From abyss to summit: The story of Asia's only female Olympic medalist in sprinting- Susanthika Jayasinghe

A gem that should have been cherished and celebrated, but instead was chucked out into the straits of political controversies

Treated badly by her country

When an athlete procures a sanctified medal at a world sporting event, how would her mother country treat her? America will shower with brand new sponsor contracts, financial incentives and much more. Sri Lanka will hurl abuse, unravel sexual harassment and ban her from accessing all sporting facilities.

The summer of 2000 saw Olympics being held in Sydney, Australia. On the 28th of September, 2000, in the floodlight lit Olympic Stadium, in the final of women’s 200m , a lady from a puny country in Asia went on all fours, earnestly waiting for the sound of the bullet booming from the gun. Her country had ignored her completely. Gates of training academies were closed to the lady who won a silver at World Championships in Athens in 1997. The sports ministry colluded to stage a drug offence drama in retaliation to not acquiescing a sexual harassment from a powerful person within the ministry. Yet the lioness didn’t relent. She sold her trophies to buy a ticket to the United States of America. Her country had thrown her into limbo. But she was too patriotic to deny her country from receiving the benefit of her sprinting abilities. She trained in USA and surmounted each and every obstacle to book a berth in the final of the women’s 200m in Sydney.

Her upbringing

Susanthika Jayasinghe, a present household name in Sri Lanka and a role model to many upcoming athletes was born on the 17th of December, 1975, in a poverty-stricken village of Atnawala, 60km northwest of Colombo. Her father had lost his job as a driver at Ceylon Transport Board by the time she was born. Her mother fended for the family by tapping rubber trees, while Susanthika rolled beedis to financially support her family. Rolling 1000 beedis would earn her 1.5 Rs. Susanthika would roll 15000 beedis in 4 days and earn about 22.50 Rs, roughly equal to 0.17$.

Her village school had only Elle ( a baseball-like game) and volleyball for boys and running events for girls. The school was bereft of sports teachers and sporting facilities. Races have to be run barefoot since a pair of spikes would surpass the monthly wage of a family.

Atnawla Vidyalaya, the school which she attended for secondary education had a sports teacher who was clueless about the technical nuances of athletics. Just like her sister, Susanthika’s siblings were ardent athletes too. This resulted in Susanthika receiving plenty of support and encouragement from her sibs, amidst the constant urge from her parents to pursue her studies solemnly.

Persistence paid off

The sprinter from Sri Lanka who would rewrite history in the near future, didn’t know the importance of touching the front of the foot first on the ground until she trained in USA. She never had her stride frequency measured in Sri Lanka, a measurement that is paramount in improving any athlete’s speed in running events.

Yet, the lady being a 19-year-old won a silver medal in Asian Games in 1994. This was succeeded by a gold and a silver in Asian Championships in 1995. But still, Sri Lanka failed to pay heed. The sophisticated training technologies and modern spiriting techniques still eluded her. She didn’t have a completely trained coach nor world class training facilities. Her only possessions were the glories she won in Asian games and Asian Championships, her thirst to progress and her love for running. Her persistence yielded result when she finished second in World Championships in 1997. A red carpet was laid out to receive her. But soon the red carpet shape shifted into a quicksand to vindicate a powerful person within sports ministry.

A bold decision

The Sri Lankan athlete claims that she was sexually harassed by an official within the ministry of sports. When she bravely exposed the atrocity she was greeted with drug offence. The officials who collected her urine sample, refused to seal the sample in front of her. There were attempts to ban her from athletics. She was not given access to the mediocre sporting facilities in Sri Lanka. She and her husband lived in the fear of losing their lives. A cabinet minister went on to the extent of remarking “No ones’ sexual feelings would be aroused by Susanthika who looks like a black African young man”.

Susanthika finally decided to flee the country. She sold her trophies and everything else she possessed to get a visa and a ticket to USA. She trained under Tony Campbell and improved her skills considerably. She represented Sri Lanka in the Summer Olympics in 2000. She measured up for the finals after completing her running in 22.53, 22.54 and 22.45 seconds in the initial rounds.

Accusations continued after winning a medal

Now Susanthika is in the starting block of the final of women’s 200m in the Olympics. Her feet ready to kick start a historic sprinting. The bullet was fired and she started bolting along her lane. Marion Jones of America was the clear winner at the end, finishing the race 0.44 seconds before the rest. Susanthika and the Bahamas Pauline Davis-Thompson were separated by a whisker, a mere 0.01 seconds. Marion Jones would confess using steroids after 7 years. Hence, Susanthika became a silver medalist.

When she returned to the island, once again controversy swarmed her. The then government claimed that she wore a yellow band around her wrist to castigate the election violence committed by People’s Alliance. She pulled out of the squad for the 2004 Olympics. The political stooges in the island claimed that she was over the hill and her glory days have been soused.

But the iron lady zipped up the foul mouths of her critics by winning a bronze in World Championships in 200m. In 2009 she apprised that she would retire to conceive a baby.

She was only the second medalist for Sri Lanka in Olympics after Duncan White. She is one of the rare gems in athletics not only in Sri Lankan but also in Asia. A gem that should have been cherished and celebrated, but instead was chucked out into the straits of political controversies. After winning bronze for Sri Lanka in Olympics she lamented,

“I can’t explain. You wouldn’t understand. They give me, trouble, trouble, trouble. I give them bronze medal. It’ll make them sad… It was trouble with me. Doping and sexual harassment.”

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