How an international hero became a taxi driver in UAE Suresh Pattali

Coming on a visit visa in 2012, the former athlete found a bellboy's job with a hotel apartment in Bur Dubai.

How an international hero became a taxi driver in UAE

When I flagged down a cab in the mad morning rush to keep a medical appointment, little did I know it would be a journey into the plebeian life of a forgotten national hero.

Buckling up in the front seat of the Emirates Taxi cab, my prowess to identify different races seems to have worked.

“Which place in Sri Lanka are you from?”

The driver, a middle-aged Sinhalese, was taken aback by the quick-shot query. “Kandy, sir. Why?”

“Where exactly in Kandy?”

“Nawalapitiya, sir. And you are from?”

“From Kerala, India.”

“So, you know PT Usha and Shiny Wilson?”

“Of course, they were newsmakers of yesteryear, but I never got a chance to meet them. Why?”

“I knew them in their prime, sir. I also knew Bahadur Prasad Singh, former Indian middle distance runner. He was a good friend.”

“Wow! But how? Did you chauffeur them around?”

“Sir, I too was an international athlete. Sri Lanka’s middle distance runner, with international gold and silver medals under my belt.”

The exchange happened in less than a minute. Then there was silence. Except for our long sighs rising over the vroom of the engine. My destination and hospital appointment suddenly took a back seat. I’m sitting next to a person who once upon a time, was the pride of a nation. The journalist within me wanted to ask, ‘What on earth are you doing here?’ If life is a tragicomic musical, here is a living protagonist who would fit the bill of the tragic hero. Something in my gut told me I had no reason to disbelieve him. Innocence was writ large on his face. The story of Lalith Prasanna Galappaththi, odd man in the family of two sets of twins, reeks of the neglect and indifference that retired heroes typically face in the cruel world of sports in the subcontinent. He is a decorated athlete who brought laurels to the island nation and is still running the marathon of his life. One that brought him no rewards. No miles to conquer, no medals to win, no records to break, Lalith – married with two children aged 16 and 14 – still has the passion burning inside him.

For the next couple of hours, I was like a kid listening to a bedtime story. Eyes wide open.

Lalith had just finished his A Levels from Anuruddha College, when the desire to shape up kicked in. One fine morning in 1991, dressed in a Sri Lankan jersey gifted by athlete Ajith Dharmasena, he set out on a jogging routine. An acquaintance quizzed him about the ethics of wearing the national colours. “The day will come when I will wear the colours for the nation.” He fought back the tears of embarrassment with the pledge, and never looked back. Training under coach Norbert Perera and later under Janze Dissanayake, Lalith tasted his first win when he took home gold in a 20-km cross country run in his village.

A couple of district-level honours later, Lalith won his first national-level title  – he placed third in the 3,000 metre steeplechase. That’s when Dissanayake realised his middle distance potential and made him concentrate on the 1,500- and 800-metre races. The turning point came in 1995 when he set a 1,500 metre national record with 3 minutes and 46.2 seconds in the South Asian Federation Games selection meet. More

By Suresh Pattali