Run Dharsha, run

Little Lanka's investments in sports paid off at the Bangkok Asian Games. Now, its athletes have their sights on the Sydney Olympics next year.

The 13th Asian Games in Bangkok in December 1998, billed the last "great games" of the century, may well hBaave been the dawn of a new and a more exciting era for South Asian athletics. The Subcontinent's sportsmen and women gave reigning champion, China, a run for their money at the Asian track and field events.

Shang Xiutang, general secretary of the Chinese Athletics Association, had said before the Bangkok games that China hoped to win more than half the gold medals on offer in athletics and named almost all the women's sprint events as sure wins for China. "In those events we can say that a few can pose a threat," he had boasted.

Shang had to eat his words. A new crop of Indian and Sri Lankan sprinters emerged to grab five gold, six silver and nine bronze medals in the track and field events. This was the first real challenge to the over two decades of Chinese dominance in Asian track and field. While India's performance was commendable, it was the performance of the much smaller Sri Lanka that became the envy of the other participating countries.

Sri Lanka bagged two gold medals within 10 minutes on the second day of the athletics events, winning both the men's and women's 400-metre sprints. This was their first Asian Games gold in 24 years. Even more impressive was the performance of the petite 23-year-old runner Damayanthi Dharsha, who broke the Asian Games record twice in two days to beat China's Asian record-holder Li Xuemei.

Altogether the Sri Lankan runners won three golds and two bronzes, and were plain unlucky to lose out on another near-certain gold in the men's 4×400 metres relay when one sprinter dropped the baton. If their world 200-metre silver medalist Susanthika Jayasinghe hadn't pulled out of the Games, the islanders could possibly have won two more golds.

Before the opening of the games, both Xuemei and Jayasinghe had claimed that they would win the 100 and 200 metres races in record-breaking times. As it turned out, the 200-metre crown went to Jayasinghe's replacement in the event, Dharsha, whose victory was all the more remarkable since she is a 400-metre runner and hadn't even trained for the race. The Sri Lankans had expected Jayasinghe to win the event. "In the 100 and 200 we had Susanthika," said Dharsha's coach Sunil Gunawardena. "Since Susanthika pulled out, Dharsha ran. Now she's broken the Asian Games record!".

Sri Lanka's performance may have a lot to do with the Chandrika Kumaratunga government's policy towards sports. Since coming to power four years ago, and perhaps because the sports minister himself is a former sprinter, the state has been investing more on athletics. In addition to scholarships and monetary incentives during training, the medal winners at major international events are given cars, houses and monthly allowances by the government. Dharsha, for instance, will get a cash reward of SLR 500,000 (USD 8000) and a car for winning the gold. She will also be entitled to a house in Colombo and a monthly allowance of SLR 25,000 for at least the next 18 months.

Almost the entire Sri Lankan track-and-field squad come from villages, and the material rewards given to champion athletes has served as a major motivator. Besides the financial inducements, the government has also developed a training structure to find young talent in villages and bring them to Colombo for training in the three training streams—Olympic, Asian and national.

According to sports commentator Haritha Perera, the hosting of the 1991 South Asian Federation (SAF) Games in Colombo was the turning point for Sri Lankan athletics. For these Games, Sri Lanka laid a new tartan track at the Sugathadasa Sports Complex in Colombo and also installed equipment such as electronic clocks and distance measures. Coaches were also upgraded and sports, in general, de-centralised.

The Sri Lankan victory in the 1996 cricket world cup too provided a great boost to the island's non-cricketing sportsmen and women. "They all started to think that if the cricketers can become world champions, why can't we. The incentives the cricketers got for winning the World Cup spurred the athletes," says Haritha.

Cooperation with India has also helped improved the islanders' athletics standards. India sent a strong athletics team to take part in Sri Lanka's national championships last year, while Sri Lankan coaches have been trained in Indian sports academies. The target the Lankan athletes have set for themselves is a first gold for their country at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. Given the way they bored down the Bangkok tracks, that may not be an unrealistic goal.

Tusk, tusk

The Indian army is fighting a losing battle against elephants who regularly plunder rum, sugar and flour from their supply base in northern West Bengal. Army officials say the marauding animals douse fires lit to scare them away with water stored in their trunks. They also short circuit the electric fencing around the base by dropping uprooted trees on them. Thus, they get to the food and drink meant for soldiers serving along the Chinese border.

Once inside the base, the thin steel railing and wooden windows of the storage godowns splinter like match wood as the elephants advance. The beasts then roam about the base at will, drinking and feasting, says an officer who had served in the base and suffered an elephant offensive.

The elephants have developed an ingenious method of downing rum: they skilfully break open the bottles by knocking them against a hard surface and, curling their trunks around the bottom end, empty the contents down their gullet. Thereafter they stagger around the compound, uproariously drunk. After 'partying' for hours, they return to the jungle. They rarely ever harm the humans, so long as no one attacks or irritates them. One of the camp residents who made the mistake of splashing hot water on an elephant has never heard the end of it. On all subsequent raids, that elephant demolished this resident's hut and sprayed him with cold water.

The army's frequent pleas to the forest department for help in controlling the beasts have been to no avail, but it can take consolation from the fact that it is not the only Indian military force targeted by the elephants. Some months ago, a herd of wild elephants broke into the Indian air force base at Kalaikunda destroying numerous structures and uprooting cables over the course of an entire day, before zeroing in on a couple of fighter jets. Since air force officials had neither tranquiliser guns nor training in dealing with elephants, and forest officials were difficult to locate, the entire base was left with little choice but to wait and watch the rampage from behind closed doors.

District forest officials say that wild elephants, faced with a shrinking habitat, frequently go on a rampage. In the nearby states of Assam and Nagaland, motorists frequently have to 'bribe' herds of elephants blocking highways with bananas to get past safely. Assamese road officials advise truckers and motorists to carry large stocks of bananas to ease their way through tusker road blocks. For the forgetful or the uninitiated, a row of banana stalls has sprung up along the main highways servicing Assam's famous tea gardens.

While the wild elephants of India's Northeast are having a rum of a time, their tame cousins employed by the forest department in Uttar Pradesh are not doing so badly either. Forest department elephants will now be entitled to a government 'pension' of sugar cane, bananas, flour and fodder, when they complete their years of duty. Deputy conservator of forests, Atibal Singh, says that the elephants, normally recruited at the age of 10, had no retirement age till now. But under the revised rules, whenever any official in charge of an elephant feels that it is too weak and old to work, it can be pensioned off. Pregnant elephants are eligible for a maternity leave of nearly two years.

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Himal Southasian