The 25 - day voyage to Helsinki was a huge experience for Ethir

Ethirveerasingam recalls his Olympics days


His geography lessons, the story of ‘The Count of Montecristo’, Wordsworth’s poems started coming alive around him as the OL student made a u-turn after his decision to go back home just a day after commencing the voyage to Helsinki. Although he failed to come up with a good performance, his first Olympics was a huge experience, for the youngest member of the Olympic team.

By Reemus Fernando

Continued from Tuesday

Ethirveerasingam used to do strengthening exercises with a dumbbell made out of an old car axel and gears. But the required conditioning could not be achieved. He trained throughout the year, though there were only four annual competitions, namely, his school meet, the Jaffna District Meet, the Public Schools Meet and the National Championships. The latter two were held in Colombo.

Prior to Olympics, he trained at Nalanda College, the ‘only place where there was a saw dust pit’ to train. Incidentally, Ethir was one of few Sri Lankan high jumpers to have witnessed the transformation this discipline underwent, from sand and saw dust pits to mattresses, when he was in US. "I saw mattresses being used for the first time. It was in 1964. John Thomas was the first to use it. He was the then world record holder. He was the first in that meet and I was the second (in USA). His style was similar to my style. But he did it perfectly. It was not the proper mattresses. They were the mattresses used on beds, kept one on top of the other. From then on, people started using mattresses, with a plastic covering. The use of mattresses, led to the Fosbury flop."

1952 was only the second time the country sent a team to the Olympics. As per the results of the 1952 Olympics, Ethir had cleared a mere 1.84 metres.  

"I was sea sick. The very first morning in the ship, I just couldn’t walk. Leslie Handunge (Captain of the team) was very good to me. He used to call me ‘Thumbi’ all the time. That is what he called me even when we were old. He had sea going experience (1948 Olympics). He said, you have to get your sea legs. I did not know what he was talking about. He used to drag me around the ship, to walk. But I was vomiting. I was feeling so bad, I told the manager that I wanted to go back the day before we docked in Bombay."

Incidentally, Ethir was home sick even before they got on board in Colombo. That time it was his brother who convinced him to go ahead. Now on board at their first stop in Bombay, it was the manager and the team who helped him. "They asked me how I wanted to go back. I said by train and they reminded me of the arduous boat trip from the one end of India to Thailaimannar which I had to go alone, if I was to go back."

That had a physiological impact on the school-goer, for whom boat rides from Jaffna to nearby islands was a nightmare. From then on, it was a unique and rare experience for the youngster.

The long trip (21 days from Colombo to London, and five days from there to Finland, after taking part in the UK championships), without jumping training hampered him. In the UK, he ordered a pair of shoes for jumping, as he found it was a necessary factor.

"There was no jumping training for 21 days. I trained one day and jumped at the British Nationals the next day. The swimmers were able to swim, because there was a pool. The boxers ran along the deck and they did not lose much. I ran along with them and exercised. But it was not possible to train jumps. Then again for five days, there was no jumping during the journey from the UK to Finland, by sea." At Helsinki, he ended up ranked 27th (out of 36 competitors) for his jump of 1.84 metres. 

Training was not the only factor that hampered his performances.

"In the ship, the team sat around one table. I was not used to western diets. Neither was I used to western styles. Handunge told me, "Thumbi, you watch me and do exactly what I do. So, when he took the soup spoon, I also took it. Likewise, he walked me through it. But he could not walk me through the food. I could not eat meat or anything. I lived on the desserts."

Although he could not do well at the Olympics, he had valuable experience as an O/L student.

"That was a big experience. Suez Canal, Island of Monte Cristo, Windsor Castle, the 24 hour sun and Mount Edna when we stopped in Naples on our journey back. I enjoyed that part, because of my geography lessons, English lessons, stories and Wordsworth’s poems. The experience was overwhelming. And my travel alone was a fantastic experience."

(To be continued tomorrow)

animated gif
Processing Request
Please Wait...