Page last updated at 00:03 GMT, Thursday, 18 February 2010

Sri Lanka eyes sports business for post-war role

By P. Sivaramakrishnan
BBC Tamil Service

Sports and business must grow simultaneously if they are to play a role for reconciliation and nation-building to succeed in post-war Sri Lanka, experts say.

Sri Lankan cricketer Suraj Randiv
Cricket is the most popular sport in Sri Lanka and the most successful

The civil war, which ended in 2009, cast a long shadow on the sporting activities in the island nation.

Sri Lanka had a popular sporting culture in the past, but now it needs help from the government to produce proper policies for its development and gain help from business, analysts believe.

"If mass participation can be assured, investing money in sports is not an issue, and industry and business houses will come forward to do it," says Neela Marikkar, chairperson and managing director of Grant McCann Erickson, the Sri Lankan arm of the global advertising giant McCann Erickson.

The Sri Lankan Olympic Association (SLOA) also says that if the respective sporting bodies and the government come forward - with plans for developing the infrastructure needed for taking forward sporting activities in the country - then many would be prepared to support it.

A painting on a wall depicting the recent war between the Sri Lankan army and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Colombo
Sri Lanka was racked by civil war for three decades

"A three-pronged strategy is needed; with the participation of the ministry of sports, education department and the respective sporting associations," says Maxwell de Silva, secretary general of the SLOA.

Although Sri Lanka is in the top 100 countries in the world based on its GDP ($40bn), it has a budget of only $30m for its department of sports development.

Now, the SLOA says it will approach the International Olympic Committee for funding and support if the government establishes programmes to improve the country's sports facilities.

Opportunities galore?

Sri Lanka has already been successful in the international arena with its cricket national team, winning a World Cup in 1996 and as finishing runner-up in 2007.

But there are plenty more opportunities for sports development around the country, including building new facilities.

Sri Lanka"s Shehan Saearuwan Abeyritings, poses for photographs after winning the gold medal in a 100 meters sprint at the South Asian Games in Dhaka, Bangladesh
Sri Lanka won 105 medals in this year's South Asian games

Dr Muttukrisha Sarvananthan, leading economist and principal researcher at the Point Pedro Institute of Development, points out that the three-decade civil war deprived the people in the north and east of the island of all sporting activities.

And Julian Bolling, a triple Olympian in swimming from Sri Lanka, says: "The need is not mega-structures, but basic facilities for the community to participate in sports.

"The priority is to give the children of the north and east an opportunity to play, rather than thinking of producing champions overnight."

The average income per capita is about $150 a month and, although most children know how to play sports such as cricket, not all of them have access to a more organised structure.

But such investment has not yet started and international agencies will only come forward if proper infrastructure plans are put in place, experts say.

"Even small steps forward, like mini-training centres in all the districts with basic facilities, will be a good beginning," is the view of Mr Bolling.

Sports is no less a priority

Supporters of Sri Sri Lanka"s jailed and defeated opposition presidential candidate Sarath Fonseka shout slogans during a protest in Colombo
Sri Lanka needs political stability in order to promote sports

According to Neela Marikkar, the ceasefire in hostilities could lead to even more support for the sports industry from private enterprise.

"The business and industrial houses were always supporting the sporting activities in Sri Lanka," she says.

"They were supported even during the war time and there is no doubt they will get even more support during peace time."

To date there have been some private investments in sports such as cricket, rugby or football, but those can not be compared with the money ploughed into either major football clubs in Europe or premier league cricket in India.

In a nation caught in intense civil war for nearly three decades, there is a growing debate about the role of private investment.

Some argue that areas like housing, roads, rehabilitation and employment generation take priority for the government over sports.

Dr Sarvananthan agrees that "the reconstruction priorities like houses, hospitals, bridges, and roads, will be met through funding from the foreign donors and government itself, whereas sports development can be met through support from business houses and industry".

A nation has to be healthy to achieve anything and sport is the best path to get there
Maxwell de Silva, SLOA

But it is still not clear what has to be done first. According to Ms Marikkar, the industry will come forward and pump in money if mass participation of the people can be ensured.

"Sri Lanka needs public and private sectors to encourage a sport culture in the country," she says.

And there is an underlying will to try and achieve this aim.

"A nation has to be healthy to achieve anything and sport is the best path to get there," says Maxwell de Silva of the SLOA.

Political stability key factor

With parliamentary elections scheduled in April, political stability will be cemented for the next six years, says Dr Sarvananthan.

"In this environment of security and political stability, Sri Lanka would become an ideal place to host international sports events."

Next year, Sri Lanka will co-host the World Cup Cricket series with India and Bangladesh.

Many people point out that even when the civil war was in full swing, the current president of the country built a modern sports complex at Homagama in the outskirts of the capital Colombo and another one in Hambanthota is in progress.

If that is an indication, then other pressing priorities may not necessarily hinder investment in the sports industry.

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