Nethru Nanayakkara |(Pic by Venura Chandramalitha)

Swimming sensation Mathew Abeysinghe’s qualification for the Rio Olympic Games together with his feat at the SAG is hailed by the entire country, but there are a few who opine that the swimmer hasn’t been rewarded enough.

Mathew’s real progress in the sport, despite many refusing to believe it, was made during the past six years when he came to Sri Lanka to train seriously. Former National Aquatic Sports Union (NASU) President, Nethru Nanayakkara, during an interview with Nation, hailed the young swimmer’s achievements and said, “This is the right time to send him abroad for further training, because there is no competition for him in Sri Lanka to improve”.

Nanayakkara observed that Mathew’s feats in the pool have motivated other swimmers to do better in swimming. However, he had reservations about whether the NASU had used the swimmer’s achievements as a springboard to promote the sport and make it popular in the island.

Mathew Abeysinghe (File photo)
Mathew Abeysinghe
(File photo)

He acknowledged the fact that swimming was not a glamorous sport and needed television publicity to reach the masses. “Swimming is so important as a sport and a natural surviving skill. If you observe the second or third reason for deaths behind suicide in this county it is related to drowning,” he said.

Nanayakkara queried why even the state-sponsored television stations don’t give publicity to national swimming events even after the Abeysinghe brothers and Rahim sisters have done well at international swim events?  The former NASU official backed his claim for swimming to receive media publicity by stating that this aquatic sport was rated among 12 A Grade sports in the island.

He believes that Mathew’s preparations have been perfect. “Qualifying for the Olympics is the pinnacle of any sportsman,” he said. When asked what sort of realistic goal swimmers who qualify from developing countries should have when taking part in the Olympics, he said, “They should aim to produce their personal best timing.”

According to Nanayakkara, there have been many Sri Lankan swimmers who made it to the Olympics through wild card entries. He went on to say that there were many who didn’t train hard enough after qualifying this way and even failed to produce their personal best timings at this global sporting event. “Many swimmers in the past took this opportunity to make it a joy ride,” he said adding, “With Mathew’s achievements, I can see a big change in swimming.”

He said he was concerned about the disturbing news items that have appeared regarding Mathew’s Olympic qualification (through a B Card) being likened to a wildcard entry by some critics. “The NOC has to send names of probable athletes who might qualify for the Olympics several months before actually qualifying because preparing accreditation is long and tedious job. This has been a practice in the past. I think these critics assumed that sending Mathew’s accreditation using this method, before actually qualifying, amounted to a wild card entry.

Nanayakkara was quite critical of the present set-up at the NASU and said that the sport’s governing body was controlled by a bunch of swimming coaches. “This is a set-up that the country wants changed because it can be damaging to the sport. I say this because there is no unity among swimming coaches in this country,” he explained. He also pointed out that the sports law of the country should be amended so that coaches don’t get involved in the administrative work of NASU.

Sri Lanka’s swimming has a rich history, but it produced less than a handful of swimmers who brought international fame to the country. The sport’s record books reveal that two swimmers Timothy Speldewinde and Condrad Francis made the Sri Lankan flag fly high at the Asia Pacific Age Group Swimming Championship by winning medals. If there have been achievements to sit up and take note after that, they are the waves created in the swimming pool by Mathew, who trains under the watchful eyes of his dad Manoj.

Nanayakkara opined that Mathew can swim for another 10 years, given that swimmers at present go on competing till they are 30-32 years of age. “If Mathew continues this way, he can win a gold medal at the Asian Games,” he said.

As the countdown for the opening ceremony at the Rio Games approaches fast, our eyes are fixed on Mathews and the swimming pool. Can the young swimmer silence his critics and make Sri Lanka proud? Mathew knows how, because he has done this a couple of times in the past.