All that glittered was bronze in Sri Lanka on Tuesday as the war-torn island gave a tumultuous welcome to its first Olympic medallist in half a century.
Susanthika Jayasinghe was greeted by government ministers as she returned home from Sydney after winning the bronze medal in the women’s 200 metres, the first medal for a Sri Lankan since Duncan White won silver in the 400m hurdles in 1948.
A military band played ‘Congratulations’ and state television showed her arrival live on a pre-dawn telecast. Jubilant crowds then swamped Jayasinghe as she made her way through the capital.
‘God, it’s good to be a Sri Lankan today,’ said a factory executive, one of tens of thousands who forgot a 17-year ethnic war to throng the route from the airport to the city.
‘We love Susanthika,’ yelled a taxi driver as he joined the motorcade.
The drive from the airport, normally 45 minutes, took three hours as Jayasinghe’s open truck was stopped repeatedly by the huge crowds and fire crackers exploded on the road making it too dangerous to proceed.
‘This tribute means much more to me than the bronze medal,’ Jayasinghe told journalists who almost came to blows as they jostled for space in the airport’s VIP lounge.
Jayasinghe won a silver medal in the 200 metres at the 1997 world championships in Rome and became an instant celebrity in Sri Lanka.
But she fell from grace after a dispute with the country’s sports minister and soon after tested positive for an anabolic steroid before being cleared by Sri Lankan athletics officials.
Dogged by injury problems, Jayasinghe had more clashes with sports authorities which earned her the wrath of the state media and forced her to leave the country to train in the US.
‘I succeeded entirely on my own and I appeal to those who stood in my way to help me do even better next time,’ said Jayasinghe, announcing she would also aim for the 400m at the next Games.