Sri Lankan war hero Dinesh Priyantha Herath wins historic gold medal at Tokyo Paralympics
By A Special Correspondent
COLOMBO – A former Sri Lankan soldier, Dinesh Priyantha Herath, basked in glory after creating history at the XVI Tokyo Summer Paralympics on Monday (30) when he became the island nation’s first-ever gold medallist in the history of the Games when he won the Javelin F46 event with a world record throw of 67.79 metres in his third attempt.
The 35-year-old father of three, whose left arm was disabled after suffering gunshot wounds while defending his line against enemy fire during the final phase of the war against the Tamil Tigers, was hailed as a super war hero after his phenomenal feat.
Sri Lanka has never won a gold medal in the history of the Olympic Games. The only two medals in the Olympics came 52 years apart when Susanthika Jayasinghe was awarded the silver in the 200 metres at the 2000 Sydney Games after Duncan White won the country’s first-ever medal when he finished second in the 400m hurdles at the 1948 Games in London.
Since Sri Lanka made its debut at the Paralympic Games in 1996 Atlanta, USA, the island nation has won two bronze medals. The first was by Pradeep Sanjaya in the Men’s 400 metres T46 event in London 2012 and the second by Herath himself at the last Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro.
“I hope to break the world record and win the gold medal,” said Herath, twice a silver medallist at the World Para Athletics Championships in London (2017) and Dubai (2019), before his departure to Tokyo.
Gold medallist at the 2018 Asian Para Games in Jakarta, Sri Lanka’s flag-bearer not only lived up to his billing but blew away the field with his remarkable achievement. He leapt to first place with his opening throw of 62.58m followed by world champion S.S. Gurjar of India (62.2m). Herath’s second throw fetched him a distance of 62.19m to maintain his lead but it was his record-breaking throw of 67.79m that stunned the field of nine, shattering the world record of 63.97m set by India’s Devendra during his gold medal-winning effort in the 2016 Rio Games. Devendra raised the tempo by improving on his personal best with a throw of 64.35m but had to be content with the silver medal, while Gurjar settled for the bronze with a throw of 64.01m.
Herath Mudiyanselage Dinesh Priyantha Herath’s rise to the pinnacle of Olympic glory is a fairytale come true for someone who never played sport seriously when he was at school or even after joining the Army in 2004 upon completing his education at Kagama Dhathusena Maha Vidyalaya, Anuradhapura.
Hailing from a hamlet in Kekirawa, 160 miles outside of Colombo in Sri Lanka’s dry zone in the North Central Province, the eldest son in a family of three was thrust into the role of breadwinner after the demise of his father when he was just 12.
He was part of the Sri Lanka Army’s 57th Brigade, which was engaged in the final push to eliminate the LTTE but was felled by gunfire while defending his line in Killinochchi, a key town in the East, in December 2008. His left arm was disabled by the gunshot wounds he sustained and Herath spent nearly four years in rehabilitation to recuperate from the injury. Having got married just a few months before the injury, Herath’s future looked bleak as he contemplated life with a disabled hand for the rest of his life. However, a man who put his life on the line to protect the sovereignty of the country does not give up easily, whatever the odds.
With the encouragement of his superiors in the army, Herath took part in badminton and volleyball, becoming the Best Player in the inter-regiment Para Athletics competition in 2012, in addition to winning gold medals in the throwing event. His life-changing moment came when he picked up the javelin, throwing record distances in the F46 category at national and international levels.
He won a gold medal throwing a distance of over 52 metres on his international debut in Malaysia in 2012. This event was a qualifier for the 2012 London Paralympics but he was not selected because he did not have a world ranking. He retired from the army as a Corporal on medical grounds in 2014 but pursued his newfound passion by joining the SL Army Gajaba Sports Club.
Sixth in his event at the 2014 Asian Para Games in Incheon, South Korea, and at the 2015 World Para Athletics Championship in Qatar, it nevertheless provided the spark to fuel his dream of going for the Paralympics. It became a reality when he threw a distance of 55.23m at an Olympic qualifying meet in Germany.
Sri Lanka’s record holder in the F46 javelin event came out all guns blazing in the 2016 Rio Paralympics to win a bronze medal, which also earned him a promotion to the rank of Sergeant.
Herath renewed his Sri Lanka record at the 2017 World Para Athletic Championships in London (59.93m), the 2018 Asian Para Games in Jakarta (Games record of 61.84m) and at the 2019 World Para Athletics Championship in Dubai (60.59m).
Sports Minister Namal Rajapaksa, Asian Games multiple gold medallist Damayanthi Darsha and the National Olympic Committee of Sri Lanka led the tributes for Herath’s historic feat in Tokyo.