Barely an hour after a Sri Lankan Airlines A-340 airbus dropped its wheels on the Robert L Bradshaw International Airport in the Carribean island of St Kitts, an entourage of 160 checked into their rooms at the four-star Marriot Resort and Royal Beach Casino.
The journey from Colombo, with a stop-over in London for re-fuelling took the air of a family picnic. All 160 had to apply and obtain transit visas for Britain. Spirits were high and there were sing song sessions en route. At the hotel that boasts of luxury which is not available at home for some, they settled in to start a five day battle — from November 7 to 11 — with Australia over where the 2018 Commonwealth Games should be staged. There were in-room CD players, television, cable/satellite channels, premium television channels, climate control, clock radio, internet, tea and coffee maker among others.
The numbers game showed how serious the Sri Lankan side was to win the bid. The size of the delegation or costs did not matter. Thus, it turned out that among the 400 who had turned up from 70 sports federations from Commonwealth countries, 160 were from Sri Lanka. Only a mere 20 had arrived from Australia, a country, which is over 117 times larger than Sri Lanka, but has about the same population.
Actress turned politician Anarkali Akarsha dances with Hans Lawaetz, a US Virgin Islander at Sri Lanka’s grand show in St Kitts
For months before the delegation left; billboards had come up in several parts of the City of Colombo about Sri Lanka’s bid. Livery on the Sri Lankan airlines fleet carried the message raising hopes that a gala sports event was to be held in Sri Lanka. There were several parties in Colombo where those who mattered were wined and dined.
Among the Sri Lankan entourage was Sports Minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage, Central Bank Governor Ajith Nivard Cabraal, Parliamentarian Namal Rajapaksa, Anarkali Akarsha, Palitha Fernando (Military Liaison Officer of the Ministry of Defence), Dr. Ranee Jayamaha, Advisor to the President, National Olympics Committee President Hemasiri Fernando, Vice President Prema Pinnawala, Secretary General Maxwell de Silva, Cricketers Aravinda de Silva, Mutthuiah Muralitharan, athlete Damayanthi Darsha, Miss Sri Lanka Stephanie Siriwardena, Nimal Perera and Anura Fernando.
Some of the senior members of the delegation made a courtesy call on Prime Minister, Dr Denzil L. Douglas. Cabraal called on the Governor of the East Carribean Central Bank Sir K. Dwight Venner at the latter’s headquarters. The VIPs in the Caribbean were showered with expensive gifts. That was whilst campaigning went on at various levels for a decision that was to be made by secret ballot on November 11 and announced at 6 p.m. local time there. Ahead of the voting, there was a draw where each country received a number for which electronic voting would take place.
The piece de resistance of the Sri Lankan side was a gala cultural show and a dinner. A team of expert chefs from the Cinnamon Grand Hotel who went in the special flight with local spices put on a culinary spread. No doubt, they won praise from those who partook in the meals. A special feature was a much patronised palm thatched hut which bore the name ‘Teberuma’ or Tavern. To hell with the government’s ‘Mathata Thitha’ (Stop to Intoxicants) policy at home; there was an election to be won. There was an unending flow of local arrack and toddy at this bar.
Traditional Sri Lankan ‘sesatha’s were placed in the canopies where the delegates were seated watching performances by Kulasiri Budawatte’s dance troupe. They had also boarded the special flight with their costumes, drums and other equipment. There was also dancing to western music with another Carribean group titled ‘Doctor’ performing. Anarkali Aakarsha, the tele-drama actress turned UPFA Provincial Councillor danced with Hans Lawaetz, a US Virgin Islander.
The four expert chefs from Cinnamon Grand, all specializing in Sri Lankan cuisine were able to deliver a series of dishes to about 400 delegates. Little huts with roofs as palm leaves, clay pots filled with Sri Lankan mutton curry, fish curry, Seeni Sambol, Pittu, String Hoppers, Wadey and pol sambol. They were thoughtful enough to carry with them coconut shell ladles for serving instead of using large silver spoons. Fried Sri Lankan favourites such as sprats and hurulla, curd and treacle, Halape, Talaguli and Toddy were some Sri Lankan favourites at the buffet. So were Kottu of all varieties and hoppers.
Anarkali later held the microphone to give a running commentary. She read out the variety of Sri Lankan cuisine set for the delegates. The ‘Team Hambantota’ headed by MP Namal Rajapaksa, Sports Minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage and Central Bank Governor Ajith Nivard Cabraal walked from one dinner table to another talking to participants, mostly those who were going to cast their votes in two days.
In a brief speech at the dinner, cricketer Aravinda de Silva said hosting the games in Sri Lanka would be a big inspiration to future sports stars.
He recalled his cricketing days and pointed out how he drew inspiration from Sir Vivian Richards, the legendary West Indian batsman from Antigua. That was not all. Around 75 out of the 160 Sri Lankan delegates could not stop savouring the food prepared by the expert Sri Lankan chefs. After the gala dinner there was no rest to the exhausted chefs as they were preparing lunch for about 75 Sri Lankan VIPs for the few days they stayed there. Others from the Sri Lanka entourage also joined in every now and then.
When D-day — Friday November 11 arrived — there was frantic activity both by the Sri Lankan and the Australian sides. Parliamentarian Rajapaksa cited Malaysia as a classic example. It had the identical socio economic indicators like Sri Lanka before hosting the 1998 Commonwealth Games. He said Sri Lanka too could make a giant leap if Hambantota was allowed to host the games in 2018.
Mark Peters, Chief Executive Officer of the Gold Coast Bid Team, said the last time the Commonwealth Games was hosted in Australia was in 2006. He declared “The key thing for us is the World Games. It is one of the biggest multi-sport games there are, so you need to put it in safe hands. You need to put her with countries that have proven they can actually run major events. Hambantota put a very good bid together; it was very emotional bid about them not doing it before.
And it was very visual bit with their planning of a city. It was very difficult for delegates because it was a virtual bid verses a bid where 80 per cent of the facilities are there….”. That was the knife the Aussies drove in; that Brisbane and the Gold Coast were already a reality, there to see, while Hambantota was a virtual reality, not there to see.
So, when the official results were announced, Sri Lanka had won 27 votes as against Australia’s 43. Whether it is war, political battles or sports, victory has many fathers and defeat is an orphan. No one knew where Sri Lanka had gone wrong after spending not Rs 100 million as reported last week but well over Rs 500 million for the campaign according to sources close to the organisers. Different delegates gave different reasons for what was clearly a vulgar display of opulence at the public’s expense that could only be likened to wealthy Arab sheiks entertaining special guests.
Central Bank Governor Cabraal told a news conference in Colombo last Tuesday that he did not agree that the bid for the Commonwealth Games 2018 was a waste of money. He claimed that one million US dollars was spent by the government of the total expenditure of eight million US dollars. Though the figure is controversial, even his admission that Sri Lanka’s extravaganza had cost a million dollars is bad enough.
“Though we lost the opportunity to host the Commonwealth Games in 2018, we had other benefits by offering a bid to host the event. We gained recognition among other countries,” he said. Even if that arguable one million dollars had been spent, the question that begs answer is whether Sri Lanka was not known to the world before that money was spent to gain “recognition.” What recognition at a cost of even one million US dollars was achieved, Governor Cabral did not explain.
“There were no flaws in our plan, for if we had such flaws, we could have overcome them. It is natural that in a vote there is a winner and a loser. We lost because Australia received more votes than us,” Cabraal said with simple logic. The profound statement is as good as saying, like the Pink Panther, “whoever threw a stone is only a stone’s throw away”. It does not take a wizard to say it except that it is coming from the Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka after he claimed that only a million dollars has been spent.
He said the main reasons to bid for the event for 2018 instead of waiting for the 2022 opportunity was that it would bring in funds as investment and improve the economy. Sports Minister Aluthgamage said that of the Rs. 100 million provided for the Commonwealth Games campaign, Rs 40 million was used for the beach sports festival in Hambantota recently. He said Sri Lanka had the opportunity of holding the 2016 Asian Games.
Either wittingly or unwittingly, Cabraal also thanked the United National Party (UNP) for its support to the campaign efforts. It was only after his revelations that the cat was out of the bag. Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe has assured in writing to the Commonwealth Games authorities that in the event of a change of regime, and his party is in power, he would continue with the project to host the games. Needless to say this was to come as an acute embarrassment to other UNP stalwarts who publicly criticised the UPFA government for the colossal waste of funds over the Commonwealth Games bid.
This, they pointed out, was at a time when the government’s priority attention was required in a number of areas. “Today, there will be a ‘thank you’ party at a five-star Colombo hotel, for all those who took part in the failed efforts in St Kitts.” During the return charter flight to Colombo, did the bar go dry? Some in the entourage say it was the case since sorrows had to be drowned. It was a “win or loose – we booze” policy. Even if the government’s expensive global tamasha did not pay dividends, it has little to worry.
Not when the main opposition had pledged its support to the principle of hosting the games-not necessary the extravaganza . Who else is there to care for the colossal sums that have been wasted? No questions will be asked and no answers will be given. All would then seem hunky dory with the main opposition also on board.