Alvin Sallay

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 January, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 January, 2008, 12:00am

A new year has dawned. And with it comes a new writer for this back page column. It might be on the last page of the sports section, but cross my heart, what is said here won't be the last and final word. That will be left to you.

I'm on the verandah of the Galle Face Hotel in Colombo. The waves from the Indian Ocean sing a soothing refrain as the sun goes down over the horizon heralding the end of another hot afternoon in the Sri Lankan capital.

In a couple of days, an all too brief vacation comes to an end. Hong Kong beckons. It is a time for reflection. A new year always brings moments such as these when you look back and think how fast time has gone by, and perhaps look ahead with some trepidation to the future.

I think how fortunate we are to be in Hong Kong having just spoken to Susanthika Jayasinghe, Sri Lankan and Asian sprint queen. Her Cinderella-like story makes me realise how lucky Hong Kong's athletes are - enjoying a sophisticated system which, whatever the few minor drawbacks, is a world apart from what Susie (as she is popularly called) has known.

Susie comes from a poor village family in the hinterland of Sri Lanka. Her dad was a driver who struggled to make ends meet to feed his wife and five children. When his youngest daughter showed signs of athletic prowess, he did not even have the money to buy her a pair of spikes. Shoes did not matter so much when you went hungry at night after sharing a loaf of bread among seven people.

But despite a poor upbringing, Susie grew up to become Sri Lanka's most successful athlete. Her major feats - in her pet 200 metres - were winning a bronze medal at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney (which could become a silver now Marion Jones has been stripped of her gold), a silver medal and bronze medal at the World Athletics Championships in 1997 (Athens) and 2007 (Osaka) respectively, and a handful of medals, including gold, at the Asian Games.

'I won all these medals without any support or help from the establishment. It was my own sweat and determination that brought honour to my country. Now I want to finish my career by winning more glory in Beijing,' she tells me.

At 32, Susie knows this will be her last Olympics. Belatedly, the Sri Lankan government has realised it has a gem in its midst - a raw and naturally talented athlete who has prevailed against all the odds. In a rare moment of sanity by the island's sporting administrators, they have given Susie 3.2 million rupees (about HK$230,000) as a training grant for the Beijing Olympics. This is the first time she has received such largesse.

It will give her the means to pay her way to California where she will train with her American coach Tony Campbell for the next seven months in the run-up to Beijing.

'Mentally, I'm at peace at last, knowing that financially I, or my family whom I support, won't get into any hardship,' she smiles. 'Perhaps, this time, I might be able to win a gold medal. That is my dream.'

Hong Kong's athletes also have similar dreams. But in their cases, they must count their blessings because they already have a support system which is on a par with the best in the world, however many gripes and complaints they may have. The elite athletes may have temporarily lost their home base at Sha Tin, but the government has made alternative arrangements. They have some of the best coaching and sports medicine facilities available to them in the world.

When Susie suffered a stress fracture in 2004, she had to rely on private benefactors to pay the medical bills and allow her to recuperate from a troublesome shin.

Where money is concerned, Hong Kong's best get their dues. They travel the world for training and competition at the drop of a hat. Ask badminton ace Wang Chen or triathlete Daniel Lee Kin-wo - both of whom are likely to be in Beijing.

We in Hong Kong are pampered. We should count our blessings. Perhaps we should start this new year with the resolution to always look on the bright side of life for there is always someone else less fortunate.

Happy New Year, and let it be a prosperous one.

Tim Noonan is on a sabbatical