The Case of The Missing Sri Lankan Handball Team

Nov 23, 2021 0 comments

The Sri Lankan sports authority has a problem. Their athletes keep disappearing. They go to foreign countries to take part in sporting events, then promptly run away. Usually, they go to Italy, where they end up spinning pizzazz, or working in departmental stores. In fact, athletics absconding during international tournaments is such a huge problem for the country that they have coined a term: decamping.

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 members of the Wrestling Federation of Sri Lanka, 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, a hockey player and a beach volleyball player went missing. But one of the most infamous cases of “decamping” was reported in 2004, when the entire handball team of Sri Lanka disappeared in Germany.

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

In 2003, the Asian-German Sports Exchange Program (AGSEP), an organization that conducts sport events and international exchanges between Sri Lankan and European sport teams, received a call from a director in the Sri Lankan Sports Ministry about setting up a handball exhibition with the German national team. Handball is rarely played in Sri Lanka, and so the Sri Lankan Sports Ministry hired a handball coach named Athula Wijenayaka to train the men and build a team.

At first, the German handball team would come to Sri Lanka for a friendly match in Minuwangoda, a town on the western side of the island. Then, the Sri Lankan team would fly to Germany, for a 10-match tournament. Wijenayaka had only a few weeks to get the Sri Lankan players ready for their friendly with the Germans. Practices were held a few times a week, where the players learned the basics. None of them had any handball experience, but it was not necessary to be proficient at the game. They only need to appear like they knew what they were doing.

28-year-old Chandana first heard about the scheme back in 2002 from his older brother, who was already living in Italy. His brother promised to pay for the expenses to bring Chandana to Italy. Once Chandana found employment, he was to pay his brother back. For now, all he needed to do was learn to play handball. Chandana had never played handball before, but he did play volleyball in high school. So it didn’t take long for him to learn the basics: Two 30-minute halves, a player can run three steps without dribbling the ball and to score goals. That was all Chandana could remember.

At the exhibition match, the German handball team thrashed the host team 36 to 2. Despite the pathetic performance, Dietmar Doering, the founder of the AGSEP, and the German officials invited the Sri Lankan team to Germany for a handball tournament there. A few weeks later, the 23-member Sri Lankan team arrived in Wittislingen, a town in southern Germany, the afternoon before the tournament was set to begin. The team went sightseeing. Then they met the mayor of the town, took photos and had dinner with their German counterparts. “We sang and danced and had a great time,” said 23-year-old Rupasinghe.

On the first game, the team was hammered again. This time, the Sri Lankans didn’t score a single point.

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

The 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 very great time in this place,” said Rupasinghe. “Felt a bit sorry as we all planned to go the next day, very early in the morning.”

At 5 a.m. in the morning, just before dawn, the team slipped out of their hotel rooms, taking with them only a few clothes and other necessities. They left behind a note, thanking the Germans for their hospitality. "We're going to France," it said. In reality, they were all going to Italy. “We knew from our relatives and friends, once we reached Italy there was no way of sending us back,” said Chandana. “Italian people are very friendly, and they like us to work in their restaurants. Sri Lankans in Italy have no problems with the police. We aren’t involved in drugs or any other criminal activities.”

The note left behind by the vanished handball team.

The media immediately began questioning: Is Doering the mastermind behind the disappearing act? The Fox News even suggested that the handball team was full of Tamil terrorists that 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 the formation of a national team was a mystery. “We don't even have a single club,” said Hemasiri Fernando, the president of the Sri Lankan Olympic Association.

Doering was extremely let down by the incident. "This will be the last time we will be doing this. I am not planning to invite any more teams from Sri Lanka," he said. He could not even if he wanted to, for shortly after the incident, the German embassy blacklisted AGSEP from participating in sporting events in the country again. “No more teams got visas thereafter,” he said. “That’s the sad side of the whole thing.”

Within a decade, more than half of the 23 Sri Lankan handball players had returned home. “I came back after six months,” says Chandana. “My child was sick. I felt homesick. I couldn’t find a job, though it was promised. I wrote a letter to Mr. Doering and asked for forgiveness.”

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

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

# Andrew Fiouzi, “How Did An Entire Sri Lankan Handball Team Vanish In Germany?”, Mel Magazine
# Kris Thomas, “An Athlete Went to Europe for a Competition. He Disappeared, Like Many Before Him.”, VICE
# “Sri Lanka handball team vanishes”, BBC


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