Olympian turns cricket-mad Sri Lanka into badminton nation

Niluka Karunaratne’s scored surprise win over eighth-seeded Japanese in men’s singles badminton at London

There’s a new sports madness sweeping across Sri Lanka and engulfing Sri Lankans in the UAE as well. 

While the Lankan’s normally fanatic support for their cricket team is being severely tested by a resurgent Indian team touring the island, all Lankan eyes are on an unlikely sporting hero at London’s 2012 Olympics. 

Sri Lankan Niluka Karunaratne scored a surprise win over eight-seeded Japanese Kenichi Tago in the first round of the men’s singles badminton at London Olympics.

It is enough to turn the Lankans over to badminton and dream of the impossible continuing to happen. 

“We are really thrilled with the win. We are all wishing that he keeps the momentum and goes on to win a medal for the country,” said Abdul Raheem Sri Lanka’s Consul General in Dubai. 

“None of us expected him to do this which makes it even more sweet.

“It is a great day for Sri Lankan sports. He is the captain of the seven member Sri Lankan team in the Olympics and we wish all of them the best,” said Wasantha Jayathunga a Sri Lankan resident in Dubai.

The Sri Lankan who has been on a world tour of badminton's backblocks for 10 months pulled off the first major upset in the London Olympics by eliminating eighth-ranked Kenichi Tago of Japan 21-18, 21-16 on Monday. 

"This is the biggest win in the history of Sri Lankan badminton," Niluka Karunaratne said with obvious pride. 

“This proves that Sri Lankans are good at other sports too and not just cricket.

“At present there is too much focus on cricket. In fact, more importance should be given to other sports as well. I am confident Karunaratne will come back with a medal,” said Priyanka De Silva.

Prasanna K is also of the opinion that other sporting activities including athletics should receive more focus in comparison to Cricket. “We have less than ten people participating in the Olympics. Although we are a tiny nation, we can do much better,” he added.

Bolstered by the fact he's always the underdog whomever he plays, Karunaratne said he was relaxed before meeting Tago for the first time.

Midway through the first game he began to realise Tago was no quicker than him. Karunaratne was also starting to outlast Tago in rallies. The near-capacity crowd in Wembley Arena roared when Karunaratne took the first game. 

"I don't know why the crowd was cheering for me but it was a great feeling," he said. 

In the second game, Tago, who relies on his fitness to retrieve shots and turn defense into attack, looked increasingly flat-footed.

The points became easier for Karunaratne, who finally won on his third match point, on attack. He dropped his racket, pointed to his father and mentor Louvie in the stands and thumped his heart three times. 

"Winning this is incredible," Karunaratne said. 

Then again, he's in the best form of his life — has been since October when he began traveling to qualify for the Olympics at his third attempt.

He won his first international title on his father's birthday in Puerto Rico last November, and picked up more titles in Miami, Wales, Ugada and Iran. His ranking shot up from the 160s to a Sri Lanka-best ever 47. 

In the last 16, Karunaratne is likely to face a friend, 10th-seeded Nguyen Tien Minh of Vietnam. 

"If I play my best I can get another win," Karunaratne said. 

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