This is a time when Sri Lankans are busy trying to qualify for the Rio Olympics. Odds are against most of the islanders because the qualifying standards, set for athletes, are very high. It would serve Sri Lanka sport well if our sportsmen and women realized where they stand. One Sri Lankan sportsman, who was a sensation here, but knew he was way behind qualifying standard for the Olympics was table tennis champion in the 1980s Lalith Priyantha. Reflecting on his playing career, Priyantha has this to say, “I knew I was good to play in the Asian circuit. I never had Olympic dreams”.
Priyantha got his chances when it came to contesting international tournaments. He was Sri Lanka’s captain when table tennis was introduced at the South Asian Games, held in 1989. Priyantha was also the captain when the national team contested the World Championships in Germany, the first occasion in table tennis when the Sri Lankan team played in such a competition in a European country. But, when he looks back he can’t help, but admit that he didn’t play enough in the World Circuit despite having a world ranking of 238, a feat which is yet to be matched by any Sri Lankan.
Priyantha, who has also coached the Sri Lanka team, reflecting on the present crop of players, says that Udaya Ranasinghe has the potential to make a bid for Olympic qualification. “He has so much talent. I believe this player can reach Olympic qualifying standard if he is given the necessary backing and foreign exposure,” says the former champion who was the first to win the national single crown thrice consecutively.
He says that the focus here in Sri Lanka is on the juniors who contest the under 10 and 12 age groups. “These age groups are the crowd pullers, and this is good for table tennis. But the problems start when these players are preparing for the O’Level exam. Due to parental pressure, applied before exams, these players take a break from sport, which is far too long. Most of them can’t comeback after that,” says Priyantha who adds, “Studies alone won’t make you a complete man”.
He recalls his playing days in table tennis and says that the sport attracted serious players from popular schools. “Table tennis also attracted an elite crowd and there was a lot of glamour in the sport. Naturally, even I wanted to dress well and look good, when I moved with these players. Some of these popular players, who are at present top professionals in the corporate sector, are Asanga Seneviratne, Rusi Captain, Professor Indra De Soysa and Mahinda Dandeniya,” he reflects.
Priyantha is the first Sri Lankan table tennis player to play in tournaments attired in branded sports garments. In the year 1987, his skills were spotted by Hedehi Chiba of Butterfly Company. Priyantha was invited to Japan and underwent Dhojo training for a month and was presented with Butterfly equipment and clothing.
He sees table tennis facing a dilemma at present with officials not knowing how to promote the game. Priyantha says that officials being hellbent on conducting too many knockout stage matches during a single day, during tournaments, has put the sport in the dark. “This has greatly limited press publicity for the sport,” he opines.
Going down memory lane to the times he played and making a comparison of his past with what he sees at present, he has this to say, “During my time only the best 120 players played in tournaments. Now this figure is about 5000. The quality of table tennis in general as a result has dropped”.