Donald Indrawansa started wrestling when he was in school. He had an average sporting career that he continued into his adult life until last September, when the 45-year-old athlete was appointed to manage the national wrestling team taking part in the 17th World Wrestling Championships in Oslo, Norway.
In Oslo, he witnessed a handful of games where his team lost every single match. Then, Indrawansa disappeared without a trace on Oct. 4, adding to the long list of Sri Lankan sportspeople who ran away while competing in a foreign country.
“No one knows what happened to him. It is likely that he wants to go to another European country. He suddenly disappeared a few days before he was due to travel back with the team. The rest of the team has returned [to Sri Lanka], but as for the manager, investigations are currently underway,” Sarath Hewawithrana, president of the Wrestling Federation of Sri Lanka (WFSL), told VICE World News.
“These actions are not of true sportsmanship, and we will not condone such acts,” Hewawitharana added.
Indrawansa joins hundreds of other Sri Lankan athletes who travelled from Sri Lanka to Europe for sporting events, only to vanish. In fact, it’s such a huge problem for the country’s sports authority, that they have coined a term for athletes vanishing during international tournaments: decamping. Indrawansa is now blacklisted as a sportsperson who ‘decamped.’
“There were at least 44 other similar cases, where wrestlers had abandoned their teams and absconded,” Hewawitharana said.
“Of course, there are numerous other cases. Different individuals attached to various other sports have decamped like this. Possibly thousands have done similar stunts, not just wrestlers.”
Indrawansa and his contingent of five wrestlers and the team coach travelled to Oslo from Sri Lanka on Sep. 30 in time for the tournament that began on Oct. 2. The team had taken part in their respective events until Oct. 4—the last day the team saw Indrawansa.
“He [Indrawansa] came with us that morning but instead of getting on the bus to go to the stadium, he said he would be going to the embassy to talk about some gifts the officers had planned to give the team,” the team’s coach Sajith Fernando said.
“We didn’t think it was unusual. But the next day, we realised he had not returned. So we called the Association back in Sri Lanka and told them about it. We also got to the hotel we were staying at to open his room. But there was nothing in his room. He had not spent the previous night there. None of his belongings were there either.”
Indrawansa had an average career in wrestling. He started practising when he was attending Bandaranayake College in Gampaha, some 30 kilometres from the capital Colombo. While working full-time as a human resource manager in his hometown, he held several positions in the WFSL over the course of six years. He was appointed an assistant secretary of the association earlier this year.
“I appointed Donald because I wanted him to protect the rest of the team and bring them back safely. But in the end, he was the one who vanished,” Hewawitharana said.
According to his peers, Indrawansa had made several calls to Sri Lanka from Oslo after his disappearance. VICE World News could not immediately reach Indrawansa’s family to confirm this.
“He comes online on Facebook at night,” Hewawitharana said. “I've tried to contact him multiple times. Left him messages but he would switch off his phone. He will only come online days later.” Other members of the team also attempted to break away like Indrawansa, according to Hewawitharana. “When they told me what happened, I called them and said that the sport can only exist in the country if they return. It doesn't matter if the manager disappeared as long as they returned.”
Indrawansa is one of many Sri Lankan athletes who travelled to Europe and vanished. During a 1993 sporting event in Canada, only one of the Sri Lankan team’s 11 members came home. The rest, including a number of WFSL members, just disappeared.
In 2007, a triple jump coach taking part in an international training event sponsored by the International Olympic Council disappeared in Italy.
During the 2014 Asian Games in South Korea, two athletes—a hockey player and a beach volleyball player went missing. Media reports suggested that the two players may have run away looking for jobs in the host nation. Their whereabouts are still unknown, and they have been blacklisted from international sporting events.
But the most infamous case of disappearance or “decamping” was reported in 2004, when the 23-member national Sri Lankan handball team disappeared in Germany. Authorities were baffled after the athletes, their coach and their manager all disappeared, leaving behind only dirty laundry at their hotel.
Subsequent investigations revealed that the men had crossed over to France and, later on, possibly to Italy. The Sri Lanka Sports Ministry responded by claiming it did not authorise the trip. The incident inspired the 2018 Italian-Sri Lankan comedy film named ‘Machan.’
Sri Lankan authorities believe sportspeople who’ve “decamped” often did so in search of greener pastures, leaving behind difficult lives in their home country.
“Most of them do it for the economic benefits,” Amal Edirisooriya, director-general of sports development at the Ministry of Sports told VICE World News.
“They are either looking to escape money problems they have. so we have seen a trend where sportsmen try to abscond whenever they receive an opportunity to travel to richer countries.”
Indrawansa’s case was the first disappearance reported in the last two years, Edirisooriya noted. The Sports Fraud Investigation Unit of the Sports Ministry is currently conducting an investigation into the wrestler’s whereabouts.
“We will be permanently banning such individuals as Indrawansa from sports or any administrative activities related to sports, for such activities,” Edirisooriya said, adding that all Sri Lankan athletes sign off on a 1-million Sri Lankan rupee bond (roughly 5000 US dollars), which they will have to pay if they ever return.
“We will be taking legal action against them as well, if and when they decide to return to the country,” he said.
Sri Lanka isn’t the only country that’s had athletes disappear while competing internationally.
In 2018, at least 13 athletes—mostly from Uganda, Cameroon, Sierra Leone and Rwanda—vanished from the Commonwealth Games in Australia. The Commonwealth Games Federation declared the athletes as having “deserted” but noted that they had "the right to travel freely" on their visas.
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