A world champion, the founder of BASK – a leading karate club, “Sportsman of the Year,” – what is his story? What did he go through to win the Karate World Championships at the age of 63? How did he come to be the producer of an outstanding 31 world champions?

 It was an honor to interview Sellathurai Ganeshlingam, more commonly known as Master Ganesh, about how he grew to become an internationally recognizable figure who is prominent in the Karate world, how he became the first person to convey the art of karate to the northern region of Sri Lanka, and finally, the ups and downs of his success story.

How old were you when you first started karate and what made you want to do it?

Growing up, I was surrounded by a family of athletes – my eldest brother was an Indian stick fighter, my second brother was a wrestler and before discovering karate, I was a boxer. In Jaffna, the city in which I was born and bred, there were no karate training centers or classes and as a result, I was not exposed to the sport until later in my adult life. My initial interest in karate is rooted in a demonstration performed by a man who came to Jaffna from Colombo. He illustrated some techniques, skills, and the stamina involved in karate. I was immediately hooked. At 24, when I was in Colombo for work purposes, I took the opportunity to watch a national tournament at the Sugathadasa stadium. I was mesmerized by the beauty of the sport so from there, I collected some contacts to organize lessons for myself.

When did you decide that you wanted to pursue a career in karate and become an instructor?

When I first started karate, I had no intentions of developing my interest into a career. I was working for the Bank of Ceylon in Colombo and after 18 months of joining a karate training program, I got a transfer with my job to Jaffna. When I informed my instructor, Sensei Bonnie Roberts, about the transfer, he insisted that I should start a class there. I was reluctant at first since I felt as though I didn’t have enough experience and was only a blue belt, but he assured me that my standards were high enough to conduct a class. I agreed on one condition - once a fortnight he would have to come to Jaffna to teach me and, once a fortnight, I would go and learn from him in Columbo. It was settled and that’s where it all started. I founded my first club in April 1974 in Jaffna and named it JKA (the Jaffna Karate Association). I became the first martial arts tutor in the northern part of Sri Lanka. After I moved to England, I founded my current karate club, BASK (the British Academy of Shotokan Karate).

What has been the greatest sacrifice/ difficulty you have withstood for karate?

After completing my A-Levels, I was lucky enough to get a job at a leading bank in Sri Lanka (the Bank of Ceylon). I applied for the London AIB exam to further my career in the bank. I managed to pass all of my exams, apart from The Practice of Banking paper, which I hadn’t completed yet. Whilst preparing to take it, I discovered that the Karate National Championships were set to take place at the same time. Ultimately, I decided to postpone the exam as I knew that the training for the championships would be intense and take up most of my day. I had strong hopes of winning and believed that it would be a greater accomplishment. I managed to make it to the semi-finals of the competition, however, I was unable to achieve my desired title as a National Champion due to unfair judgment within the competition. Simultaneously, I was never able to complete my final paper as quickly after the championships, I had to move to England due to the civil commotion and riots escalating in Sri Lanka.  Neither my national champion title nor my AIB title was fulfilled which prompted me into a dark period of my life as my self-confidence took a big hit.

Furthermore, whilst establishing myself when in northern Sri Lanka, I was often threatened and called for open challenges to fight. I wanted to avoid them to prevent any controversy and bad blood, however, I was reluctantly compelled to accept them. Many people disliked my growth to success and questioned my standards. It interfered with my work life as I often had to leave work early to accept the fights and end their taunting calls for me to join. I will never forget some of the challenges I accepted.

What is the idea you least like about Karate?

Karate is a sacred martial art. It consists of hours and hours of practicing, perfecting, and dedication. I find it upsetting when a sport of such intricacy is interfered with by a lenient grading system. I find that sometimes, referees can be biased and reward students unfairly. It is unfortunate to watch students around the world fall victim to this concept and I hope that this issue will eventually come to an end.

What are your expectations for your students?

I am a disciplinarian and strive to live my life to the best of my capabilities, never allowing myself to fall back. At the age of 73, I still organize my days to allow at least four hours of exercise and practice. I expect my students to have the same motivations. Whilst I am aware that other priorities such as education do not allow a huge amount of time for practice, I believe that there is always a way - whether it’s on the bus, whilst watching TV, or having a shower, there is always time in your day to practice! I strongly believe that practice makes perfect, and I promote this message to my students as much as I can.

Are there any karate accomplishments that you would like to mention?

Whilst I am proud of every single one of my students, I am particularly proud of two of my prior senior students, who were both national champions in Sri Lanka, for their discipline and dedication. One of them is Ratnasothy Manickam; he used to take an express bus at 4 am, make it to the bus stand for 4.50 am, and then proceed to take another bus for 15 minutes before finally making it to our dojo in order to attend a class running from 5:30 to 7 am. Not once, was he ever late and at the age of 79, he is still a devoted karate man as he continues to teach and compete. Also, Mukunthan Somasundaram is another student who I admire, he devoted much of his time working on his techniques and is now 65 – he is still training and competing. This is the commitment and sacrifice that I believe makes a true athlete. I am also proud of my accomplishment of achieving the world champion title in 2011 in the USA. Finally, I was honored to be elected for the “Sportsman of the Year,” award in 2015 by the Kingston Council.

What is a message that you promote?

I believe that anything and everything is possible so long as you strongly believe in yourself.