Duncan White’s Silver at London 1948 and his spectacular astounding hurdling | Sunday Observer

Duncan White’s Silver at London 1948 and his spectacular astounding hurdling

18 July, 2021
440 yards Hurdles at London  Olympics 1948. From left:  R Larsson (Sweden), Roy Cochran (USA) and Duncan White (Ceylon)
440 yards Hurdles at London Olympics 1948. From left: R Larsson (Sweden), Roy Cochran (USA) and Duncan White (Ceylon)

Major Deshamanya Duncan White, MBE, ED was surely the foremost amongst the sporting legends of Sri Lanka. He became the first Sri Lankan to secure an Olympic medal, winning silver medal in 440 yards Hurdles at the London 1948 Olympics. He was also the only South Asian to have won an Olympic medal in athletics for 52 years, until Susanthika Jayasinghe, another Sri Lankan, won a silver in 220 yards at Sydney 2000.

Having been a close observer and a post-doctoral student of the world’s most beautiful sport of athletics for decades, it is my ardent desire to make a justification to the enormous impact, prestige and influence made by Sri Lanka’s inimitable athlete, Duncan White to put our country on the world map. I thought the ideal time for such an exertion is run up to an Olympic Games.

The 1948 Summer Olympic Games officially known as the Games of the XIV Olympiad were held from July 29 to August 14, 1948 in London, United Kingdom. The 1948 Olympics held after a 12-year interruption ultimately were very popular and were perceived as providing relief from the strains caused by the World War II.

Sri Lanka (then Ceylon), took part in London 1948, for the first time, after gaining independence from the British Empire. Our hero of the moment, Duncan White certainly infused our nation with new hope, by marching with ‘Sri Lanka National Flag’ for the first time at the Athletes’ Parade at the Olympic Games and by winning the country’s first ever Olympic Medal.

Blazing Spirit in Life

Duncan White was born on March 1, 1918 to a middle-class family at Lathpandura, near Badurueliya, in the Kalutara district as the second child. His parents were John Bernard White and Cecilia Hawk White. His siblings were Frederick, Stanley and Douglas. The parents decided to move to Kandy and pursue education of their 4 sons at Trinity College and Kingswood College.

It was a hard battle for the father, an apothecary to pay the school fees of his sons. In fact, they were engrossed with hardships and found it difficult even to buy a pair of running shoes for Duncan. In those days there were no sponsorships. But in the blazing spirit of winners, he was not put off by such shortcomings.

The family nestled near ‘Udawatte Kelle’ forest, just 200m away from Trinity. It is said that Duncan, always packed his bag and ran to college after hearing the first bell, at 7.55 a. m. and always took the lead in running. He was more into sports and took part in rugby and boxing. His coaches, Major Harry Hardy and Philip Buultjens noted his physical structure would be ideal for ‘athletics’ and encouraged him to participate in 200 m, Long Jump and 110m Hurdles.

At 16, Duncan was chosen to the College Athletic Team in 1934. At 18, he was made the College Athletic Captain in 1936. At the Public Schools in 1936, he was able to win 220 yds clocking 23.3 secs with a ‘New Schools Record.’ He also won 110 yards Hurdles and Long Jump. The highlight was Trinity winning for the first time ‘Sir John Tarbet Trophy’ as the Overall Champions. Duncan’s contributions in relays annexed the ‘Jefferson Trophy.’ In recognition of his unique feats, he was awarded the coveted ‘Trinity Lion’, even before his ‘College Colours’.

At 19, still a schoolboy, he won his first ‘National Title’ winning 440 yards at National Championships of 1937, establishing a ‘New Sri Lanka Record’ clocking 52.00 on September 11, 1937. Besides, he won 120 yds Hurdles. He improved his Sri Lanka Record in 440 yds to 50.40 on October 20, 1937. To this day, his name adores the ‘Honour Roll’ at the Trinity College Hall as one of the greatest students who served as the ‘College Athletic Captain’.

Reaching the Podium

For the first time, Sri Lanka participated at the Sydney 1938 Commonwealth Games (then British Empire Games). Duncan was a member of the team as a schoolboy. He unfortunately did not achieve what he sought mainly due to a hamstring injury. He turned all the unpleasant experiences that confronted to chart his path towards glory.

In 1939, he won both 100 yards and 440 yards Hurdles at the National Championships. He established a new Sri Lanka record in 440 yards Hurdles clocking 56.0 on October 26, 1940. In 1940, he won 440 yards Hurdles and 440 yards at the Indo-Sri Lanka Dual Meet. In 1941, he bagged 440 yards and 220 yards at the Government Services Athletics Meet.

In 1942, with the onset of World War II, he was commissioned as an officer in the Ceylon Light Infantry. In 1942, he won 120 yards Hurdles and 440 yards Hurdles at the National Championships. He established a new Sri Lanka Record in 220 yards Hurdles clocking 22.2 on September 9, 1944.

In 1945, during the war, he had travelled from Trincomalee, taken part at the Defence Services Championships in Colombo and won 110 yards Hurdles running with a pair of tennis shoes, beating a former Olympian. In 1946, he won 440 yards and 440 yards Hurdles at the Indo-Sri Lanka Dual Meet. In the Ceylon Volunteer Force, he rose to the rank of a Major and was demobilized in November, 1947.

Dream London 1948 Olympics

Sri Lanka burst onto the Olympic scene at London 1948. The contingent comprised of 3 athletes and 4 boxers and they had left by sea on May 22, 1948.

Duncan elaborated the selection process: “A decision had been made to send, for the first time, a Ceylon team for the Olympic Games and I made up my mind that should an athlete be picked that it had to be me. When entries were called, I entered for five events in order to make doubly sure that should I do well, the selectors would have no alternative but me. At the trials, I won the heats in all five events but for the finals, I informed that I was dropping out of 100 yards and 440 yards as I felt the other events (110m Hurdles, 200m and 440 yards Hurdles), were the best ones to concentrate on. The winner of the second heat in 440 yards was H. M. Perera and the press had predicted a “White-Perera Duel” in the finals.

My request to withdraw from the final did not please the officials and selectors. I was adamant in not taking part in the 440 yards and an official, who was also one of my friends, informed that if I didn’t take part, I wouldn’t be considered for selection. He also mentioned that there was talk that I was “too old” for the Games. My intense desire and determination to go to London 1948 made me agree to take part in the race. I took my mark with more determination to beat H. M. Perera and beat him well. At the gun, I went off at such a cracking pace that he gave up at the last bend. I had won four events, I was selected to the team and also appointed as Captain.”

The team returned home by sea and Trinity College organized a warm welcome at the Colombo Jetty. In Kandy, a colorful procession led Duncan to Trinity College, where he was honored by re-conferment of the prestigious ‘Trinity Lion.’

Scholarship to Loughborough University

In 1949, Duncan was awarded a scholarship to pursue Physical Education (PE) at the Loughborough University in London. He became the ‘Athletics Captain’ and his brilliance enabled the Uni to win the British University Championships for three successive years. At the Uni, he was the most outstanding athlete winning five gold medals and Victor Ludoram Trophy.

At the Auckland 1950 Commonwealth Games, Duncan won the gold medal in 440 yards Hurdles with a new Games record. His 52.5, was just 0.3 secs outside the world record. Duncan was blessed, to experience with tears, ‘Raising of the Sri Lankan Flag to the Crescendo of the National Anthem.’

This achievement garnered him dual honors of ‘Member of the British Empire’ and the Helms World Trophy as the ‘Most Outstanding Athlete’ in Asia. After the Commonwealth Games, he decided to hang the spikes.

In 1951, Duncan returned and took up as a PE Lecturer at Teacher’s Training College in Maharagama. The trainees felt exceedingly proud and honored to have an Olympic medalist. He remained the humblest, most unassuming, cheerful and friendliest lecturer in those glorious days. He played a pivotal role in developing sports and physical curriculum in schools. He actively took part in National Championships as a Starter and coached athletes.

Dr. Nagalingam Ethirveersingham, PhD, the winner of the first Asian Games gold medal, shared how he was taken to Maharagama for a one-month attachment under Duncan, prior to the Olympic Games Helsinki 1952. He elaborated on his gentleman qualities and untiring efforts to instill confidence in him. He deeply appreciated his constant advice and companionship.

Marriage and Later Life

In March 1952, Duncan married Angela Jeanne Siebel and bought a green Morris Minor. The couple occupied a ramshackle ‘bungalow’ in the old military camp. He was made Chef de Mission for the Asian Games Manila 1954. In 1958, the Department of Education absorbed him as Head Coach. He had a stint at the National Olympic Committee as the Secretary General from 1959 to 1963.

At 45, Duncan along with his family, left for Nigeria to serve as a Lecturer at the University of Nigeria. He was elevated a Senior Lecturer and at the end of 12 years, they decided to reside in the United Kingdom. He worked at the local Borough Council and retired in 1983. Then returned to Nigeria for a two-year assignment as a Sports Adviser.

It was unfortunate that Sri Lanka took 40 years to honor him with a Postage Stamp and 50 years to confer a national award. A group of distinguished sports enthusiasts instituted, ‘The Duncan White Sports Foundation’ in 1990 for identifying, assisting and recognizing the achievements of athletes. It admirably contributed towards the growth of many sport stars for a dozen years.

Duncan White passed away peacefully at the ripe age of 80 on July 3, 1998 in Warwickshire, United Kingdom, surrounded by his six children: Maxine, Nita, Christopher, Dan, Marilyn and Fiona.

Reminiscences of Olympic Glory

On July 30, 1948, Duncan clocked 53.6 and 52.1 in Heats and Semi Finals. Duncan’s day of glory was July 31, 1948.

Duncan shared with his characteristic humility in 1987: “The big day began with the Opening Ceremony and I as Captain, was given the privilege to carry the Ceylon Flag. Our Manager wished that I rest as the heats for 440 yards Hurdles were scheduled for the next day. I however insisted that I take part as I didn’t want to miss out any of the exhilarating experience. The next day the call came for me to take part in the heat of the 440 yards Hurdles. Before the heat commenced, I had assured myself that I could run as well or even better than any of my opponents regardless where they came from. I won my heat with ease and looked back and eased up nearing the finish.

The semi-finals were held later that afternoon. I was well in the lead but like in the heats eased up at the finish in order to conserve my strength for the finals the next day. I made the error of easing up too early and was nearly pipped into fourth place. However, a photo finish confirmed I had finished third. The finals were held the following day and I was somewhat disappointed that I had to compete in lane five. However, I made up my mind that I would beat whoever was in the lane outside me when reaching the first hurdle, thus gaining the confidence that I would be ahead of former World Record Holder in Larson of Sweden.

There was a change in the way I strode when reaching the seventh hurdle and this allowed Cochran to take the lead. I felt content that I would finish second and didn’t make an effort to challenge him who went on to win with a new Olympic Record. I too bettered the previous record by two seconds. After the event, I thought to myself if I only had the 2-year preparation as did Cochran the winner! The most unforgettable and emotional moment was stepping on the Victory Podium and seeing the National Flag being hoisted before 85,000. I was also entered for 200m and 440 yards. The day after my success, I was to compete in the heats of 200m. I was running well. When entering the ‘straight’ my left hamstring muscle gave way and I could no longer take part. I returned home to a rapturous welcome. The occasion will live in my memory forever”.

Duncan’s Stimulation

Athletics is complex and wonderfully varied, but it also embodies passion, hard work and self-improvement. Athletics is education and entertainment, respect for the rules, and self-expression. Athletics is also like life itself, with challenges and obstacles, triumphs and defeats. Many champion athletes have emulated the courage, commitment and joy inherent in the sport.

The London 1948 Olympics were the first that introduced ‘starting blocks.’ The lifelong influence of Duncan entrenched on me was so much that my dad and coach groomed me to take part in the events of the legendary athlete – Sprints, Long Jump and Hurdles. On a personal note, my dad imported the very ‘starting blocks’ used by Duncan in Olympics for my 15th birthday. I proudly used it as a schoolboy. Later, I became the college ‘Athletics Captain.’

I was part of the golden era of athletics of Royal College when we repeatedly won ‘Sir John Tarbet Trophy’ and ‘Jefferson Trophy’ at Public Schools and ‘Daily News Trophy’ at Relay Carnival in 1970s. In academics, when the Uni called me for ‘Viva Voce’ on July 31, I was thrilled. Surely, Duncan’s dazzling accomplishment at London, decades earlier inspired me to defend my work on ‘Strategic Sports Management.’ The 440 yards that won Olympic glory to Duncan harmonized, the 400 pages of my doctoral thesis. It was indeed the perfect podium to honor my sporting idol.

Legacy of Duncan White

The Olympic Report discourses: “In the final of 400m Hurdles for men, Cochran of the USA was in the third lane, White of Ceylon in the fifth lane and Larsson of Sweden on the outside. White went off at a terrific pace but by half distance Cochran, hurdling in superb form was ahead. He won in 51.1 secs, a magnificent victory. White of Ceylon, who was second, had very little competition before the games and his achievement of 51.8 secs deserves the highest praise.”

Duncan’s remarkable and astounding ‘Hurdling’ is a spectacle performance – celebrated, honoured and admired, though 72 long years have passed, his legacy continues to linger on as strong as ever. His life was embedded with Olympic values such as discipline, friendship, respect, excellence, determination, inspiration, courage and fair play.

His elegance, enthusiasm and simplicity in life made him a legend. His sheer determination and never-say-die attitude earned him the accolade, ‘All Time Greatest Male Athlete.’ Let me invite all Sri Lankan sports stars to trod in his path with passion, overcome the challengers, sail to glory, and bring honor to Mother Lanka!

The author proposes to the energetic Minister of Sports, Hon. Namal Rajapaksa to name a ‘Sports Institution’ in his memory, identify a ‘Boulevard Strip’ in his honor and erect a life size ‘Statue’ for the future generations to reminiscence the legendary athletes’ incredible, peerless and exemplary feats.

(The author is the winner of Presidential awards for sports and recipient of multiple National accolades for academic pursuits. He possesses a PhD, MPhil and double MSc. He can be reached at [email protected])

First Sri Lanka (Ceylon) Olympic team. From left: Edward Gray, Albert Perera, Duncan White (Captain), John de Saram, Mr. Perera (official), George Peiris, Leslie Handunge and Alex Obeysekere