The Press Trust of India reported from London a few days ago that a pair of white peep-toe shoes belonging to Princess Diana had been sold at an auction in Britain for 1,800 pounds sterling. That translates to a little less than Rs. 360,000 in terms of our money. But Susanthika Jayasinghe, the Olympic Silver Medalist (she was upgraded from bronze to silver following the gold medalists being found guilty of using performance enhancing drugs) thought, or thinks, that her silver medal which she threatened to sell could be worth Rs. 250 million. Few will believe that price and in fairness, even Susanthika herself said she was surprised at the figure that came up.
Be that as it may, the athlete’s recent antics following non-receipt of an allowance she had long been paid as an advisor to the Sports Minister or Ministry have done her no credit. Undoubtedly her achievement, the first at the Olympics by a Lankan after Duncan White, was something the whole country took pride in. Susanthika came up right from the very bottom. The daughter of a very poor rural family she had nothing but her natural athletic ability and the grit to make good – something she did in spectacular fashion. She joined the army and later deserted but the military, basking in the glory of her success, was ever willing to forgive and forget and even hired her as an instructor. She was gifted a nice house, a car and what not. She received all kinds of sponsorship and did very well by all accounts. But she had unnecessarily and in an unseemly manner got into a spat with the Sports Ministry about her monthly payment of Rs. 60,000 plus a fuel allowance of Rs. 20,000 not being paid – though for good reason.
Susanthika’s appointment, granted during the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime, had been subject to annual renewal. Due to various political changes it had not been renewed, possibly due to inadvertence, before the present Sports Minister Dayasiri Jayasekera took office. But Jayasekera had acted to get cabinet approval to pay her Rs. 60,000 with a Rs. 15,000 monthly fuel allowance until 2020. He took the initiative to have Susanthika flown to Colombo from Diyatalawa when she suffered a bout of dengue some months ago. Her payment, according to the Sports Ministry, had been stopped only because she had not been submitting the necessary reports on the work she has been doing as required. She had been told by the Secretary to the Ministry to submit these reports as recently as April 26. But after recent exchanges aired on television, when the minister remarked that Susanthika had spoken in an ugly way, it appears that matters have been sorted out, some kind of report has been presented and the athlete had collected her money.
Perhaps Susanthika did not make the big bucks that the national cricketers make. But she could certainly have found role models in sportsmen like Kumar Sangakkara, Muttiah Muralitharan and Mahela Jayawardena to name a few on how outstanding sports people should conduct themselves post retirement. They undoubtedly have commercial value and various companies hire them as brand ambassadors and endorsers of their product. Susanthika also, we are sure, would have had such opportunities in her heyday. She was hugely assisted both by the State and the private sector to reach the height of excellence and spent a considerable amount of time in the US and public expense to hone her talents. We are not sure whether this was as an athlete or as a coach. No doubt she still has something give Sri Lanka sport as a coach. She could certainly inspire young athletes by her achievements against great odds. She also probably could contribute to sports administration. But she will have to rid herself of the mindset that the country owes her a living. Being a recipient of much generosity, both from the State and the private sector, she should not get into these unseemly spats at this stage of her life.
Olympic medals are saleable and quite a few of them have been sold according to some Internet research done by columnist Lucien Rajakarunanayake. In an interesting Light Refractions column he did for The Island on June 10, he asked the pertinent question “Don’t we anything other than an Olympic medal to worry about?” Commenting on the fuss that is being made about Susie threatening to sell her Olympic medal, he asks “So what if she does?” What indeed. Whether anyone would want to buy it is another question. The kite that was flown by no less than the sports minister that selling of medals won would be banned is as stupid as Susanthika’s threat itself. The medal is hers and if there is a willing buyer and seller, it is not for any external agency to interfere.
Rajakarunanayake in his column cited some examples of Olympic medals that have been sold. Mark Wells, who won a hockey gold for the US in 1980, sold his medal to pay for medical treatment for a rare genetic disease he suffered from. He had slept with the medal for two weeks before the sale and hoped that the buyer would cherish it as he had. A Ukrainian boxing gold medalist sold his medal to help children in his country to take to sport. The mysterious bidder who bought the medal immediately returned it to the boxer. Another gold medalist sold his medal on eBay for USD 17,101 and donated the proceeds to victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami. A Polish swimmer sold her gold medal for USD 80,000 to a charity in her country working with children with leukemia. “I don’t need the medal to remember,” she said. “I know that I’m the Olympic champion. That’s in my heart.”
Susanthika, who unfortunately has marital problems, has said that she needs funds to bring up her two children. Now that the problem about her pay for being an advisor to the Sports Ministry has been sorted out, we hope the track would be smoother for her. But outbursts such as her recent performance have done her no credit. There were less abrasive ways in dealing with the problem confronting her. Nobody dealing with her would have not been cognizant of what she did for our national pride by winning an Olympic medal, and would have acted accordingly whatever her shortcomings.