Colombo, November 15 (The Sunday Morning): The youngest Rajapaksa in Parliament and the youngest Cabinet Minister of the present Government has been under severe criticism by the well-seasoned politicians and the public who have been very vocal about the choices he has made in appointing certain individuals to committees and councils, be it the sports sector or the youth sector.
This week, The Sunday Morning managed to sit for a full-length interview with the Cabinet Minister for Youth and Sports Namal Rajapaksa, to set the records straight and ask him some questions that the public has been eager to hear the answers and explanations to.
Excerpts of the interview:
You said that you are looking to restructure the entire sports sector by building a dialogue with all stakeholders to add value in taking the industry forward. What is the expected outcome of these dialogues?
The expected outcome of these dialogues is to introduce a structure. What Sri Lanka’s sport sector is lacking is structure. I believe we have the talent, we have the infrastructure; maybe for certain sports, we have a lack of resources. But what is lacking in Sri Lanka is a structured system. This is the biggest challenge that I had when I took over the Ministry, which is why I invited people like Mahela (Jayawardene), Kumar (Sangakkara), Kasturi (Chellaraja Wilson), Supun (Weerasinghe), Dilantha (Malagamuwa), Sanjeewa (Wickramanayake), Julian (Bolling), Rowena (Samarasinghe), and Rohan (Fernando) to join the Sports Council to formulate a proper structure to improve performance and develop the sports sector.
What are the suggestions that the Sport Council have brought to the table during your meetings?
I must take this opportunity to thank these individuals for volunteering to set up this Sports Council on my request. All these people are very busy in their own respective fields. For example, Mahela Jayawardene is involved in the IPL (Indian Premier League) at this time and Kumar Sangakkara has his responsibilities towards the MCC (Marylebone Cricket Club) and all the others are leading figures in the corporate sector. But they all allocate time to attend the Sports Council discussions that take place on a weekly basis, to revamp the sporting structure in Sri Lanka and also work on the Sports Act and at the same time, on the Budget for 2021.
Basically, we have given the mandate to the Council through the State Minister to restructure the sporting system in the country as well as to look at the necessary budgetary allocations required, and to put in place a long-term plan in intervals of five, 10, and 15 years on high-performing sports.
We have appointed a National Selection Committee that will be responsible for picking the national selectors and coaches, and to set up transparent selection criteria when it comes to national selections. At the moment, we do not have criteria and each sport has its own criteria and sometimes, it depends on the selectors or the relevant association that has been elected.
What we are looking at now is to have a proper structured selecting process, which will ensure that no athlete will be left out and there will be transparency in the selection process when it comes to selecting the national pool.
That selecting procedure will have to go through the Sports Council, so they will be given the mandate to oversee the selection process and ensure that the selections are done in compliance to the listed criteria, and then send it to the Ministry.
So, all this time the associations selected their own selectors and the minister just placed the signature on it and it is the association which selected the team, which was presented to the minister in writing, which he signed off on.
There was no proper following up or a mechanism to do national selections. I personally believe that we should have proper national selection criteria for all sports.
If a person has the IAAF (International Amateur Athletic Federation) qualification or world rankings in tennis, badminton, and other such sports, I believe they should be allowed to be part of the national squad.
Even when it comes to team sports, we should have compulsory tournaments for all team players to participate in to qualify for national squad selections. For example, in rugby, we have to select the sevens squad out of the 15s squad. You can’t look at a 15s tournament and select our national sevens squad.
These are a few of the areas that we have been working on in the past three months. Hopefully, in a couple of weeks, we will be able to work on the Sports Act and open it for public opinion.
I believe it is not the minister’s Act, but it is the Sporting Act and the entire sporting fraternity should be responsible and have the right to contribute towards drafting it.
What purpose does the corporate sector personnel serve as members of the said Sports Council?
Sri Lankan sports lack corporate culture. Anywhere in the world, sport is an industry, but for Sri Lanka, it has become a burden. If you look at all the infrastructures that we have built, the Government is finding it very difficult to maintain it. In the media, you see news of some stadiums being abandoned, not being used, not maintained properly; that is simply because we do not have a corporate structure; revenue needs to be generated through this infrastructure.
If there is revenue generation, then naturally, the people in sports will get paid and the infrastructure will be maintained. What I am expecting from corporate Sri Lanka and those who are involved in the Sports Council is to set up a corporate structure, where we look at new models of revenue; like franchise models, sports tourism, and the manufacturing of sporting equipment, sports gear, and sports goods. I believe sports can even be turned into an industry that generates $ 1 billion per year.
There are four projects that were initiated by the previous Government. Will you see these projects to their completion?
All those projects were actually initiated during former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s term in office in 2013. But unfortunately, the last Government did nothing to continue those projects. These were projects that were abandoned by them, and I remember the previous Sports Minister went to Kilinochchi and commissioned the ground, but it was never utilised.
The last Government did not start any projects. They only announced that an international stadium will be established in the Northern Province. Then, they announced that the stadium will be established in Polonnaruwa – that was the exact Government that criticised the Sooriyawewa Stadium (Mahinda Rajapaksa International Cricket Stadium) and the Dambulla Stadium (Rangiri Dambulla International Cricket Stadium).
We need to rethink how we are going to spend money on such infrastructure. But definitely, we have a larger plan to develop sports infrastructure. We are looking at developing sports schools and laying 130-metre synthetic tracks in 10 schools. In addition, Kurunegala, Torrington, and the Alfred Duraiappah Stadium will also be fitted with synthetic tracks.
Down Kirimandala Mawatha, we are looking at establishing a high-performance sports centre to accommodate field events such as javelin and shot put, long and high jump. These projects have been included in the next Budget and we are working on the procurement at present.
Probably by January or February, we will be able to commence work on these projects.
At the same time, we will see through to completion the projects that were abandoned or stalled during the last Government.
Allegations were made against the Cricket Board and the cricketers during the pre-election period. Would you be investigating the matter further?
Investigations are going forward and I am sure that the Police Department and the Attorney General’s Department are looking to conclude the investigations as soon as possible.
We are conducting investigations over these allegations and we need to ensure justice is served, because allegations of this nature do not damage individuals, it damages the image of Sri Lanka Cricket and the entire sports sector of the country.
Sri Lanka Cricket is known around the world, so I am sure the Police is keen on completing the investigations, and we have advised them to conduct these investigations impartially, with no interference, to follow the due process, and based on the findings, to take a justifiable decision.
Will you be strictly enforcing the Sports Betting Act to put an end to the alleged corruption that is rooted in the sports sector?
At the end of the day, it is all about how you structure your sports. So, if we have a proper Sports Act covering all sectors and have anti-corruption regulations embedded in it, then we do not have to worry about it.
But if we have loopholes in the system, then people will play out the system. You cannot blame an entrepreneur for playing out a weak system. So, if there are loopholes for them to play with, then it is the system that needs to be blamed.
When the Sports Act is enacted, it will allow the people involved in the sports sector and the associations to be more transparent.
You cannot target individuals or their businesses and bring acts or laws to a country. All these allegations are brought out targeting one individual, that will not help sports.
The corruption has to be out of sports; the match-fixing and other forms of corrupt practices need to be halted by strong anti-corruption regulations, which need to be implemented. But it cannot be addressed looking at one individual person.
What plans do you have to improve the track and field events and ensure proper sponsorship and training is offered?
The high-performance sports centre will have tier one, tier two, and development squads and will look after those athletes and their needs. But I agree that there is a shortcoming in the rural areas, which we have to approach, and we have to identify those athletes and help them. Whoever joins the high-performance centre will be looked after.
Then we need to have a mechanism to look after the rest of the sportsmen and women. What I propose, and have already started from the Hambantota District Secretariat, is to have a district sports fund with district corporates, where they can participate and be part of the sports fund.
Matters will be addressed district wise, and we’ll address issues such as the provision of a pair of football spikes or any equipment or providing them transport facilities for them to participate in national sporting events.
Under the 13th Amendment, sports became a devolved subject. There is more power with the provincial governments than the Central Government when it comes to sports development or rather the development of sports.
Only the ones that get selected to the national squads work with the Central Government; the school teams are looked after by the relevant schools and the Education Ministry, and the rest are from the provincial sector. What I am trying to do is bridge the gap and bring these three organisation structures under one proper structure.
We have invited the corporates based in each district to step in and assist us and be part of the district sports fund. Also, we will bring them all to one digital platform by early next year, which will establish a monitoring mechanism.
The Sugathadasa Stadium is in very bad shape. What plans does the Ministry have for it?
The Sugathadasa Stadium has become a huge burden; the Treasury has to pump Rs. 16 million monthly to pay salaries for the staff at three stadiums – Sugathadasa, Bogambara, and Nuwara Eliya.
We have to think of restructuring the Sugathadasa Stadium and we have looked at a couple of options. One is to get the Football Federation involved in putting the football stadium to good use, because it is the Football Federation that brings in the highest revenue for the stadium. So, we are looking at sharing the property with the Football Federation. Then, we have the Sri Lanka Cricket Board which is part of the Khettarama Stadium (R. Premadasa International Cricket Stadium), so we might as well get them involved fulltime in maintaining and putting the stadium to use, rather than the Government taking on the full burden in maintaining such sections.
We have to refurbish the athletics tracks and the ground. I am looking at talking to the Football Federation to get them involved in the development work of the Sugathadasa Stadium, to make it their home ground.
The swimming pool and indoor complex need to be considered under a different marketing model. The indoor sports complex can be turned into a very good revenue-generating model, as we have ample space around it. For that, we are looking at a public-private partnership.
Even Bogambara, we will do a synthetic track, and with regard to Nuwara Eliya, again, we are looking at a public-private partnership.
How will you improve the utility of racing tracks to promote motor sporting events in the country?
I think the Sri Lanka Motor Sporting Association has a problem themselves, so they have to sort their internal disputes. I have had discussions with them, and they need to get their act together.
At the same time, there are enough tracks (motor racing), but whether they are up to the required standards is a question. I have expressed my interest to the Drivers’ Association to allocate a track for them in Tissamaharama, the Ranminithenna track, so that the association can base themselves there and do their training.
Motorsports is a very expensive sport to pursue at this stage, so we need to get more sponsors involved and improve the level of professionalism of the drivers. So far, their response to the discussions and suggestions has been positive.
I am sure that motorsports can be a foreign revenue-generating venture in Sri Lanka, if they work on a proper management structure.
Will you be bringing back the night races that were very popular during your father’s tenure as President?
They became too popular. The association has to decide that and I will support any association that will think out of the box. It may be night races; it may be a different sporting event.
Associations have to work towards improving their sporting events, because they get elected annually, and most office bearers spend a lot of money to get elected, so they have to work. I will help them to make their sporting events a reality.
How will Mahela Jayawardene be able to focus on the Sports Council activities as Head of the Council?
I thought the IPL will create an issue with the Government for getting Mahela involved in the Sports Council, as he allocates a considerable amount of time to take part in the weekly Sports Council discussions. But I admire his commitment towards the Council, as every Monday at 6 p.m., they have a conference meeting and Mahela has been part of that conversation every Monday, whether he has a match or not.
His contribution towards the developments that are taking place in the Sports Council is tremendous; he is a very structured person and is very methodical in what he does, which I believe needs to translate to Sri Lanka’s sports sector.
I believe that Mahela and the team in the Sports Council can assist us in taking forward the restructuring plan.
How involved has Kumar Sangakkara been with the Council, given that he is the MCC President? Was this just a PR stunt?
I must say that all the members of this Sports Council, even when you take Kasturi, Supun, Julian, Sanjeewa, Dilantha, and Rohan, have been contributing a lot. They have been more active than any member in the Sports Ministry I must say.
Every Monday, they have allocated time to discuss the formulation of the sporting structure and their office will be ready soon. We cannot forget the contribution of the Commander of the Sri Lanka Army Lt. Gen. Shavendra Silva, who has been very involved with most of the decisions that are taken during the council meetings, regardless of the other responsibilities that have been assigned to him in preventing the Covid-19 outbreak in the country.
Lt. Gen. Silva ensures that he allocates the necessary time to take part in the sports-related discussions with the council members. The entire Council is working very hard. I must say that they are doing this on a voluntary basis and do not get anything out of it. At the end of the day, what we get is self-satisfaction when the country wins medals or sets records.
How are you working with the challenges that are presented by this pandemic, especially having to stage team sports events such as the upcoming Lanka Premier League (LPL) tournament?
When you take the LPL, that type of event can work within a travel bubble. The world has proven that it works – the Indian Premier League is a good example and India’s tour of Pakistan is a good example. All over the world, they are holding matches under this method. It is tested and proved to be successful; it is not going to be a big issue for us.
In terms of rugby, yes, New Zealand and Australia are conducting matches; it is proven that you can move forward in life even with a pandemic. So, it is about time that Sri Lanka also moves with the new normal lifestyle.
We need to learn from our mistakes, and see how we can incorporate inter-organisational structures and create safe bubbles where we can continue with our sporting activities, tourism, or any other sector and open up the country.
That is the only way forward for the country and for its people.