Sixteen years ago sprinter Susanthika Jayasinghe was a national heroine, having become Sri Lanka’s first woman to win an Olympic medal. Today she is a struggling single mother with only bitterness towards a country she says has given her nothing in return.
Jayasinghe won bronze in her 100m event in Sydney when she was 24 and was upgraded to silver in 2007 when winner Marion Jones admitted taking performance enhancing drugs.
Dubbed the “dazzling gazelle” by the media, she was only the second Sri Lankan ever to win an Olympic medal, and thousands of cheering fans greeted her on her return to the island in 2000.
But even then, she was a controversial figure.
While in Sydney she had alleged that Sri Lanka’s then sports minister had tried to ruin her career after she rejected his sexual advances, an explosive claim in the deeply conservative country.
She had already hinted at this in 1998 when she was briefly suspended on doping charges and fought successfully to clear her name, accusing sports officials of having tampered with her urine samples.
In Sydney, Jayasinghe raced with a yellow ribbon around her wrist in a show of support for a political movement opposing election rigging, earning a reprimand from the then prime minister, who remarked that she might have won gold had she focused on the race.
Now 40 and long since retired from running, Jayasinghe says the state never gave her the recognition she deserved.
“I feel neglected, I have not been given any recognition by the state,” she told AFP.
The youngest daughter in a family of five children, Jayasinghe grew up in a small village.
– Lone struggle –
Her family was so poor they could not afford to buy her running shoes, until a local sports promoter agreed to help.
She later said that she could easily have ended up as a low-paid worker in one of Sri Lanka’s many clothing factories.
Jayasinghe moved to the capital in the early 1990s and began entering national events, immediately excelling.
She married her trainer Dhammika Nandakumara in secret at the age of just 17, but they split acrimoniously and are now trading public allegations about each other.
Since the split Jayasinghe has abandoned plans to set up an academy for young Sri Lankan athletes.
“How can I help others when I am struggling alone to bring up my two children?” she said of her son, eight, and her two-year-old daughter.
After retirement, she had tried to secure a government position in sports administration, but was rebuffed, and an attempt to run for political office also failed.
“I have no opportunity to pass on my knowledge and experience to the younger generation. If a child is aiming for an Olympic victory, what I want to say is that it will not be valued by the authorities,” she said.
“See what has happened to me. I am an Olympic medallist, but today, I am just a wastrel.” (Courtesy AFP)