story by Julia Steele
photos by Brad Goda
Jin de Silva was a boy of 12 in Sri Lanka when he discovered the Olympics. It was 1940, and his uncle took him to the American Embassy to watch newsreels. There, on flickering black-and-white celluloid, Jin watched Jesse Owens win four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Owens was all grace and speed and dignity, and Jin was enthralled. He was already a bit of a runner himself, but his school had neither track nor coach, and Jin didn’t even own a pair of running shoes. Still, he would race across the grass barefoot and leap over hedges, his body fast, young and eager.
The same zest that fueled his feet led Jin’s mind to think, as he watched Owens, “If he can do it, I also can do it.” People had already told him he was a good runner. He just needed to know how to become a better one. How, he asked his uncle, do you think I could contact Mr. Owens? Jin’s uncle put the question to the librarian at the embassy, who advised, “Just write a small letter, and I will get it across to him.” Jin wrote the letter—and two months later came a reply from halfway around the world from Owens.
The legendary athlete was full of encouragement for the Sri Lankan boy. He included a suggested training schedule and advice on nutrition. “Keep running!” he urged. Jin did. “I was on my own, running in the streets,” he remembers. Following Owens’ counsel, he ran every day, did bends and stretches and warm-ups. He asked his mother to cut down on the ghee, and she began feeding him mung beans for energy. He got faster and faster. When he was 16, he was invited to a meet in the capital, Columbo. There he saw hurdlers. “I can do that,” he thought, looking at the 3 1/2-foot hurdles and remembering the 5-foot-high hedges he used to clear. He added hurdling to his routine and kept going. When he saw British and American military officers running near his home, he started pacing himself against them.
“Who the hell is this guy?” the officers wondered, and they asked just that.
“I’m a schoolboy,” Jin explained, “practicing to get into the Olympics.”
“We’re having an open meet,” the officers said. “Why don’t you come and run it?” Jin ran it in tennis shoes and won: half a mile in 1 minute, 45 seconds. But his specialty had become the 400-meter hurdles, and it was this he ran for the ’48 Olympic trials. He ran fast—very fast—and wound up in a dead heat with a military officer. Sri Lanka—small and with limited resources—could not afford to send both men to the Games. The military officer was selected to go; he represented the nation and Jin did not.
It was a huge disappointment. “But,” says Jin, “every time foreigners came to our country, I would run with them.” Occasionally they were Olympians. In the early ’50s, Jin ran with people from England, Spain, India, Malaysia and beyond. He loved hearing their stories and looking at the memorabilia they carried, especially the Olympic memorabilia. He began to collect pins. He had no money, so he traded the one thing he could get his hands on: Sri Lanka’s world-renowned tea; his father would bring him packets, and Jin would return home with treasures. At the time, they were small consolations for missing the camaraderie and competition of the world’s greatest sporting event—but they foreshadowed the creation of one of the largest and finest collections of Olympic memorabilia now in existence.