State of sports in Sri Lanka

The state of sport in Sri Lanka


Institutional arrangements:

The Ministry of Sports is the leading government entity entrusted with the management of sports. The ministry subdivides into a) The Department of Sports Development, b) The Institute of Sports Medicine c) The National Institute of Sports Science and d) The Sugathadasa National Sports Complex Authority.

While the function of sport as a catalyst for peace and development seem to be well known to the academics of the land, very little has been done in this respect by state agency. Additionally, despite strong policy for sport performance development and sports science, implementation seems to be comparatively weak with little attention being paid to managing for results.

Perusing the mandate of the Ministry as well as those of the four main departments within it, it can be seen that the policy and strategy for the sustainable development of sports at the rural, district, provincial and national levels are very sound . Excellent facilities, training centers, accreditation systems for coaches and athletes, methods for identification of rural sporting talent are all present on paper. However, despite strong policy coherence, there seems to be a significant gap between policy planning and plan implementation.

There does not seem to be much being done for the development of sports in the country with the exception of cricket, where the world class national team is well known for both its on-field successes as players as well as its off-field activities as ambassadors and diplomats. While Sri Lanka has produced just one world class athlete in recent years in Susanthika Jayasinghe and some regional champions in weight lifting and boxing, these “flashes in the dark” as it were prove only that they succeeded despite the system and not because of it.

This is tragic since Sri Lankans have a strong cultural tradition of sports and are known to be naturally gifted with potency for high performance in specific sports such as gymnastics, boxing, martial arts and wresting. The only development related to sports, sports tourism etc. is seen in the marketing of the national cricket team from time to time. Even here, there is no sustained mechanism and one can see how behind the times Sri Lanka is when comparing ourselves with our neighbors, India who has leveraged their cricketing culture towards substantive gains to their economy.

Furthermore, there seems to be little or no effort to leverage sports for peace at the ministerial level. The “sports exclusive” mandates of the ministry and its departments seems to be the reason for this since the Ministry of National Languages and Reconciliation has used sports figures to take its message of strength in unity to the people. However, even these moves can only be described as sporadic.

Moreover, this lack of direction and durability to sports development strategies has a more dangerous downside to it in that athletes who are beyond competitive age have very little opportunity to be contributing citizens of the country since they have spent the better part of their youth focusing exclusively on their sporting disciplines and have no qualifications of any other sort to change careers in their post competitive eras.

Contributions by other sectors:  

The private sector is seen involved in sports sponsorship of various teams and individuals. The national cricket team has been the prime sponsorship property in sports and such organizations as Ceylon Tobacco Company, Singer and Dilmah Tea have taken on long term sponsorship over the last four decades. However, it is unclear what the funds are utilized for and in the recent past, sponsors have shown recalcitrance due to off-field controversies related to the management of cricket in Sri Lanka.

The focus of non-state actors seems to be ad-hoc though laudable given the weak implementation process of government policy.  Although few, those private sector companies and civil sector organizations that have facilitated sports based activities have focused on empowering rural communities and enhancing the possibilities for social integration through sports.

MAS, the leading apparel maker in Sri Lanka has provided sponsorship for various sports with particular emphasis on boxing, contributing to its development of athletes via coaching programs and othe sponsorship packages. MAS is unique among private sector companies in providing employment to athletes in order to ensure their long term financial security. Over 100 such athletes hailing from 21 disciplines work for MAS. This includes three Olympians as well. Their policy seems comparatively sound “Our commitment towards sustaining our employees and their futures comes from deep within. Our factories offer world class training facilities and foreign coaches, and provide necessary sporting gear and travel funds among other basic necessities”.

The civil sector has largely stayed away from sports unless an organization’s leaders have had a history of involvement with sports as is the case with the Goodness Foundation of Sri Lanka headed by the agent for one of the national cricketers who has leveraged his contacts with the team to use cricket as a channel to promote peace and social integration with such efforts as the Uniti Cup tour that had cricketers from the Tamil majority north playing teams from the Sinhala majority south and the Murali Harmony Cup where 12 boys’ school teams and 8 girls’ school teams played a tournament in Jaffna and the vanni districts.

The academic sector, after being in a sports related wasteland for years while other nations poured resources into the scientific treatment of sports science in general and athletes’ development in particular, have recently woken up to the importance of a scientific approach to sports. Thus, the Sabaragamuwa University became the first degree awarding institution to create a Department of Sports Science and Physical Education offering these two thrusts as separate degrees. They were soon followed by the University of Kelaniya. These are still fledging efforts but laudable as a much needed start in the right direction.

Despite these efforts by the various sectors, it is clear that there is no sustained commitment either to sports development or the idea of sports as a peace catalyst.