|Thursday, 8 August 2002|
Nagalingam Ethiriveerasingham - a prince amongst men
by T. D. S. A. Dissanayaka (His team-mate and close friend)
The Third Asian Games was held in Tokyo, Japan in May, the month of Cherry Blossoms, way back in 1958. The Ceylon team consisted of six athletes, two swimmers and three tennis players. One official accompanied the team and functioned both as Chef d' Mission and Manager.
Based on our performances in 1957 and the early part of 1958 Ceylon could conceivably win just one medal, the gold medal in the high jump, Nagalingam Ethiriveerasingham had regularly jumped over 6 feet 6 inches (1.98 metres) in 1956 and 1957, and was a finalist in the Olympic Games of 1956 held in Melbourne, Australia. Above all he was in superb form in 1958 and had cleared 6 feet 7 inches (2.01 meters) regularly. He had just one rival, Olympic athlete Fujiyama Okada from Japan who had also cleared 6 feet 7 inches. Incidentally in 1958 the world record was 7 feet 1 inch.
Our team arrived in Tokyo for a two week spell for acclimatisation and intensive training, before the Asian Games. Ethiriveerasingham arrived somewhat later because of examinations at the University of California, Los Angeles, (UCLA), where he was a second year student in agriculture. Because of my close friendship with Ethiriveerasingham and because the Chef d' Mission cum manager was inundated with meetings, I was sent to The Tokyo International Airport to pick him up.
Ethiriveerasingham arrived on the Pan American round-the-world flight from Los Angeles.
He looked the picture of health and was brimming with confidence. In fact just looking at him he was a gold medal prospect. To my surprise he spoke to me in Sinhalese. His Sinhalese was anything but good because he was born and bred in Jaffna. He said Sinhalese that he had cleared 6 feet 8 inches (2.04 metres) twice in the last two weeks and he did not want Fuji Okada to know about it.
It remained one of the best kept secrets in our team, with only P. Don Victor the long jumper and another close friend of Ethiriveerasingham, being privy to it.
Ethiriveerasingham and I shared a room in the Asian Games Village, which in practice was the five-star Dai Ichi Hotel. Victor joined us regularly in our room and Ethiriveerasingham mapped out his strategy. "I will take only eight jumps". he said. We nodded in agreement. "Therefore it will be three jumps at 6 feet 9 inches, probably two at 6 feet 8 inches, which is my personal best as of today. Therefore the other three jumps will be once each at 6 feet 6 inches, 6 feet 5 inches, and 6 feet 4 inches." "Ethiri, at which height are you going to start?" I asked. "At six four. If you want, I will start at six five."
"Ethiri, six five is the Asian Games record. Are you suggesting that you commence jumping at the Asian Games record?" I asked incredulously.
"Sure. If you do not like it, I will start at six four but I will do so wearing my track suit. I have a good reason for that."
After a detailed discussion we agreed on the strategy. Thereafter Ethiriveerasingham was an humble as ever. He told everybody including the Chef d' Mission that he can clear 6 feet 7 inches and the competition will be between him and Fuji Okada.
Immensely likeable, his modesty was commented upon most favourably in the Asian Games Village in general and by the Japanese media in particular. To say the least, he was one of the most respected athletes in the Asian Games Village.
Our training in Tokyo went off smoothly but the night before the competition was anything but smooth. Ethiriveerasingham was tense and could not sleep! Much worse, he used to wake me every hour and double-check that I was asleep!! Around 2 a.m. I went across to the medical centre to consult medical opinion. None of the doctors and para-medics could speak English except for a good looking nurse. She was reluctant to come to our room in the middle of the night! Therefore I went back to our room to fetch Ethiriveerasingham. He was duly given a sleeping draught and thereafter slept like a log.
As for me, I also slept like a log as I always did and still do. In the morning we skipped breakfast and opted for an early lunch around 11 a.m. By noon Ethiriveerasingham left for the Tokyo Stadium in a micro-bus reserved strictly for competitors of that afternoon.
Competition started sharp at 2 p.m. and by 4 p.m. all athletes except Nagalingam Ethiriveerasingham had made their attempts. When the bar was at 6 feet 5 inches, the Asian Games record, he made his first attempt still wearing his track suit. He soared over the bar with at least three inches to spare! The Tokyo Stadium exploded in a thunderous applause. Thereafter it was Nagalingam Ethiriveerasingham of Ceylon, not Fujiyama Okada of Japan, who was the Prima donna at the Tokyo Stadium. They both cleared 6 feet 6 inches on their first attempt. At 6 feet 7 inches, he did so on the first attempt and Okada on the second.
At 6 feet 8 inches once again, Ethiriveerasingham cleared the bar on the first attempt while Okada struggled and failed on all three attempts. Thus Ceylon won her first gold medal at the Asian Games.
At the victory ceremony there were unprecedented scense of emotion. When the Ceylon flag was unfurled on the main masthead of the Tokyo Stadium and the National Anthem was played, Ethiriveerasingham broke down and wept for joy. So did Ambassador Sir Susantha De Fonseka, Ambassador of Ceylon to Japan, who presided over the victory ceremony. So did all of us members of the Ceylon Team and all the Ceylonese in the Tokyo Stadium.
That was truly the hour of glory of Nagalingam Ethiriveerasingham. Today that hour of glory will be repeated when Nagalingam Ethiriveerasingham will enter the Sugathadasa Stadium carrying the sacred flame that will symbolise the opening of the Asian Athletic Championships.
Produced by Lake House