Sport Tourism building friendships :Reminiscences of a pioneer | Daily News

Sport Tourism building friendships :Reminiscences of a pioneer

Dr. Dietmar Doering

Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite the people in a way that little else does. Sport can awaken hope where there was previously only despair - Nelson Mandela

There is a foreign academic living with us in our country who has already translated Mandela’s vision on sports into reality through his own conviction. A man of action, this young academic gave up his lucrative job as a lecturer in a Business High School in Germany to launch a novel project mainly aimed at building a bridge of friendship between his country Germany and Asian countries.

The idea about the novel project was still teasing him when the young academic had occasion to visit Sri Lanka as a tourist in 1981 and he instantly fell in love with the people and the country.

Eventually, he decided to use Sri Lanka as the launching pad for his pet project for he wanted to make the kind of activity he had in mind more advantageous and more meaningful for the people here. Above all, it would provide him with an opportunity to spend more of his time with the people in the country that charmed him.

Relentless efforts by the young academic Dr. Dietmar Doering saw the birth of his ambitious project – Asian – German Sports Exchange Programme better known by its acronym AGSEP in Sri Lanka in 1989 with its head office at Marawila.

The pioneer of sport tourism in Sri Lanka, the AGSEP founder Dr. Doering is an entrepreneur, hotelier, tour operator and a social worker rolled into one. He is also great admirer of age-old customs, traditions and cultural values of the people in this country.

He is happy that he has made Sri Lanka his second home ever since 1989. Despite having many irons in the fire, Dr. Doering, a vegetarian wedded to a simple lifestyle, finds time to relax at home in the company of his wife and children. He is a voracious reader too.

The Peace Village Program Dr. Doering established under the auspices of the German-based aid organization Friedensdorf International serves him as a strong arm for organizing inter-community sport and cultural events making a great contribution towards achieving social and economic development as well as national integration and reconciliation.

Apart from the vast economic and tourist development achieved through the sport exchanges, Dr. Doering has, as a tour operator since 1984 brought about 8,000 foreign tourists to Sri Lanka up to mid-2016 and the foreign exchange earnings from them could be estimated at US $ 60 million, says Dr. Doering.

Dr. Doering has also earned the undying gratitude of the people in this country for the yeoman service he rendered towards the alleviation of misery and suffering of the Tsunami victims both in the North and the South.

He took the initiative to distribute billions of rupees’ worth of relief material received from foreign donors sponsored by him to the Tsunami -hit people across country.

Dr. Doering at a recent meeting with this correspondent recalled a few highlights from his colorful and eventful three decade-long career in Sri Lanka.

Q: Why did you decide to quit your lucrative career back home in Germany to make Sri Lanka your second home?

A: When I visited Sri Lanka for the first time in 1981 together with my aunt and uncle, I virtually fell in love with the natural beauty and the climate of the country.

A very friendly Sri Lankan guide from Colombo showed us the most interesting places and I instantly felt, that this “sleeping beauty” had a great potential for tourism, which was in a budding stage. So I decided to stake my life-time earnings on a novel venture in Sri Lanka – Sport Tourism – a hitherto unexploited area in the country’s hospitality sector. At the start it looked a highly formidable challenge. However, I decided to take the plunge!

Q: How did you go about getting your pet venture ‘Sport Tourism’ off the ground?

A: Our Sri Lankan guide had an uncle who owned a nice parcel of beach land in Marawila and things developed fast from that point.

I built a beach resort on this beach land with a different kind of identity - catering to sports tourists, mainly from German sports clubs, who were to play friendly matches with Sri Lankan Table Tennis, Football, Volleyball, Badminton and Handball Teams.

Q: What were the circumstances that encouraged and inspired you to take up permanent residence in Sri Lanka?

A: In fact, sports were always the dominating factor for my stay here in Sri Lanka. Of course, many locals at various social levels with whom I interacted invited me to make Sri Lanka my home. Once I had occasion to donate eight Table Tennis tables to the Sri Lanka Table Tennis Association. Mr. Nanda Matthew who was the Sports Minister at that time invited me to train the national teams. At the time I was a lecturer in a Business College in Germany, a German government employee and I was on one year leave from my job to try out my agenda in Sri Lanka. This was in 1989.

After completing my first year in Sri Lanka, I decided to extend my stay and it went on and on. Now I am a permanent resident of Sri Lanka counting 32 years of continuous stay here.

Q: You are known by many people here as the founder of SPORTS TOURISM. Can you please briefly outline the vision that inspired you to found the Asian German Sports Exchange Programme (AGSEP).

A: Yes, sports were always the main interest in my life. And I understood from my early days here in Sri Lanka that sports can do much more than improving physical skills. Connecting sports people through our Sri Lanka German Sports Exchange Program was working very well. This idea is simple and based on empirical experience. Sports can be used as a catalyst for the social change for the better, strengthening inter-community relationship and understanding and national integration among other benefits. People from different social standings can be connected easily once they kick the same ball. Professional and social standings melt into one common line. The Professor from Germany and the Sri Lanka fisherman become one and the same football player on the ground; the game unifies them, eliminates the differences at least for a certain time. My theory worked well over the last three decades.

Q: Can you give a few highlights from the sport activity you planned and carried out under the AGSEP during its 30- year period?

A: Many Sri Lankan Sportspeople got opportunities to visit Germany and they were welcomed to play for German clubs. They experienced a true form of integration once they joined the German clubs and became club members. By the way, in these years more than 500 German University students have done internships with us and some of them some have done research on the AGSEP in operation in Sri Lanka for their PhD theses. “Bridging the Divide” is oneof the outstanding PhD Theses written by one of my German Interns Dr. Nico Schulenkorf. He now serves as a lecturer in a leading Aussie university.

To come back to the main theme, the Sri Lanka Table Tennis National Teams visited Germany 12 times and played over 100 matches against German club sides during the 1990’s. Teams from other sports such as Volleyball, Badminton, Football and Basketball Teams from Sri Lanka toured Germany and played friendly matches with German clubs. The contacts with hundreds of German Sports clubs remain vibrant up to now. The Sri Lanka Ladies Police Team did a six 6 weeks German tour in 2006 and played a total of 23 matches against German Ladies Club sides.

There were also inter-cultural sport events in addition to cross cultural sports exchanges held under the auspices of the AGSEP. The most significant inter-cultural sports event took place in 2006, when a German Ladies Team played a friendly match with the Sri Lanka Ladies Police Team in Vavuniya, predominantly Tamil area. Over 15,000 spectators – mostly Tamils cheered and supported the Sri Lanka Police team (mainly Sinhalese players). At the end of the match – Sri Lanka Police won – an LTTE representative presented the trophy to the captain of the Ladies Police Team. This is what sports can do, building bridges. For a moment the conflict between the Sri Lanka Forces and the Tamil forces were forgotten, while sports were the winner!

Q: Can you give a brief account of the AGSEP -organized ‘RUN FOR PEACE’ in the same year (2006) which accounted for over 500 participants from the North, East, West and the South of Sri Lanka?

A: The ‘RUN FOR PEACE’ was the biggest ever event the AGSEP organized. The event boasted the participation of over 60 foreign university students, the active support and involvement of the entire Ministry of Sports and a live coverage by a leading private TV station which included a one-hour live helicopter coverage at the final day. It was a grand success. We certainly were able to give a boost to peace.

The key feature of the ‘RUN FOR PEACE’ was the participation of 150 athletes from Jaffna, Kilinochchi and Mannar. Actually, we had discussions with the LTTE in a bid to ensure the participation and security of the athletes from the North and in fact, we met the LTTE representatives after obtaining the prior approval from the Ministry of Defense. Finally, some 600 athletes from all corners of the island took part in the three-day which ended at the Bogambara Stadium in Kandy followed by a grand closing ceremony. 

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