Interesting Facts

The mystery of the Sri Lankan national handball team's disappearance

In 2004, the whole Sri Lankan national handball team disappeared. Later, the Sri Lankan government denied the existence of such a team. The location of the team is still unknown.

The Sri Lankan sports governing body is having trouble. Their athletes are always going missing. They travel to other nations to compete in sporting competitions, then they immediately flee. They typically travel to Italy and land jobs spinning pizzazz or working in department stores. Decamping is the phrase used to describe when athletes leave the country while competing in foreign competitions.

Only one of the 11 Sri Lankan players that competed in a sporting event in Canada in 1993 returned home. The remainder, which included a number of wrestlers from the Sri Lankan Wrestling Federation, simply vanished. A triple jump coach who was participating in an IOC-sponsored international training event in 2007 vanished in Italy. Two athletes went missing: a beach volleyball player and a hockey player—during the 2014 Asian Games in South Korea. However, one of the more notorious instances of “decamping” was documented in 2004, when the whole Sri Lankan handball team vanished in Germany.

The mystery of the Sri Lankan national handball teams disappearance 1
Actors posing as the Sri Lankan handball team as depicted in the movie “Machan”

A director in the Sri Lankan Sports Ministry called the Asian-German Sports Exchange Program (AGSEP), an organization that organizes sporting events and international exchanges between Sri Lankan and European sport teams, in 2003 to inquire about setting up a handball exhibition with the German national team. Since handball is not commonly played in Sri Lanka, the country’s sports ministry recruited Athula Wijenayaka to train the men and assemble a team.

The German handball team initially traveled to Sri Lanka to play a friendly game in Minuwangoda, an area on the western coast of the island. The Sri Lankan team would then take a flight to Germany for a 10-match competition. Only a few weeks were given to Wijenayaka to prepare the Sri Lankan players for their friendly match against Germany. The athletes learnt the fundamentals during practices, which were done a couple times per week. None of them had played handball before, but mastery of the sport was not required. All they have to do is seem to know what they’re doing.

Chandana, then 28 years old, first learned about the scheme through his older brother, who was already a resident of Italy, in 2002. In order to bring Chandana to Italy, his brother offered to cover the costs. Chandana was supposed to repay his brother once he got a job. All he had to do for the time being was master the game of handball. Chandana played volleyball in high school, but he had never played handball. It didn’t take him long to pick up the fundamentals, including the need for two 30-minute halves, the ability to run three steps without dribbling the ball, and scoring goals. Chandana could only recall that.

The mystery of the Sri Lankan national handball teams disappearance 2
The German handball team playing a friendly match with the host Sri Lankan team.

The German handball team defeated the host team 36–2 in the exhibition game. Dietmar Doering, the creator of the AGSEP, and the German officials invited the Sri Lankan squad to Germany for a handball competition despite the team’s weak performance. A few weeks later, on the afternoon before the competition was to start, the 23-member Sri Lankan squad arrived in the southern German town of Wittislingen. The group took a trip. Following their meeting with the mayor, they had dinner with their German counterparts and took pictures. Rupasinghe, 23, added, “We sang and danced and had a terrific time.

The team lost badly in the opening game. The Sri Lankans failed to score a single point this time.

The mystery of the Sri Lankan national handball teams disappearance 3
The German handball team playing a friendly match with the host Sri Lankan team.

Once again, they sang together and enjoyed the evening as the Germans welcomed the Sri Lankans for dinner that night. Rupasinghe remarked, “We had a terrific time in this place. “Felt a little guilty because we were all planning on leaving quite early the next morning,”

At 5 a.m. The team sneaked out of their hotel rooms in the early hours of the morning with only a few pieces of clothing and other needs. A note thanking the Germans for their hospitality was left behind. It announced, “We’re going to France.” They were all actually traveling to Italy. “We knew from our family and friends that there was no way of sending us back once we reached Italy,” Chandana added. “Italians are warm and welcoming, and they appreciate us working in their eateries. Italian police treat Sri Lankans with little hostility. We don’t engage in drug use or any other illegal activity.

The mystery of the Sri Lankan national handball teams disappearance 4
The note left behind by the vanished handball team.

The media started asking: Is Doering the mastermind behind the disappearance act? right away. Fox News even alleged that the handball squad was made up entirely of Tamil militants who had entered Germany illegally. The Sri Lankan Sports Ministry was contacted by the media, and their response was that handball was hardly ever played in Sri Lanka and the creation of a national team was a mystery. The president of the Sri Lankan Olympic Association, Hemasiri Fernando, stated, “We don’t even have a single club.”

The episode deeply disappointed Doering. I am not going to invite any more teams from Sri Lanka, so this will be the last time we do this, he said. Even though the German embassy blacklisted AGSEP immediately after the incident, he was unable to participate in sporting events there even if he had wanted to. After that, “no teams received visas,” he claimed. That is the tragic aspect of the situation.

More than half of the 23 Sri Lankan handball players had returned home within ten years. After six months, I returned, Chandana claims. “My kid was ill. I missed my home. Despite being promised a job, I was unable to find one. I begged for forgiveness in a letter to Mr. Doering.

Before going back to Sri Lanka, Rupasinghe spent four years working as a pizza baker in a pizzeria. Rupasinghe made a decent living over these four years and frequently sent money to his family in Sri Lanka.

Doering initially felt resentful, but as time went on, he started to understand the players’ motivations. It was driven by need. Five to ten family members lived with each man on the team in Sri Lanka on average. Every month, each of those guys sent money to their family.

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