Case of missing Sri Lankan handball team

The Sri Lankan Sports Authority has a problem. Their athletes keep disappearing. They go abroad to participate in sporting events, then run away immediately. Typically, they go to Italy, where they do pizza spinning, or work in department stores. In fact, the absconding of athletics during international tournaments is such a big problem for the country that they have coined the term decamping.

During a 1993 sporting event in Canada, only one of the 11 members of the Sri Lankan team came home. The rest, including several members of the Wrestling Federation of Sri Lanka, disappeared. In 2007, a triple jump coach participating in an international training event sponsored by the International Olympic Council went missing in Italy. During the 2014 Asian Games in South Korea, a hockey player and a beach volleyball player went missing. But one of the most infamous cases of “decamping” was recorded in 2004, when the entire Sri Lankan handball team disappeared in Germany.

Actors posing as the Sri Lankan handball team as shown in the movie “Machan”

In 2003, the Asian-German Sports Exchange Program (AGSEP), an organization that organizes sporting events and international exchanges between Sri Lankan and European sports teams, received a call from a director of the Sri Lankan Ministry of Sports about setting up a handball exhibition. I received a call. German National Team. Handball is rarely played in Sri Lanka, and therefore the Sri Lankan Ministry of Sports hired a handball coach named Athula Vijhenayak to train the men and form a team.

First, the German handball team will travel to Sri Lanka for a friendly match in Minuvangoda, a town on the western side of the island. Then, the Sri Lankan team will fly to Germany for a 10-match tournament. Vijhenayak had only a few weeks to prepare the Sri Lankan players for friendship with the Germans. Practices were held a few times a week, where players learned the basics. None of them had any handball experience, but were not required to be proficient in the game. They just need to look like they knew what they were doing.

Chandana, 28, first heard about the scheme in 2002 from her elder brother, who was already living in Italy. Her brother promises to pay the expenses of bringing Chandana to Italy. Once Chandana got employment, she had to pay her brother back. For now, all he had to do was learn to play handball. Chandana had never played handball before, but she played volleyball in high school. So it didn’t take him long to learn the basics: Two 30-minute halves, a player could run three steps and score a goal without dribbling the ball. That was all Chandan remembered.

In the exhibition match, the German handball team defeated the hosts 36 to 2. Despite the pitiful performance, Dietmar Doering, the founder of AGSEP and the German authorities invited the Sri Lankan team to Germany for a handball tournament. A few weeks later, the 23-man Sri Lankan team reached Wittislingen, a city in southern Germany, a day before the tournament began. The team went on a tour. They then met with the mayor of the city, took pictures and had dinner with their German counterparts. “We sang and danced and had a great time,” said 23-year-old Roopasinghe.

In the first game, the team again suffered a setback. This time Sri Lankan team did not score a single point.

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German handball team playing a friendly match with the host Sri Lankan team.

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German handball team playing a friendly match with the host Sri Lankan team.

That night, the Germans hosted the Sri Lankans for another dinner, and once again, they sang together and celebrated the evening. “We had a great time at this place,” said Rupasinghe. “Slightly sorry because we all planned to leave the next day very early in the morning.”

At 5 am, just before dawn, the team stepped out of their hotel rooms, taking only a few clothes and other essentials with them. He left behind a note thanking the Germans for their hospitality. “We are going to France,” it said. Actually all of them were going to Italy. “We knew from our relatives and friends, once we reached Italy there was no way to send us back,” Chandana said. “Italian people are very friendly, and they like us working in their restaurants. Sri Lankans in Italy have no problem with the police. We are not involved in drugs or any other criminal activities.”

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Note left by missing handball team.

The media immediately began to question: Is Doering the mastermind behind the disappearance? Fox News also suggested that the handball team was full of Tamil terrorists who had been smuggled into Germany. When media outlets called the Sri Lankan Sports Ministry, they responded by saying that handball was rarely played in Sri Lanka and that the formation of a national team was a mystery. “We don’t have a single club,” said Sri Lankan Olympic Association president Hemasiri Fernando.

Doring is deeply disappointed by this incident. “This will be the last time we do that. I am not planning to invite more teams from Sri Lanka,” he said. Even though he could not, soon after the incident, the German embassy blacklisted AGSEP from participating in sporting events in the country. “After this no other team got a visa,” he said. “That’s the sad side of the whole thing.”

Within a decade, more than half of Sri Lanka’s 23 handball players had returned home. Chandana says, “I came back after six months. “My child was sick. I was missing home. I didn’t get the job, though promised. I wrote a letter to Mr. Doring and apologized.”

Rupasinghe worked as a pizza baker in a pizzeria for four years before returning to Sri Lanka. In these four years, Rupasinghe earned decent money, and he regularly sent a part of his salary back to his family in Sri Lanka.

Although Doering was bitter at first, over the years he began to understand why the players did what they did. It was out of necessity. Each male on the team supported an average of five to 10 family members in Sri Lanka. And all those players sent money back to their families every month.

References:
#Andrew Fiozzi, “How did an entire Sri Lankan handball team disappear in Germany?”,
mail magazine
#ChrisThomas, “An athlete went to Europe for a competition. He disappeared, like many people before him.”, Vice
# “Sri Lankan handball team missing”, BBC

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