‘Ethir: Legendary high jumper’ – a response




by Thiagaraja Arasanayagam


I read with great interest the article, ‘Ethir: Legendary high jumper,’ in The Island newspaper of 22 April, 2024, not only for the information but the personal reaction I experienced when memories of the past came flowing back, memories of a young student at St Joseph’s College being trained at the jumping pit, and I, also a student, watching fascinated by the slim, tall figure sailing over the bar, and my English teacher, famous at this time as an Athletics coach putting this young fellow through his paces. I asked my teacher, “Sir, who is this fellow …?”

My teacher replied, ” Oh, this chap is from Jaffna. He has come here to be trained by me.”

Mr Anthony Abeysinghe taught me English in the Junior form and may have kindled my love for English literature and my aspiration to be a tenor in the future with his sudden outburst of an aria in the midst of an English class.

Mr Abeysinghe was the most wanted man especially as a coach. I remember many a contemporary of mine at St. Joseph’s College being referred to as “imported” athletes. Some of those who were trained by Mr Abeysinghe won Gold at the Public schools meet in Colombo. They included Ephron Fernandi ( sprinter), the Amarasekera Brothers from St Anne’s Kurunegala, (sprinters) and Felix Samarawickreme, who hailed from Kandy and established a new record of 61.8 seconds in the 440 yards.

So, it was this article which took me back in time. Ethir was in the Science block cut away from us Arts students. The day I encountered my English teacher training this hearty lad, I was happy to see yet another student deep in sports and studies.

This article was also very close to my heart because I was also born in 1934 in a remote village of Navaly and having spent the war years in that village. We never wore shoes in Navaly and all our athletes were unaware of what at St Joseph’s referred to as “spikes”. I remember telling my English teacher “Sir, we never wore shoes in Jaffna,” when he stood by the pit and muttered, “Time we get this fellow a pair.”

I studied in a school in the adjacent village of Manipay, when I was seven years old. My brothers and I had a tall, lanky fellow as a friend who lived next to our house. He was a high jumper who won the Jaffna schools circuit meet title. He went to Colombo for the Public schools meet where he was uncomfortable as he wore no spikes, while all the other competitors were well equipped. All the other students at the Public schools meet wore pants and colourful blazers, carrying the school flag held aloft proudly.

It was time for the parade of the Athletic teams of all the schools. The announcer kept calling the teams to assemble for the parade and so they were all there except this one man from my village. “Manipay Hindu College, calling team, Manipay Hindu, for the third time. Assemble for the parade.” The young fellow was embarrassed, overwhelmed by the colour and splendour that he pulled out the flag from the pole and thrust it in his pocket as he heard the pleading, “Manipay Hindu where are you?”

The young fellow who wouldn’t join the parade was the young six-footer, Arunakulasingham, the champion high jumper, who despite all the advantages the other athletes had, won the high jump title barefooted and sailing over the bar to the shock of all those well-equipped athletes.

My memory goes back to other incidents which go to show that nothing is beyond achievement. This article speaks of mud houses and Palmyra leaf roofs, they were the most suitable for extreme warm days in Navaly.

The last incident that comes to my mind is when I was a student at St Joseph’s College my mother accosted me as I returned from school saying, ” Don’t go to your room I have given it to someone.”

“Who is this fellow?” I asked my mother.

My mother said that he was a young athlete from Jaffna who had come to participate in the Public schools meet with his school team. He turned out to be the son of Ramasamy, who worked for our family in Navaly.

This article on Ethir evoked very pleasant and nostalgic memories of him as well as my teacher who was his trainer Anthony Abeysinghe. I was so glad to observe him practising high jump. He was a quiet and unassuming boy.

I am thankful to the writers of this article for remembering this outstanding and quiet Josephian who came all the way to Colombo from Jaffna near my village of Navaly to represent the country and to bring fame and recognition to this island.