Track rivalry between two great competitors often brings glory to the sport, as well as for themselves. Recently one such track rivalry brought Sri Lanka its first Gold medal in 8 years at the Asian Championship when 800m runner Nimali Liyanarachchi won the Gold while her track rival Gayanthika Abeyrathne ended with the Silver.
Nimali who emerged as a top 800m runner in 2013, was soon challenged by Gayanthika, who gave up her distance running to compete in the 800m. Since then Sri Lanka has persisted with both at international level, with Nimali representing the country at the 2014 Commonwealth Games and Gayanthika at the Asian Games the same year.
Since 2015 both Gayanthika and Nimali have participated in many international competitions together, including the 2015 Asian Championship, 2016 Asian Games and Asian Grand Prix and 2017 Asian Championship. The rivalry between the duo helped the other to better their performance and they have been able to shatter the SL record twice, once in Jaffna on a grass track in 2016 and once in Diyagama earlier this year.
In the men’s 800m, Indunil Herath was the country’s leading runner for many years and even sealed a Gold medal at the Asian Grand Prix earlier this year. He was one of the country’s prime medal prospects at the Asian Championship both in 2015 and 2017, but messed up on both occasions. In the 2017 edition he did not take an early lead and eventually finished outside the podium.
The return of his arch rival Kupun Kushantha, who clocked a sub 1:50 at the National Championship, meant that Indunil had to push himself to be on top of his game. Kushan too had to push himself higher. The battle between the duo saw Indunil clocking 1:48.83; the first time a SL athlete went below 1:49 in three years. Kupun settled for the silver with a personal best of 1:49.96 seconds, which indicates a bright future for the 22 year old.
Nalandian Kupun had his ups and downs during his junior years. He was always very fast in the first 600m and led the race. He was disqualified from the Asian Junior Championship in 2014 after finishing third and subsequently missed out from qualifying for the IAAF World Junior Championship. He tried to qualify for the Asian Games the same year but ended in disappointment as he faded in the last 200m after running very fast in the first 600m.
Kupun’s focus shifted to the AL examination and he was not seen at his best in many races. Last Saturday from the start it was not Kupun leading the race but Indunil, which is something rarely done by him. Eventually, the competition between the two brought about the best result by Sri Lankan athletes in three years.
Indunil meanwhile had a bumpy road in his senior career. The former Walala A Rathnayake athlete represented SL at the Asian Junior in 2014 finishing fourth, but clocked his personal best 1:48.61 seconds. His performance kept SL hopes high for an Asian Championship medal in 2015, but he paid the price for running slow early in the race.
Indunil won Gold at the 2016 South Asian Games and another at the Asian Grand Prix earlier this year beating Indian runner Jinson Johnson who was the favourite. This gave him the vision of winning Gold at the Asian Championship, but ended in another flop for running slow in the first half.
Kupun is trained by Sajith Jayalal, the Director of the National Institute of Sports Science and former coach of Indunil. This makes things interesting as Indunil does not like to lose to a prodigy of his former coach and Kupun doesn’t like to lose to someone who used to train under his coach!
If this healthy rivalry continues it will certainly increase Sri Lanka’s chances of a medal at the forthcoming Asian Games with both of them pushing each other to the extreme. In the best interests of the country, authorities too will have to persist with both of them just as they did with Gayanthika and Nimali, which proved to be a huge success.