In February 2013, I interviewed Imalka de Silva, the first Lankan woman to visit Antarctica. She accomplished this feat in March 2010 when she joined an international team who spent two weeks on an expedition to the frozen continent.
I have just interviewed an experienced Lankan mountaineering duo, Jayanthi Kuru-Utumpala and Johann Peries, who plan to be the first Sri Lankans to reach the summit of Mt. Everest in the forthcoming Spring mountaineering season.
They have both individually and as a team successfully completed some of the world’s most challenging treks in Asia, Africa and Latin America – not to mention all key peaks in Sri Lanka.
Mount Everest is located in the Mahalangur mountain range in Nepal and Tibet, and its peak is 8,848 metres (29,029 ft) above sea level. It has so far been reached by over 4,000 people from many countries.
Professionally, Jayanthi is a women’s rights and gender expert while Johann is a hair and make-up designer and performing artist. They are dedicating this climb to their families, to the causes they advocate (conservation, gender equality and healthy living), and to every child, woman and man of Sri Lanka.
They plan to be part of a larger team led by International Mountain Guides (IMG), a globally renowned mountaineering company which has led several successful Mt. Everest expeditions over the past 30 years.
Read my full interview in The Sunday Observer (Sri Lanka), 28 Feb 2016:
This is the (Sinhala) text of my Sunday column in Ravaya newspaper on 5 August 2012. This week, I trace the moving images coverage of the Olympics, from the early days of cinema to the modern instantaneous live coverage that makes the whole world watch the Games as they unfold.
Quizzing is a well established hobby as well as a mind sport around the world. Participants engage in a friendly tussle using quick wits and sharp memories.
Also known as general knowledge competitions, quizzing has been a popular programme type on Lankan radio and TV for several decades. Recently, reality quiz shows on TV have renewed interest in this activity.
Now, a group of quiz enthusiasts have launched named Serendib Quiz, a live quizzing event to nurture a serious quizzing culture in Sri Lanka.
The first Serendib Quiz will be held on Sunday, 29 July 2012 at 2.00 pm at Galadari Hotel, Colombo 1.
The quiz, in English, will involve 50 questions from all areas of knowledge, both local and global. It will be compiled and conducted by Nalaka Gunawardene, one of the most versatile quizzing professionals in Sri Lanka who has over 30 years of experience as a quiz kid turned quizmaster.
Participation in this team event is open to all educational institutions (schools, universities, training institutes), public and private establishments, banks and other financial institutions, as well as groups of private individuals.
Four years ago, I wrote in a book review: “Here we have, straight from the original source, the story of how cricket became the de facto national past-time, if not our national addiction or religion! Like it or hate it, cricket is an integral part of our popular culture. Radio (and later TV) cricket commentaries take much of the credit (or blame, in some people’s view) for building up this uncommon fervour that occasionally unites our otherwise utterly and bitterly divided nation.”
In this week’s Ravaya column (in Sinhala), I dip into broadcasting history of Ceylon/Sri Lanka to find out more about the origins of live cricket commentaries in Sinhala. A principal source is the book I reviewed in 2008 soon after it came out: Palitha Perera Samaga Sajeeva Lesin (Live with Palitha Perera).
Palitha Perera, who did the first ball-by-ball cricket commentary in Sinhala in March 1963, is still engaged in this enthralling practice nearly half a century later. He is now one of the three seniormost cricket commentators in the world with the longest track record.
Two boys playing cricket on a beach, with a makeshift bat and wicket. What could be more ordinary than this in cricket-crazy Sri Lanka, where every street, backyard or bare land can host an impromptu game?
But the time and place of this photo made it anything but ordinary. This was somewhere along Sri Lanka’s east coast, one day in mid January 2005. Just a couple of weeks after the Indian Ocean tsunami had delivered a deadly blow to this part of the island on 26 December 2004.
My colleagues were looking for a survivor family whose story we could document for the next one year as part of the Children of Tsunami media project that we had just conceived. On their travels, they came across these two boys whose family was hit hard by the tsunami: they lost a sibling and their house was destroyed.
They were living in a temporary shelter, still recovering from the biggest shock of their short lives. But evidently not too numbed to play a small game of cricket. Perhaps it was part of their own way of coping and healing.
More than six years and many thousand images later, I still remember this photo for the quiet defiance and resilience it captured. Maybe that moment in time for two young boys on a devastated beach is symbolic of the 20 million plus men, women and children living in post-war Sri Lanka today.
We are playing cricket, or cheering cricket passionately and wildly even as we try to put a quarter century of war, destruction and inhumanity behind us. And at least on the cricket front, we’re doing darn well: the Sri Lanka national team beat New Zealand on March 29 to qualify for the ICC Cricket World Cup finals on April 3 in Mumbai.
We’ve been here once before – in March 1996 – and won the World Cup against many odds. Can we repeat or improve that performance? We’ll soon know.
Of course, rebuilding the war-ravaged areas and healing the deep-running wounds of war is going to be much harder than playing the ball game.
A few days ago, Captain of Lankan cricket team Kumar Sangakkara described post-war northern Sri Lanka as a scene of devastation after paying his first visit to the region. People of the north have been deprived for 30 years of everything that is taken for granted in Colombo, he told the media.
He toured the north with team mate and wiz bowler Muttiah Muralitharan, who is patron of the Foundation of Goodness. The charity, itself a response to the 2004 tsunami, “aims to narrow the gap between urban and rural life in Sri Lanka by tackling poverty through productive activities”.
Earlier this month, Lankan novelist Shehan Karunatilaka wrote a highly moving essay in the London Observer titled ‘How cricket saved Sri Lanka’. The blurb read: “As co-host of the current World Cup, Sri Lankans are relishing their moment on the sport’s biggest stage. And no wonder. For them, cricket is much more than a game. After years of civil war, the tsunami and floods, it’s still the only thing holding their chaotic country together.”
In that essay, which is well worth a read, he noted: “Many of us believe in the myth of sport; some more than others. Clint Eastwood and Hollywood have turned the 1995 Rugby World Cup into a sport-conquers-apartheid fantasy in Invictus. CLR James believed cricket to be the catalyst for West Indian nationalism. A drunk in a Colombo cricket bar once told me that Rocky IV had hastened the fall of the Soviet Empire.”
He added: “Let’s abandon the myths for now. Sport cannot change a world. But it can excite it. It can galvanise a nation into believing in itself. It can also set a nation up for heartbreak.”
Cricket has indeed excited the 20 million Lankans from all walks of life, and across the various social, economic and cultural divides. It has rubbed off on even a cricket-skeptic like myself.
We will soon know whether the Cricket World Cup will be ours again. Whatever happens at the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai on April 2, we have a long way to go on the road to recovery and reconciliation.
“If you’re an alien planning to invade the Earth, choose July 11. Chances are that our planet will offer little or no resistance.
“Today, most members of the Earth’s dominant species – the nearly 7 billion humans – will be preoccupied with 22 able-bodied men chasing a little hollow sphere. It’s only a game, really, but what a game: the whole world holds its breath as the ‘titans of kick’ clash in the FIFA World Cup Final.
“Played across 10 venues in South Africa, this was much more than a sporting tournament. It’s the ultimate celebration of the world’s most popular sport, held once every four years. More popular than the Olympics, it demonstrates the sheer power of sports and media to bring together – momentarily, at least – the usually fragmented and squabbling humanity.”
This is the opening of my latest op ed essay, which appears in several print and online outlets this weekend. It’s timed for the finals of the FIFA World Cup 2010 – the most widely followed sporting event in the world, which will be played in Soccer City, Johannesburg, South Africa today, 11 July 2010. The Netherlands will meet Spain in this culmination of international football that has been distracting a good part of humanity for a month.
This sporting event is tipped to be the most-watched television event in history. Hundreds of broadcasters are transmitting the World Cup to a cumulative TV audience that FIFA estimates to reach more than 26 billion people. Some TV channels offer high definition (HD) or 3-D quality images to enhance the mass viewing experience.
The essay was written a few days ago, after the FIFA World Cup 2010 had reached the semi-finals stage. To be honest, I’m not an ardent football fan. But as an observer of popular culture, I’ve gladly allowed myself to be caught up in the current football frenzy. I just love to watch people who watch the game…
It’s a light piece written to suit the current global mood, but I acknowledge that the World Cup is really more than just a ball game. The basic thrust of my essay is to comment on the powerful mix of fooball and live coverage: “For the past month, the winning formula for unifying the Global Family seemed to be: international football + live broadcasts + live coverage via the web and mobile phones.”
The essay builds on themes that I’ve already explored on this blog – for example, how President Nelson Mandela used the 1995 World Cup Rugby championship to unite his racially divided nation, as told in the movie Invictus.
Here’s my parting thought, on which I invite reader comment: “On second thoughts, those invading aliens don’t need to worry too much about the Earth’s political leaders or their armies. Without firing a single shot, the globalised media have quietly taken over our Global Village — and now it’s too late to resist! We can argue on its merits and demerits, but the facts are indisputable.”
If one acronym has dominated the world’s media and public minds in the past month, it must be FIFA.
It stands for the International Federation of Association Football, and is derived from the original French name, Fédération Internationale de Football Association. It’s the global governing body of association football, founded in 1904 and with its headquarters in Zürich, Switzerland.
FIFA is responsible for the organisation and governance of football’s major international tournaments — most notably the FIFA World Cup, held once every four years since 1930. The current World Cup, being held in South Africa from 11 June to 11 July 2010, is the 19th edition. The next will be hosted by Brazil in 2014.
As a global body with substantial financial resources, FIFA has had its own share of controversies and been criticised for its lack of transparency and internal democracy. It’s true that FIFA controls the media rights to key international games with an iron fist (which inspired the above cartoon). They are not alone: the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has its own detractors and allegations on similar considerations.
But there is little argument on how far and wide the influence of these global sports bodies extend. In an op ed essay being published this weekend, I contend: “FIFA, with its 208 member associations, is probably more influential — and certainly better known — than the United Nations, with its 192 member states. The difference is in media outreach. It signifies the rise of soft power in our always-connected information society.”
Indeed, the UN itself is well aware of this. In one of the most memorable op ed essays he’s written, the former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan acknowledged in 2006 (during the previous FIFA World Cup): “The World Cup makes us at the UN green with envy. As the pinnacle of the only truly global game, played in every country by every race and religion, it is one of the few phenomena as universal as the UN. But there are better reasons for our envy.”
He continued: “This is an event in which everybody knows where their team stands, and what it did to get there. They know who scored and how and in what minute of the game; they know who saved the penalty. I wish we had more of that sort of competition in the family of nations. Countries vying for the best standing in the table of respect for human rights, and trying to outdo one another in child survival rates or enrolment in secondary education. States parading their performance for all the world to see. Governments being held accountable.”
Of course, FIFA’s domination over the global public mind will wane after the FIFA World Cup 2010 ends. But how many other global bodies can claim to hold billions of people so engaged for a month? And in this era of 24/7 information society, that’s formidable soft power indeed.
What can we call the wielder of such soft power? How about Super-soft-power?
And can this kind of power also intoxicate and even corrupt its wielders? We’ve seen how power manipulations work in other centres of soft power, such as Hollywood and Bollywood. The challenge for FIFA — and all others who are connected to it through the love of football and/or media’s outreach — is to watch out that this concentration of soft power doesn’t corrupt.
The very same media that helps FIFA attain the status of a soft-super-power needs to keep an eye on how this power is being used. Perhaps that’s the ultimate game in the media-saturated 21st Century: Emperors of Eyeballs vs. Titans of Kick.
If a run-away genie granted me a wish to clone any single living human being, I’ll have no hesitation with my choice: Nelson Mandela — undoubtedly the greatest living statesman on the planet.
One might argue that Mandelas are not born; they are made. A combination of personality and historical circumstances create the rare phenomena like him.
In July 2008, when Mandela turned 90, I quoted the American film-maker, social activist and blogger Danny Schechter — who filmed Mandela’s struggle to end apartheid and restore democracy in South Africa — as saying: “He (Mandela) is one of those leaders who not only helped free his own country and people but became an icon and symbol for freedom in the world. At a time when darkness seems to be descending again, with the economy on the edge amidst protracted wars and pervasive abuses of powers, he is the one person that people the world over look to as a symbol of that saying that ‘another world is possible.’ He is not perfect – who is? He has taken great risks, and made his share of mistakes, but the love and adoration he inspires speaks to how special he is – even as he sees himself as part of a collective, a movement…“
The Mandela story has been told many times by many film-makers, writers and journalists. Few other leaders have engaged the popular culture and media’s attention — while both in and out of office — as Mandela has, and with good reason.
The latest film inspired by Mandela is Invictus directed by Clint Eastwood, starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon. Both actors have just been nominated for Oscar awards – for best actor and best supporting actor respectively. But the film’s exclusion from the 10 nominees for best picture has surprised and disappointed some.
Invictus reconstructs the events in the life of Nelson Mandela at a crucial time for himself and country: after the fall of apartheid in South Africa, during his term as the rainbow nation’s first black president. The film revolves around how he campaigned to host the 1995 Rugby World Cup event as an opportunity to unite his rainbow nation. (South Africa’s team eventually won the championship.)
Here’s the plot summary from IMDB:
The film tells the inspiring true story of how Nelson Mandela joined forces with the captain of South Africa’s rugby team to help unite their country. Newly elected President Mandela knows his nation remains racially and economically divided in the wake of apartheid. Believing he can bring his people together through the universal language of sport, Mandela rallies South Africa’s rugby team as they make their historic run to the 1995 Rugby World Cup Championship match.
I can’t wait to see Invictus, for it has one of my favourite actors playing one of my greatest heroes. Morgan Freeman is such a versatile and accomplished actor. Having played the US President and God in past movies, this is clearly cut out for him.
As Clint Eastwood explains: “As an actor, Morgan has the same presence when he walks in the room that Mandela has as a politician. Morgan has a certain bearing and charisma. He was built to play this role.”
The Guardian (UK) preview noted: “So convinced by Freeman’s performance was Mandela’s personal assistant that when she stepped on set, she wondered how her boss had made it to the shoot without her. Freeman plays Mandela with all the expected wisdom and fortitude, but it’s the twinkle of mischief in his eye that makes you feel you’re not just watching the man, rather than a virtuoso impression.”
The Guardian calls Invictus “a startlingly powerful film: a clear-eyed look a recent history, an awe-inspiring tale of prejudice overcome, a study of power – and a rousing sports movie.”
Note: In the movie, Mandela gives the “Invictus” poem to his national rugby team’s captain Francois Pienaar before the start of the 1995 Rugby World Cup. In reality, Mandela provided Pienaar with an extract from Theodore Roosevelt’s “The Man in the Arena” speech from 1910.
If you and I think we have problems, we should consider the case of English poet William Ernest Henley (1849–1903).
Wikipedia says Henley became a victim of tuberculosis of the bone at age 12. A few years later, the disease progressed to his foot, and physicians announced that the only way to save his life was to amputate directly below the knee. But he persevered. In 1867, he passed the Oxford local examination as a senior student, and led an active and productive life till he died aged 53. (According to Robert Louis Stevenson’s letters, the idea for the character of Long John Silver was inspired by his real-life friend Henley.)
In 1875, when Henley was 26 years old, he wrote a poem from a hospital bed. It originally bore no title, and wasn’t published until 1888. It was Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch who named it “Invictus” (Latin for “unconquered”) when he included the poem in The Oxford Book Of English Verse (1900).
So here is Henley’s words of resolve and courage, speaking to us across the gulf of time:
Invictus is also the title of a remarkable 2009 film directed by Clint Eastwood, starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon. The film is a look at the life of Nelson Mandela after the fall of apartheid in South Africa, during his term as president, when he campaigned to host the 1995 Rugby World Cup event as an opportunity to unite his countrymen. The title comes from the fact that Mandela had the poem written on a scrap of paper on his prison cell while he was incarcerated.
And here’s an image that echoes the same fighting spirit…
When Lopez Lomong led the US team into the opening ceremony of Beijing 2008 Olympics as its flag-bearer, he was completing a journey that started eight years earlier, on another continent. And under very different circumstances.
In September 2000, as a Sudanese refugee, he walked eight kilometers from a refugee camp in Kenya, and paid five Kenyan shillings, to watch the Sydney Olympics on a black and white television. There, he saw Michael Johnson win the gold medal in the 400 meters, and that gave him a dream.
Until then, he’d not even heard of the Olympics. From then onwards, he wanted to be an Olympic runner. In Beijing, he is competing as a 1,500-meter track runner. Just as important, he is a leading member of Team Darfur, an international coalition of athletes committed to raising awareness about and bringing an end to the genocide in Darfur, Sudan.
Through a combination of persistence, determination and luck, Lopez came to the United States through the help of Christian charities. There, he could pursue his dream – he became a naturalised citizen only about a year before the Beijing Olympics.
“I come here to inspire kids who are out there watching this Olympics, as I did watching the Sydney Olympics,” Lopez told the media in Beijing. “All the countries and all the nations are out there watching. I’m very honored to be here and I am very honored to lead the American team into the opening ceremony.”
And for the first time, that viewing was not confined to television alone: a small but growing number followed the event online, heralding the arrival of another distribution medium for this global event.
Olympic broadcasts go back to nearly half a century, when the 1960 Rome games became the first to be covered live on television. Olympic games have enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship with television, with the medium popularizing the event to the point that the global audience is now counted in billions of viewers.
The International Olympics Committee (IOC) tries hard to strike a balance between revenue optimisation and safeguarding the Olympics ideals. This is why, for example, the IOC has often declined higher fee offers for broadcast on a pay-per-view basis or because a broadcaster could reach only a limited part of the population, as this is against Olympic Broadcast Policy.
As the IOC explains on its website: “This fundamental IOC Policy, set forth in the Olympic Charter, ensures the maximum presentation of the Olympic Games by broadcasters around the world to everyone who has access to television. Rights are only sold to broadcasters who can guarantee the broadest coverage throughout their respective countries.”
This is extremely important. It’s impossible to put a dollor or Euro figure to the inspirational value of television (and now online) coverage of the Olympics. For the couple of weeks that the summer Olympics are held, moving images from the host city captivate the world’s eyeballs in a way that few other events can.
Among the Beijing 2008’s billions of viewers might well be the next Lopez Lomong. We have no way of knowing that yet…but if not for the worldwide broadcasts and webcasts, the global event in Beijing will not be shared by most members of the Global Family.