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Sri Lankan student Haresh Selvaskandan will carry Olympic Torch in London on July 2nd

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by Raisa Wickrematunge

The opening ceremony of the Olympics is always a glittering tableau which hundreds of thousands of people tune in to watch. The idea is to showcase the culture of the host country; but the real highlight is the symbolic lighting of the Olympic torch.

Olympic Rings has been unveiled on London's Tower Bridge- pic: london2012.com

A single, burning flame travels a great distance across the country until it finally reaches the Olympic stadium. While all eyes are on the fire, which signals the start of the Games, few people stop to think of those who carried the flame along the way; there is so much focus on that final lap of the stadium.

This time, Sri Lankans the world over will be paying attention, for 22 year old medical student Haresh Selvaskandan who has been chosen to be one of the Olympic torch bearers on July 2. This is a huge achievement- to get some perspective; there were some 60,000 people who were nominated. Of these, only 8000 were chosen, and Haresh is one of them. He is also one of just three students who were nominated from his university, the University of Leicester.

His fellow torchbearers include 20 year old third year Sociology undergraduate Lucy Watson, who will carry the torch through Waddesdon. Watson was chosen because of her work with the student-run playgroup Student Community Action Mobility Playgroup (SCAMP). She works with children who have physical and learning disabilities.

Joanna Hancock has also been chosen to carry the torch through Hatfield, Hertfordshire. Graduating with a degree in History and Archaeology as well as a Management School Masters degree, she is now the marketing director at Zest Group caterers, and is preparing to run the Virgin London 2012 marathon in aid of the Prostrate Cancer Charity. Illustrious company indeed, but Haresh holds his own, especially in the eyes of proud father Rajaratnam Selvaskandan:

‘I am happy that he has been chosen, happy that he is the only Sri Lankan nominated to bear the torch in a foreign country,’ Rajaratnam said, adding that he planned to travel to the UK in July to support his son.

Poignant and Symbolic

But what has made Rajaratnam really ecstatic is the identity of the person who nominated his son as a torchbearer- fellow medical student and close friend Lahiru Satharasinghe, a Sinhalese.

Rajaratnam spoke of how this move was particularly poignant and symbolic, considering the friction that has often existed between Sinhalese and Tamils during and after the war.
‘She realized that he deserved to carry the torch… it makes you think,’ Rajaratnam said.
Haresh’ story too is one that makes you think. A student of Colombo International School, he was always intelligent. He graduated with four As and entered medical school in Leicester when he was just 17, Rajaratnam said.

Haresh had little doubt what he wanted to do in life, having decided that he wanted to be a doctor when he was just 12 years old.

There is a reason behind Haresh’s drive and attraction towards his ultimate career goal, it turns out. Haresh’s mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis when the eldest son was just six years old. While she is otherwise stable, the disease has severely affected her mobility, confining her to a wheelchair. It was his mother’s plight which spurred young Haresh on to become a doctor, his father said.

Haresh continued to excel academically even while attending the University of Leicester. He received first class honours on his research project, and is well on his way to graduating medical school. He was even chosen by the Vice Chancellor of the University for a special one to one meeting with Queen Elizabeth, because of the outstanding results he received for his degree, Rajaratnam said.

Haresh’s Passion

But it was his son’s charity work in Kenya that eventually earned Haresh a nomination to carry the torch.

Haresh is very involved with Medsin, a charity focusing on sustainable health-related projects in local communities. As Vice- Chancellor of the charity, he collected funds for the Kenyan Orphan Project in Leicester. Together with 20 other students, he then traveled to Kisumu, a port city in Western Kenya, working with underprivileged children there and even helping with the construction of a school in the area.

He had commented that one of the best parts of the project was being able to meet and live with such vibrant people, which enabled him to better understand their special needs, an excerpt of Lahiru Sathirisinghe’s submission on the Lloyds website says.

Even while in Sri Lanka, he volunteered at Red Cross and did his own part to help the less fortunate, his father said. Rajaratnam too has done his share of philanthropic work, having helped to rebuild the Mahajana College in Tellipalai, Jaffna, which had been damaged and relocated several times, in memory of his mother, who taught for 28 years at the same college.

Given his academic achievements and his focus on charitable work at such a young age, it is unsurprising that the judging panel selected Haresh to be a torchbearer- indeed many of the people nominated have been chosen for their acts of charity and even for contributing to areas like art and culture or education.

When asked to describe his son, Rajaratnam said he was ‘a loving child who loves human beings,’ adding that he was ‘passionate and committed.’ His friend Lahiru spoke of him in equally glowing terms, ‘Haresh is filled with passion. Passion for medicine, caring for patients and passion for raising awareness and acting on Global Health issues. I am confident that this passion for helping others will continue throughout his life,’ her application on his behalf said.

In the meantime, Haresh is completing his fourth year in medical school, and is expecting to graduate next year. He is likely to return to Sri Lanka to work in the future, his father said. So what happens next? Rehearsals, apparently, Rajaratnam says, with each torchbearer expected to rehearse the route they will be taking on the day. A total of 8000 miles will be covered in the run up to the final lap of the Olympic stadium, it is estimated, much of which will be televised.

How The Games Began

The Olympic Games originated in Olympia, Greece, around 776 century BC. The main sports were combat, chariot and racing events. During the games, participating states put aside their differences. There was no infighting, and no bloodshed, until the Games were finished.

From the very beginning, the Games were symbolic of opposing states coming together to celebrate strength and perseverance. Perhaps this is why people continue to be drawn to the Olympics, and it is certainly why athletes strive to get that ever elusive gold. We all cheered on Susanthika Jayasinghe as she received her bronze (and later, silver) medal at the Sydney 2000 Olympics. This time, however, Sri Lanka has cause to celebrate even before the national team walks into the stadium courtesy: The Sunday Leader

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