AV/AA in Sri Lanka!

In Australia it’s easy to take things for granted. In athletics terms we actually have it quite good, with Melbourne alone having 20+ synthetic tracks, 40 senior clubs, hundreds of qualified coaches and organised competition on almost a weekly basis.  Everyone likes to have a whinge about the state of athletics, but let’s face it, ours are literally first world problems.

Through the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), Athletics Australia has embarked on a program to assist and develop athletics in Sri Lanka. With a population base just under that of Australia, all contained in a land mass the size of Tasmania, Sri Lanka sits as a gem shaped island below the sub continental land mass that is home to nearest neighbour in India.

With a rich agricultural heritage and fertile lands, Sri Lanka is far from being a third world country, however the scars of 30 years of civil war are still evident both physically in the limited infrastructure & maimed bodies, and emotionally through the memories of conflict that touched most families, both Singhalese and Tamil. With the conflict concluding in 2008, the rebuilding and rehabilitation of Sri Lanka as a united entity began.

Across the world sport is now seen as not just a physical pursuit but also a way to engage communities, provide healthy outcomes for the entire population and develop self worth – peace through sport being a common catchphrase in developing nations. With this in mind, Athletics Australia is not targeting high performance or talent spotting through their program, it is solely aimed at building capacity for Sri Lankan athletics to improve on existing structures and systems.

After a preliminary visit by AA staff in November 2016, four Melbourne based coaches made the trip to Sri Lanka on January 2nd to deliver coach education courses in Gampaha, Hettipola and Jaffna. Each site was selected for different reasons. Gampaha is an existing athletic centre not far from the capital Colombo, but still under-developed in terms of the range of coaching available.  Hettipola has a more rural village feel with limited opportunities for school children and village communities to engage in sport.  Further north, Jaffna was the epicentre of the civil war, so the strain 30 years of conflict brought to the community and the region’s infrastructure is ever present.

A two prong approach was taken with this visit – basic coach education that encompassed the Level 1 Community Coach, Recreational Run Leader and IAAF Kids program up-skilling covered those with little or no formal athletic coaching experience, while the Level 2 Intermediate Club Coach course was delivered to those currently coaching in some capacity.

As a first attempt at the program AA had no real concept of how many coaches to expect, what courses they would be interested in or how they would respond to courses delivered in English and translated to Singhalese in both Gampaha & Hettipola, then Tamil and Singhalese in Jaffna. A close working relationship with the Ministry of Sport, Ministry of Education and the Army did however ensure each venue worked well.

Through the support of these various departments, the final day’s activity at each centre involving a practical demonstration by the Sri Lankan coaches of the IAAF Kids Athletics and Youth Athletics programs involving local school children was amazing to see.

So after 10 days in the country involving 9 days of education, 400 newly accredited coaches are now released into the Sri Lankan schools, villages, military and urban centres. By anyone’s standard this is a tremendous result.

The work in Sri Lanka however is not over. A third visit for this financial year is planned in a few months with the emphasis being IPC Para classification and recruitment together with the potential for one Level 2 Advanced coaching course. There is some hope that DFAT will continue funding into a second year as continuity of the programs being established is essential to long term success.

In terms of the impact of the program so far, this may be hard to judge, but if the words of one participant in Hettipola are anything to go by, then things are looking positive. ‘We were a desert until you came, but Athletics Australia has provided the water for us to grow.”

Tim Crosbie – Athletics Victoria – Recreational Running Coordinator