Rosa won back-to-back gold medals in 1970
The dream of every elite athlete is to win a gold medal at an international event. But to win two back-to-back gold medals at the same meet is even a more unique achievement.
This is exactly what Sri Lanka’s legendary long-distance runner Sellapeliage Lucian Benedict Rosa, better known as S. L. B. Rosa, performed at the 1970 Asian Games held in Bangkok, Thailand.
In fact, December 10th in 1970 turned out to be a significant day for Rosa and for Sri Lanka athletics as the versatile athlete from Ampitiya, Kandy displayed tremendous skill and endurance to bag the gold medal in the Men’s 5,000m event with a time of 14:32.2s.
Rosa displayed his prowess from the start of the race and finished well ahead of his nearest rivals Edward Sequeira from India (14:33.8s) and Yuval Vishnitzer of Israel (14:34.7) who secured silver and bronze respectively. Altogether, there were 14 top competitors who participated in this event while representing Japan, South Korea, Pakistan, Nepal, Philippines, Cambodia, Nepal and Thailand.
Four days later, there was more glory as Rosa reached the summit of long-distance running by winning the gold medal in the Men’s 10,000m event with a new Asian Games record of 29:55.6s.
His performance was even more significant as he became the first Asian to run the 10,000m event under 30 minutes and his record stood for 12 years until it was bettered at the 1982 Asian Games held in New Delhi, India.
Not only that, to date, no other Sri Lankan athlete has been able to win a single medal for the 5,000m or the 10,000m events at the Asian Games. No one expected Rosa to win the 10,000m event and the favourite was Japanese Kenichi Otsuka, who finally had to be content with the silver medal, clocking 29:56.9s while Park Bong -keun of South Korea took the bronze medal with a time of 31:43.0s.
His performances at these two races earned him such accolades as the ‘Golden Boy of Athletics’ and ‘King of Long-Distance Runners in Asia.’ This was also the first occasion where a Sri Lankan had won two Gold Medals at the same meet.
He attended St. Mary’s School in Nawalapitiya up to Grade-2 and later, he joined the Roman Catholic School in Ampitiya, Kandy. From 1960 to 1963 he registered several victories in various Inter-School Track and Field Meets and in 1963, he started his career as a soldier, in the Field Engineering Unit at Sri Lanka Army.
He registered his first major victory in 1965 at the National Athletics Championships when he beat the 1964 Olympic representative, R. J. K. Karunananda into second place in the 5,000m. Rosa also improved the record of 14.56.8s set up by Karunananda for this event by registering a time of 14.26.0s.
In 1966, he easily won the long-distance events at the Army Meet and won the 5,000m event once again at the National Athletics Championship. The year 1967 was another milestone in his career. At the Nationals that year, he beat the Indian champion Kripal Singh in the 5,000m and won the Athlete of the Year Award by setting a record. In addition, he won prestigious awards such as the Wilton Bartleet Cup, Duncan White Cup and the Governor-General’s Cup.