Sri Lankan badminton champion Niluka Karunaratne heads to England next week to cap his Commonwealth Games career where it began — a swansong almost derailed by his bankrupt country’s bruising economic crisis.
Competition organisers and Sri Lanka’s cricket board are funding the island nation’s largest-ever Games contingent, with 114 athletes flying to Birmingham in the coming days alongside coaches and support staff.
Local sports federations have been bled dry by Sri Lanka’s financial crash, leaving athletes in doubt in recent weeks over whether they would be able to compete at all.
“Sport has been our lives, it would have been a big, big disappointment,” said Karunaratne, a three-time Olympian who has appeared at every Commonwealth Games since his debut as a teenager at Manchester in 2002.
“Fortunately the sports ministry and the national cricket board did a great, great job to somehow find the funds,” the 37-year-old told AFP.
Sri Lanka has weathered months of food and fuel shortages, blackouts and runaway inflation in the wake of its worst financial crash on record.
Public anger over the downturn this month saw a huge crowd storm the home and office of the country’s president, who then fled abroad and resigned.
Sports federations were hit hard by the crisis after already seeing their coffers drained during the coronavirus pandemic, which obliterated athletic sponsorships from local businesses.
Federations were left without enough cash to pay for athlete uniforms and plane tickets at a time when a post-pandemic travel bounce has driven up the cost of airfares.
Dampath Fernando, the Sri Lankan team’s chef de mission, said administrators had lobbied for support in their determination to do everything they could to give the country a chance to compete.
“As a matter of principle sport brings so many good things, so much happiness,” Fernando told AFP.
“We want to stand like other nations, in front of our flag, as a proud nation, keeping our backs straight, our heads strong and we want to do our best.”
Commonwealth Games organisers were made aware of the Sri Lankans’ financial struggles and responded with a promise to sponsor the bulk of the travelling squad.
Sri Lanka’s cricket board, which recently hosted Australia despite fears political unrest would disrupt their seven-week tour of the island, chipped in more than 22 million rupees ($60,000) to help cover the remaining shortfall.
– ‘We have a responsibility’ –
Sri Lanka’s worsening economy has thrown up other obstacles for the country’s athletes and their determination to improve on their haul of one silver and five bronze medals at the Gold Coast in 2018.
Fuel shortages have made it difficult for some competitors to travel to practice, while budget constraints have left sport federations short of clothing and other essential equipment.
Fernando said the resilience of the athletes had made him and his colleagues determined to get the competitors to the Games, which start next Thursday.
“This is not the first time that we as a country have faced these type of battles,” Fernando said, citing a decades-long civil war and a tsunami that killed more than 30,000 of his compatriots.
“It’s a dream of athletes to take part,” he added. “We have a responsibility to fulfil that dream. Just because we are facing economic crisis… does not mean that we just forget about it.”
Disruptions and unrest are now part of daily life in Sri Lanka and many athletes have done their best to make do.
“Anyway, I can’t control it,” said Ganga Senavirathne, 19, a swimmer preparing for her Commonwealth Games debut.
“In terms of things I can control, like my training, I was able to manage everything pretty well,” she told AFP.
“Politics is not a conversation I enjoy.”