By all rights, Susanthika Jayasinghe should have returned from the Olympics to a hero's welcome.
The 24-year-old sprinter was the first Sri Lankan athlete to win a medal in 52 years, the bronze in the 200-meter run. Moreover, as a symbol of her commitment to fair and free parliamentary elections scheduled for Tuesday, she wore a yellow ribbon on her wrist at the victory ceremony in Sydney, in addition to the medal around her neck.
But in Sri Lanka, where politics often turns heroes into lightning rods for controversy and personal attack, Jayasinghe has become the focus of a scandal that includes allegations of sexual harassment, illegal use of steroids and even seven-year-old murder charges against her husband.
The controversies have swirled around Jayasinghe for years, but she says she felt emboldened to speak out after winning her medal. She began with a news conference in Sydney and has been making her case ever since.
"I'm an athlete and a Sri Lankan who stands for fairness, and I have been treated very unfairly," Jayasinghe said in an interview today. "For a long time, I was afraid to speak up. Now I've won, and the world knows who I am, so maybe I am out of danger."
The slender, pony-tailed runner has long charged that a government minster harassed her for sex and when she refused, he and other government sports officials tried to ruin her career. Last week she identified him for the first time as sports minister S. B. Dissanayake, who has declined to comment on the allegations.
Jayasinghe's running career, initially a Cinderella tale of a poor rubber-tree tapper's daughter who ran school races in bare feet, has been increasingly clouded by controversy in the past several years.
In 1997, after she began to shine in international competitions, the Amateur Athletic Association of Sri Lanka accused her of using the banned steroid nandrolone. She was barred from the national running team, and the harassment and drug use charges were debated in parliament. But she was ultimately cleared of doping and was allowed to compete again.
She was tested again in 1998 for steroid use, and one urine test showed large quantities of nandrolone. Jayasinghe said the test was suspect because the urine sample was not properly sealed in her presence and she was not accompanied by a personal representative, a right guaranteed by law.
"It was a trick. I was checked after every race, and there was no problem," Jayasinghe said today. She said that she had taken various medicines ordered by her doctors but that she knew nothing about nandrolone. In 1999, the International Amateur Athletic Federation exonerated Jayasinghe of all doping charges, saying Sri Lankan athletic authorities had failed to establish a conclusive case against her. The decision freed her to compete in the Olympics.
Jayasinghe said the drug use charges coincided with threats Dissanayake made after she refused his repeated advances and that she believes official influence was used to undermine her career as a result. She described in detail what she called a pivotal 1998 meeting with Dissanayake.
"I was taken to a house where the minister was. He told me he loved me and wanted to marry me. I said [I] can't do this. I have a husband, and you are like my father. . . . He got angry and said, 'If you don't come with me, I will stop your athletic career.' "
Today, both major Sunday newspapers here in Colombo carried full-page accounts of the doping scandal and of Jayasinghe's charges against Dissanayake. The Sunday Leader said that sexual harassment and official pressure had nearly broken the career of one of Sri Lanka's brightest athletic stars.
The other accusation that has reemerged is the 1993 murder charge against Jayasinghe's husband, Dhammika N. Kumar, 29. Kumar, a runner and former sports ministry employee, was charged along with several friends in the beating death of a man during a brawl, but his case was never brought to court.
Kumar, who was with Jayasinghe in the interview today, said he did not commit the murder and that the case had been dropped until recently, when government officials attempted to bring charges again. He said he had requested a court hearing to clear his name.
In addition to her new Olympic fame, Jayasinghe said the support of her uncle, a politician from the opposition United National Party, had prompted her to speak out. But she insisted her decision to go public was not related to politics. The United National Party and the governing People's Alliance are locked in a dead heat for Tuesday's parliamentary election.
"My only politics is sport," Jayasinghe said. "I have no political affiliation. I will be happy if we can have fair and violence-free elections in Sri Lanka." Like hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankans, she wears a yellow ribbon as part of a national campaign for free and fair elections.
When she ran in Sydney, Jayasinghe said she tried to put her personal and legal problems out of her mind. She failed to place or match her own best time in the 100 meters but ran her best race ever in the 200 meters--22.28 seconds. The race was won by American Marion Jones.
Once the competition was finished, however, Jayasinghe acknowledged a sense of emotional vindication as well as physical triumph. After the bronze medal was placed around her neck, she said, "I held it up so my enemies back in Sri Lanka could see it on TV."