Commonwealth Games: No new shoes or shirts, we can’t afford them, say crisis-hit Sri Lankan athletes


BIRMINGHAM – The huge jump in petrol prices in Sri Lanka had threatened to derail Ruchira Fernando’s sporting dreams.

A liter of 95 octane now costs about LKR540 (Singaporean$2.08), nearly three times what it cost a year ago, the artistic gymnast shares, resulting in queues mile-long ahead service stations in the midst of an economic crisis.

So instead of driving an hour to train five times a week, 22-year-old Fernando took the train – a two-hour journey – to train at Torrington Gymnasium in Colombo.

In a way, he is luckier than 3×3 women’s basketball captain Chalani Perera who has to walk almost 20km from the bank where she works to her home and then to practice.

According to reports, the Sri Lankan government’s foreign exchange reserves have dried up and it owes around US$800 million (S$1.11 billion) to fuel suppliers. A shipment of gasoline and diesel arrived in July with a bill of about $587 million, but there was only $125 million in the bank.

With travel made difficult, schools were closed and half-day power cuts were ordered to save fuel.

“It’s so difficult now in Sri Lanka,” said Fernando, whom The Straits Times caught up with on a flight to Birmingham where the Commonwealth Games are taking place on Monday (July 25).

“Everything has become more expensive – rice, potatoes, onions, cooking oil…it’s really sad, and a lot of people are thinking about leaving the country.”

Another Sri Lankan athlete, who declined to be named, told ST with a laugh: “The officials told us not to run away and seek asylum here.”

Understandably, the sport is an afterthought in such difficult circumstances, and the country’s 110 athletes have been ordered by their government to forfeit their participation in the Games from July 28 to August 8.

Sri Lanka’s Chief of Mission, Dampath Fernando, told the Indian Express: “Treasury said they have no money. Forget it. We have fallen into a difficult and desperate situation.”

But the country’s cricket board, which is still in the dark thanks to broadcast deals and ticket sales, stepped up to contribute LKR 22 million, which was used to cover flights, accommodation and competition outfits.

Perera told Press Trust Of India: “We had a lot of difficulties to get here and now it’s really good that we are here.”

Austerity measures remain, however – instead of lavish designer suits, athletes trotted to Alexander Stadium in basic tracksuits for Thursday’s opening ceremony.

Dampath said: “We’re going with the bare minimum…we’re only giving out three t-shirts, a tracksuit and a bag to each athlete. Other than that, nothing. No new shoes, no new shirts…we can’t allow us. But we will make sure the athletes are comfortable.”

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