Touch regeneration in Sri Lanka

July 6, 2021 @ 0:00 UTC

COVID might have obstructed the growth objectives for Touch in Sri Lanka. Yet it's still all systems go for Sri Lanka Touch Association and its plans to have teams ready to play as soon as international competition resumes.

The Sri Lanka Touch Association (SLTA) is on a mission to revitalize the sport in the Indian Ocean island- nation. In 2019 the leadership of the newly formed SLTA guided by President Prashan Ousmand began the task of re-establishing the sport of Touch after a difficult start. 

Ayo Abeyaratne, Executive Director of SLTA says, “Touch as a sport only has a very brief history. The first time the sport was played in Sri Lanka was back in 2013.” Due to administration issues Touch in Sri Lanka struggled to grab a toehold on the cricket-made island. The current committee of the SLTA decided to give the game a shot in the arm with the formation of the SLTA, explained Ayo. 

Pandemic roadblock

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 arrived just after the formation of the SLTA, and the pandemic has understandably put a brake on Association’s rebuilding program. The situation remains challenging. With the arrival of the COVID-19 Delta variant, Sri Lanka experienced a significant surge in infections in May 2021 and the latest figures suggest a daily infection rate of about 1750. 

“COVID-19 has hampered almost all of the plans that were put in place to introduce and popularize the sport. We had to cancel some workshops and also a Touch league we had been planning to hold. The country has been in and out of lockdown, and hardly had any organized sports events, other than international cricket matches. We had plans for 2020 to expand Touch into schools, however nothing could progress due to the restrictions imposed by Covid-19,” said Ayo Abeyaratne. 

Establishing a new sport is not easy

Even before the pandemic started the SLTA faced many of the regular difficulties in establishing an embryonic sport that had little public awareness, “The lack of coaches, referees and people who have played the sport at the top level is a major challenge for the progress of the sport in Sri Lanka. Unlike many south-east Asian nations where Touch flourishes, Sri Lanka does not have such a big ex-pat community that has played the sport at a competitive level,” said Ayo. 

Pacific island influence

Many small Touch nations have looked to foster relationships with other sports in order to increase player numbers, especially with Rugby. The sport of Rugby is very well established in Sri Lanka with the longest tradition of club rugby in Asia. There are over 120,000 registered Rugby players and over 100 clubs. Many of these Rugby players already play a form of Touch according to Ayo, called ‘Fijian Touch’.

Touch Football Fiji (TFF) President Tevita Mau mentioned ‘Fiji Touch’ in an episode of ‘Set of Six’ last year. He described it as a popular game in Fiji, in which there is one touch before the ball is handed to the opposition. At some point ‘Fiji Touch’ made its way to Sri Lanka. Most likely it was brought to Sri Lanka by the many Fijian Rugby players who ply their trade in Sri Lanka.  According to Ayo the SLTA sees the popularity of ‘Fijian Touch’ amongst the large rugby community as a potential recruitment tool for Touch, “Our plan is to build on the interest in the Fijian Touch format to gradually introduce Federation of International Touch (FIT) Touch, which is a more organized sport.”

Schools vital for development

The SLTA recognizes the importance of youth development in their quest to grow the sport and are planning to forge a relationship with the government of Sri Lanka, in the hope that Touch can be accepted into the school sporting curriculum. “Government recognition will be vital for the progress of the sport,’ said Ayo Abeyaratne, “SLTA is working towards gaining this recognition as this will enable us to take the sport into government schools. I hope that we would be able to achieve that within the next few years.”

World Cup hopes

The development of Touch in Sri Lanka will be a gradual process that will take some time to evolve. The SLTA can draw on the experiences of other developing nations, and on the assistance of FIT bodies such as FIT Member Relations (Asia) and the FIT Referees Commission, to help progress the sport. Ayo Abeyaratne is already looking forward to getting Sri Lanka onto the international field of play, “We did not have a functioning governing body in 2019 to send teams to the World Cup. However, if the country can come out of Covid-19 soon enough we would work towards at least sending one team for the next FIT World Cup.”