Ethirveerasingam recalls his Olympics days Inspired by Olympics colour film in 1940s

Inspired by Olympics colour film in 1940s


by Reemus Fernando

Nagalingam Ethirveerasingam, a Central College, Jaffna student, was just 17 when he was selected for the 1952 Helsinki Olympics. In the excitement of being selected, he forgot that he has had to use a means of transportation that he feared most, in traveling to Helsinki.

"When I was a child, I did not like to get into the sea. Whenever we went to Nainativu island or any other island close by, I was so afraid I used to go down the boat and hide my head so that I could not watch the water. When I was selected for the Olympics, it didn’t occur to me that I had to go by ship until I was reminded of it by my grandmother. I told her that things would be different, as I was going in a big ship. But after the first day on board, I wanted to return home," recalls Ethirveerasingam, nearly 60 years after his first participation at an Olympics.

At 77, he is probably the only Olympian from his era to be involved in some way or other in athletics. The high jumper was the only track and field athlete in the contingents of both the 1952 and 1956 Olympics. A gold medalist at the Asian Games, Ethirveerasingam later became a guiding light to Southerner Manjula Kumara, who went on to establish a Sri Lanka record and qualify for the Athens Olympics. Ethir, as he is fondly called by his contemporaries, also influenced Manjula to take up university education.

He competed at a time when the comfort of mattresses were not even thought of by jumpers who used what is now regarded as primitive techniques, falling onto the sand and saw dust pits.

There were three track and field athletes in the 1948 contingent, and noticeably in the next two editions, Ethir was the only one. After a medal winning feat in the first edition how was it that athletes’ participation dropped to just one person?

"1948 was just after the war. It was the first one, anybody decided upon by the country was sent. It was only after 1948 that there was a change. At that time, it was an approximate qualification. After 1948, the sixth place winning height of the previous Olympics was considered a sort of unwritten qualifying standard. I was selected for both Olympics based on that. The athletes were there, but their standards were poor," says Ethir.

Sri Lanka’s first team to the Olympics was dominated by sportsmen who had emerged from prestigious schools and had already entered the Public Service. In contrast, a boy of just 17 from Jaffna, managed to make an entry into the country’s team in 1952. As he assesses now, it would have been his height and the quest he had for knowledge at that tender age are factors which would have helped him. "There was only one Burgher (former Wesley College athlete De la Harpe), who was around my height. There was another high jumper, Harry Jayawardena, who worked at the Daily Mirror those days."

"I was not different from any kid who was playing soccer or cricket. I liked running and jumping and pole vauling too. In 1948, I was the champion in the Under-13 high jump in Jaffna. It was the Olympic year. We were following Olympic news, every event on the following day’s newspapers in Jaffna. I remember the 1948 Olympics vividly. It should have been early 1949 or late 1948, the Olympic film of 1948 was shown in Jaffna. The theater was situated close to Central College. Every school booked a day to see the film. In those times the principal of our school took the whole school to watch the film. I also went. When I saw it, it sort of opened my mind. In my mind, I said that I wanted to be part of the Olympic Games. But I did not tell anyone, because I would have been teased to death. I did not think that I would qualify for the next Olympics. I said to myself that someday, I would go to the Olympics. Then you forget it. But it was there in your subconscious. I read magazines and books. I bought books from Chands, which was in Chathem Street."

He was also inspired by a book, the ‘Young Athlete’ by R. M. N. Tisdall (the winner of the 1932 400 metres hurdles gold), given to him as a prize at a school meet. "The book cover had a picture of him knocking the last hurdle. All these things were in the back of my mind. I don’t know which of those inspired me. That book helped me a lot. It was given to me at a prize giving. In 1951, at the school prize giving, I received a book on sports, a book on the general overlay of all sports. That time, my uncle was living with us. He bought an encyclopedia. It was called the book of knowledge. I read all about the Olympics. That belonged to one Dr. Austin. When he left for Colombo, he sold his books and furniture."

As per Ethirveerasingam, his quest for knowledge kept him updated. "I was not isolated geographically or time wise in Jaffna. Whether I got it from school, books, newspapers or magazines, I was as up to date. We can be as good as anybody else whatever the challenges. It is exposure which matters. It applies to everything. If you are to catch up with the rest of the world in education, it is the young who you have to expose it to. Because, the brain is a brain, whether you are born in the middle of Africa or in the middle of Australia or Bolivia, you expose it, it develops equally. Those who say that it will take years to catch up with others are all muttering rubbish. Now, with the internet and computers, things have changed dramatically."

He remains the only athlete from Jaffna to have represented Sri Lanka, at both the Asian Games and at the Olympics. Selva Gawri, another Jaffna athlete, represented Britain at the Olympics in the ‘90s. There was a gap of 40 years between the representation of Ethir and Gawri at an Olympics. As for the country’s Olympics medals, between Duncan White and Susanthika Jayasinghe, there is a gap of 50 years. As the PHd holder puts it, athletes had been lagging behind, because they had not been exposed.

"In athletics, unlike the brain, there is a time factor. It takes time. To shorten it, facilities must be provided to everyone. Why has Jaffna not produced anyone to take part in the Asian Games since I went? Even with all the facilities, it is limited to certain people with physical and emotional quality."

Ethir switched from scissors to the western role and then to saddle style, as he grew up as a top class high jumper. "Up to 1949, I did the scissors. I shifted to the Western roll after reading books. In 1955, I switched to the saddle style. The Western roll was easier. I almost perfected it as much as anybody in the world, at that time. Maybe, I should have stuck to that. The saddle was not meant for sand. It was a mistake I made. I should have waited until the invention of soft landing means, to try that."

(To be continued tomorrow)

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