A legend cries foul

Legendary Rosa in an emotional journey down the memory lane


By Reemus Fernando

Decades have elapsed after enduring probably the most tragic moment of a let down suffered by a Sri Lankan athlete at an Olympics. Yet S.L.B. Rosa, the legendary marathon runner still has tears reserved to present to those who inquire about the Montreal Olympics (1976) faux pas, which cost him the opportunity to compete for his country when experts had predicted a certain Olympic medal for him. It was a tragedy worse than the Munich’s considering Sri Lanka’s medal prospects, for the country had not won an Olympic medal after 1948. Rosa, who was often at the receiving end of bureaucratic bungling during his athletic career, was at his peak form after training in the USA for more than four years targeting Montreal and had established a Sri Lanka record at the Fukuoka Marathon (which stands to date) few months before the Olympics. After spending a better part of his life in USA both as a student and later as an instructor at the Wisconsin Park Side University, Rosa decided to ‘buy’ his Sri Lankan citizenship several months ago. For Rosa, who once made the country proud by winning international medals, having to pay to obtain his Sri Lanka citizenship was of little concern compared to the agony he underwent in the 1976 Montreal Olympics.

"That (not been allowed to take part in Olympics) is the worst thing that can happen to an athlete….. I was denied the opportunity to take part in the Mexico Olympics (1968). In Munich I couldn’t do well because of a sudden change of my training schedules in Germany just before the Olympics. So I was desperate to compete in Montreal and my coach was certain that I could do well. But that was not to be. I came to Montreal. But the Sri Lankan official (a chef de mission without a team) denied me the opportunity to take part," Rosa recalled, with tears running down on his cheeks.

Since gaining independence in 1948, Sri Lanka has taken part in every Olympics except at Montreal. It was widely believed that Sri Lanka had not taken part in this Olympics to honour a non-aligned movement’s pledge to boycott the Games. However, the 2004 book ‘Visikala Olympic Padakkama Rosa’ by Lalith Gunawardena establishes that it was a bureaucratic faux pas that had led to the denial of Rosa’s participation. Analyzing the performances of Rosa and the numerous victories he had achieved in USA Gunawardena’s book suggests that Rosa had a good chance of winning a medal in Montreal.

According to Rosa Sri Lanka did not boycott the Games. "There was no boycott. I did not know what was going on until I went there. There were no athletes from Sri Lanka when I went there. But there was an official (Chef de Mission). All African nations who boycotted (the Games) did not have their flags at the Olympics. Sri Lankan flag was flying at both the Olympic Village and at the main stadium. The Sri Lankan embassy said they should let me run. I stayed at the same complex the Sri Lanka official was staying. I went and met him. If he was not objecting I would have run under Olympic flag even if Sri Lanka had boycotted.

"Because of a labour strike in Montreal they could not finish the buildings. They had allocated just four rooms for Sri Lankan athletes. So I stayed in one. The Sri Lankan chef de mission was staying in another. My two coaches (his University had arranged for two coaches) stayed in the other two. They said you can’t have two coaches for one athlete. So my coach left for a motel outside the Village. Just two days prior to the start of the Games this guy (chef de mission) gave instructions to scrap my name. I did not even know. He was in constant contact with Sri Lanka. It seemed to me that the officials in Sri Lanka were objecting to my running in the Olympics. I was told that my name was taken out from the Games two days prior to the start.

"I still had hopes because there were some nine athletes from USA. They were from African countries and had come from USA to run under the Olympic flag. There were a total of 13 athletes to run under the Olympic flag. Meanwhile, the chef de mission was cabaling Sri Lanka. In fact he borrowed money from my coach to send the cable to Sri Lanka. I have a letter to prove that he was the one who denied me of competing.

Rosa in tears revealed that he could not eat for two days after his name was scraped. Sellapuliyage Lucian Benedict Rosa had a battered childhood under a stepfather and often suffered step motherly treatments at the hands of Sri Lankan sports officials and recently when he wrote a letter requesting the Sports Ministry to intervene to obtain his Sri Lankan citizenship back they politely informed him that he had to pay to obtain it according to protocol. But nothing was more frustrating to him than being denied the opportunity to compete at an Olympics.

"Competing at an Olympics is every athlete’s dream." Rosa states that having to pay to obtain his citizenship back was not a big worry compared to the agony he underwent at Montreal.

Tragically, Sri Lanka had to wait for a quarter century from that day to see her second Olympic medal.

To be continued………

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