Sri Lanka distress weighs on its chess stars as Olympiad looms

Jul 09, 2022 10:09 PM IST

As the island hit by economic crisis teeters on the brink, its top players set for the event in India are staring at power cuts, zooming prices, scarcity and lawlessness.

Nineteen-year-old Ranindu Dilshan Liyange stood in a fuel queue for half a day. Isuru Alahakoon worries about making it to Kandy from Colombo in time for his visa appointment for India. Sachini Ranasinghe is rationing the final reserves of fuel in her car for a trip to the airport later this month.

Anti-Government protestors in Sri Lanka(AP) PREMIUM
Anti-Government protestors in Sri Lanka(AP)

Isuru, Sachini and Ranindu—four-time national champion, Sri Lanka’s first Woman International Master and the country’s first male player to participate in a FIDE World Cup, respectively, are among the island nation’s best chess names. They are teammates in the Sri Lankan side for the Olympiad in India this month. Chess, however, isn’t the most pressing focus at this point. Two of them are thinking of leaving their country soon.

Sri Lanka is grappling with an unprecedented economic crisis. The country has declared itself “bankrupt”, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe has stepped down and President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled his official residence as protestors stormed it. A record 60% inflation and severe shortage of essentials is sweeping the country and it’s an everyday struggle for millions to buy food, fuel and medicine. Public fury is at a crescendo.

The grim scenario has compelled Isuru and Sachini to reconsider their future in Sri Lanka. They’re looking up options to migrate overseas and start afresh. The UAE is a preferred temporary choice for both. While Isuru might follow his brother to Australia, Sachini is browsing Finland’s study programmes.

Until the end of the Olympiad, they’re hanging in.

Isuru was supposed to travel from Colombo to Kandy over the weekend for his India visa appointment on Monday. With protestors flooding the streets and taking over transport modes on Saturday, he couldn’t catch a train or bus. He’s still hoping to get there in time.

“Other than the local grocery store, I’ve stopped going out almost completely,” Sachini explains, “You can be robbed outside an ATM or stabbed at a fuel pump. Groceries that used to cost 300 Sri Lankan rupees are almost 1,300 now. Fresh rows of items are going out of stock every day at the store. I love my country a lot, but it’s a disaster. I don’t see light at the end of the tunnel. Or a future for myself here anymore.”

The Olympiad starts on July 28; the Sri Lankan team gets together for online training sessions with coach, Grandmaster Alexie Barasov, up to four times a week. The sessions are regularly ambushed by the nationwide power cuts. It’s an obstacle course they need to navigate. Laptops fed to full charge overnight, active mobile hotspots and silent prayers that technology holds up against the odds.

Sachini, who lives with her husband, has sat through whole sessions in darkness, holding up her mobile phone torch against her face. In an effort to mitigate the problem, she’s moved into her parents’ home in Colombo temporarily. Since it’s located in the vicinity of a hospital, power cut durations are shorter there.

“It’s hard,” Isuru, a Fide Master who holds a job in the Sri Lankan navy, says. “I don’t have a personal coach so I use online training resources. Because of daily power outages, it’s been a struggle.”

The 30-year-old captained his national team to a gold medal in Category D of the 2014 Tromso Olympiad. He hasn’t travelled for a tournament outside Sri Lanka in over two years now.

“With the dollar exchange rate so high, it’s tough to afford travel,” he says. “Our salaries are not enough to afford living costs in the country anymore, so paying for tournaments is out of question. We’ve many upcoming players, but they’re on their own. When I look at India, there’s so much support for players. I wish we had that too. Of course, right now there seems to be no plan for the country. So, chess is too far off from any help.”

Presently, Sri Lanka has three International Masters, and no Grandmasters. Gaining norms is only getting tougher.

For Ranindu, a University student who lives with his parents—chasing IM and GM norms is going to be about being able to afford at least 10 tournaments in the months ahead. “That might not be enough either,” the teen, who’ll be making his Olympiad debut, points out. With the value of Sri Lankan rupee nosediving, the cost of training under a foreign GM has almost tripled—from 30,000-40,000 per month to close to one lakh within a few months, he says.

Ranindu played two tournaments in India—Delhi Open and Gujarat Open—earlier this year. He came off with a second-round shock win against Indian GM D Gukesh in Delhi.

Sachini also has an India story behind her career’s biggest milestones. “It’s been tough going up against the Indian girls like Tania (Sachdev). I did poorly in the 2009 Asian Zonals in New Delhi. Luckily, in the next Zonals (2011), India was no longer part of the field. I won that year.” It earned her a WIM title and a spot in the next year’s Women’s World Championships.

Right now, Sachini is drawing up a list of things to bring back from India. There’s no room for clothes and knick-knacks. “Friends and family have asked me to bring groceries and essentials,” she says. “I want to buy a cycle too. With no fuel here, they’re now expensive as hell.”

As their nation descends into anarchy, Sachini and her teammates hope they can fly out and find refuge in chess. A brief escape hatch from queues, power outages, and wondering how worse their day could get.

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