured him as well as Wanniarachchi had taken the ‘positive’ drug test, may be, as a storm in a urine container! In the hype everything looked smooth. There was no one to investigate or to question as to how Ratnayake had got in to trouble and how many others had been following him in the wrong track. Could Gomes have been in the dark about the drug menace that haunted Ratnayake and Wanniarachchi? Are they the only culprits?

A charismatic personality, Gomes had close relationships with the media like he has with all influential people in this country and to date extends his helping hand to the needy. Probably this had a negative effect on the sport. His charisma was such that he was standing taller than the sport (an honest journo says that his wife would remember Gomes than boxing every time she changes her expensive lingerie which she cannot afford to wear if not for his generosity).

An Olympic Committee vice president and the CEO of a giant business establishment, Gomes gets the credit for nurturing many an athlete. However, that success of sports and business are measured in two different yardsticks is a lesson that the pugilist and the cash rich establishment that nurtured him seemed to have failed to understand.

As a former Olympian once suggested, the unbearable expectations burdened on athletes by result oriented sponsors, force those sportsmen, who are usually a disciplined lot, to forget accepted ethics and norms so as to have an extra edge.

"Towards the twilight of their careers they crave for the elusive laurels for which they were working so hard for years. And some wrongly consider it a failure to retire without having those laurels," said a former Olympian. When a sponsor had supported you throughout, with the aim of winning an Olympic medal, a demon of a guilty feeling pushes one to cross the boundaries and deliver the goods, by hook or crook. That desire might be a natural one but the professionals are trained to respect the rules and abiding by those rules itself is a victory although many would fail to realise that.

Medals won’t come like fast cash. This is a reality that the person who influenced Ratnayake and probably Wanniarachchi to dope had failed to realise. Had Wanniarachchi failed to win any medal, would the general public stone him to death? Even when he failed to win a medal at the SA Games, there was a lot of hearty cheering for him. The image of a sobbing Manju at the South Asian Games after losing a battle would have been used to inspire a generation of young pugilists who could win international fame in the years to come. The quest for an Olympic medal or a Commonwealth Games at any cost would have been controlled. The greed has damaged the image not only of the athlete but of the whole country. Now we have the sobbing image of another Manju who had won a Commonwealth Games gold, which anti doping authorities allege to have been won with the assistance of illegal drugs. It has diluted the market value of the real Manju, according to cooperate world jargon. He has seen the big shadow of Gomes accompanying him at the times of his triumphs and there were many admirers at those moments. Sad thing is that in his defeat, he is alone even amidst about 5,000 workers at Pannala.

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