A battle-scarred Sri Lankan soldier is on course to becoming just the kind of exhibit his country may have yearned for after gaining Olympic or Paralympics immortality and then stepping off a plane only to pocket Rs.2.5 million for bagging a bronze medal in Rio last week.
Dinesh Herath, who took three bullets in his left forearm during a firefight in the jungles of Killinochchi against the now obliterated Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), was stuck for words and then almost broke down in emotion after a stage presenter called him to address well-wishers and sponsors at a felicitation ceremony at the Kingsbury Hotel in Colombo on Wednesday night.
“I appeal to all the differently able who want to do sports to come out of hiding and face the challenges. I have done it and we can do it”, he declared while pausing in-between.
Moments earlier Herath found himself in exalted company that included Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe who greeted the war veteran at a felicitation for winning a bronze medal in the javelin throw at the Paralympics in Rio.
Herath had almost given up hopes in life after realizing he was only good at showcasing his prowess at local Defence Services athletic meets. But in a somewhat fairytale-like turnaround, he was on a plane bound for Brazil where some 160 nations fielded differently-able sportsmen and women at the Paralympics.
He had a mere six months ahead of the event when his superior officers persuaded him to come out of ‘retirement’ and have a final fling at the Paralympics after one of his fellow troopers Pradeep Sanjaya, who also suffered the same fate against the LTTE, declined in performance four years after he won a bronze in the 400 metres at the London Games.
Herath now wants to be a role model even for able-bodied sportsmen and women who have nothing or very little to persevere in a country where Olympic sports administrators have gained sickening notoriety for destroying the careers of several hopefuls with their antics under the protection of successive governments.
“The sacrifices I made paid off in Rio”, said Herath looking in the direction of his wife and two children who were in the audience.
Hailing from a rustic village in Anuradhapura, Herath threw the javelin a distance of 58.3 metres behind an Indian and a Chinese who won the gold and silver medals respectively. It marked a three-metre difference from the 55.3 metres he threw in Colombo to book a slot in Rio.
With chances of another civil war not expected to pave the way for a second generation of disabled service personnel, Sports Minister Dayasiri Jayasekera sees Herath as just the kind of hero to put forward to entice the differently-able from a very young age.
“Our work to unearth sportsmen for the Paralympics should now start from school level and we need to work hand in hand to catch them at a young age,” said Jayasekera who faces a monumental clean-up of the country’s rotten stables that had sustained a breed of some 40 hollow administrators who travelled to the Rio Olympics despite a public outcry to stop them.
If Jayasekera can put in place what he means, the fate that befell Sanjaya, the 400 metres bronze medallist at the London Paralympics, may not repeat itself as Sri Lanka now looks to gain inspiration from Herath.
“It is now right to think about the next four years ahead of the Tokyo Paralympics,” said Jayasekera directing his focus on the welfare of local Paralympians.
“We will give you all the support for 2020, and I can assure you that nothing is going to discourage you.”
Jayasekera’s Sports Ministry allocated Rs.1.5 million of the 2.5 million handed out to Herath while mobile phone service provider and Paralympics patroniser Dialog rang in the rest.