By Mohan Srilal
Sri Lanka’s latest sporting hero Dinesh Priyantha Herath is expected to touch down in Sri Lanka to a red-carpet airport welcome on Tuesday. The life story of the F46 Javelin Throw gold medalist at the Tokyo Paralympics is an inspirational one of how to overcome disabilities both economic and physical.
When Dinesh Priyantha using his abled right arm threw the javelin a distance of 67.79 meters creating a world record and winning Sri Lanka’s first ever gold medal at a Paralympics event, it enlivened a depressed nation trying to overcome the Covid-19 pandemic.
Immediately after winning gold under glare of international TV cameras, he grabbed a large Sri Lankan flag, laid it on the track, knelled down and kissed the flag. Perhaps an unprecedented act at an Olympics event, it raised the emotions of a nation to fever pitch. “I am very happy because my main dream came true. I have no words to describe (the feeling),” he had told the media after that.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, himself a military man, tweeted a congratulatory message immediately after his gold medal winning feat. “Your service in fighting for Sri Lanka as a soldier and putting us in the international sporting map is remarkable,” said the President.
In the week since Dinesh won gold on August 30, he has become a media pin-up boy both in the mainstream and social media, in par with Sri Lanka’s legendary cricketers of the past. In an editorial titled “A Man Worth His Weight in Gold,” the island newspaper said: “These troubled times are devoid of anything positive, but some good news came yesterday, from Tokyo, enlivening the depressed Sri Lankans, who are fighting the pandemic and battling lockdown blues”. The editorial paid tribute to Dinesh’s ability “to fight really hard to turn his disability into ability (his) rise in the world of sports has been truly impressive and inspiring”.
Dinesh was born into a village farming family near the historic city of Anuradhapura and went to a village school—Kagama Dathusena Maha Vidyalaya. His father died when Dinesh was 12 years old, he had an elder sister and younger brother, but as the eldest son he had to help his mother in the farm and the responsibility of earning a living for his family fell on his shoulders. Thus, at the age of 18 he joined the army, to support his family.
At the time, the Sri Lankan army was fighting a vicious civil war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) regarded as one of the most ruthless terrorists’ armies in the world.
In December 2008, at the height of the civil war when Sri Lankan forces were pushing towards the LTTE stronghold, he was shot thrice on his left arm from bullets fired from a T-56 gun, and it almost killed him. The next four years of his youthful life was spent at the Ragama ‘Ranaviru Sevana’—an army rehabilitation centre—getting treated and regaining confidence to start another new chapter in his life. At the age of 22 he took medical retirement from the army.
After his rehabilitation, senior members of his Gajaba Regiment encouraged Dinesh to take up sports to build self-confidence. He has told the media in various interviews that he never played sports at school, except softball cricket with friends on a patch of grass in the village.
Army sports officials introduced Dinesh to the javelin, because he could use only one arm for sporting activity and his tall physique suited the sport. In his first competitive throw at the Army Inter Regiment Para Games—he won a gold medal setting a national record and he has not looked back since then.
Having got used to heartbreaks and hardships from his young days, he was able to take sporting success and failures on its stride. He was disappointed at not being included in the world rankings to take part in the 2012 London Paralympics even after winning gold at an Asian meet in Malaysia. But he was able to work through Asian and international Para Games circuits to qualify for the Rio Paralympics where he won a bronze medal, Sri Lanka’s first medal at a Paralympics.
Within three years Dinesh had won medals at three major Para championships: a medal at the Olympics, a medal at the World Para Athletics Championship and a Gold at the 2018 Asian Para Games. His determination saw him win his second World Para Athletics Championship medal, when he clinched a silver medal at the 2019 edition held in Dubai.
“Sports added so much value to my life. After being wounded it was sports that showed me a new dimension in life, and it paved the way for me to become a recognized medal-winning athlete” he had said after winning silver in the world championship. Thus, Dinesh was selected to lead the 9-member Sri Lankan team for the Tokyo Paralympics, where he carried the national flag to the stadium at the opening ceremony.
Just four months before he was shot, Dinesh married Ishanka Maduwanthi and they now have three children including a eight-month old boy. They had to survive on a meagre army pension, but his wife has supported him while he pursued a sporting path.
After receiving the gold medal in Tokyo an emotional Dinesh has dedicated it to his wife. “I have three children and my wife looks after them very well. She motivates me. Our youngest child is only eight months old. (My wife) has done everything. She has given me freedom to do sport. I thank my wife for this gold,” Dinesh has said after the ceremony, where the Sri Lankan national anthem was played for the first time at an Olympics venue.
He and his wife need not worry anymore of surviving on his pension. The sports ministry has announced that Dinesh Priyantha will receive a cash reward of Rs 50 million (USD 250,000) which is huge in the Sri Lankan context. Sri Lankan Cricket – governing body of cricket in Sri Lanka—has also announced that they will be awarding him an undisclosed sum of money which is expected to go into millions of rupees. He may also get cash rewards from the corporate sector and other donors.
Dinesh is a wonderful story of guts, grit and determination, a story that highlights that what others may call disabilities should not be an excuse if you have the will power. All these qualities have paid off handsomely, and now Dinesh Priyantha Herath is part of Sri Lankan history, which should inspire more Sri Lankan Para-athletes in the future.