30 July, 2022
AC Dep goes over the bar to set a record in 1936
AC Dep goes over the bar to set a record in 1936

AC Dep was the first Ceylonese athlete to go over an 11-foot bar in Pole Vaulting. Until then the All Ceylon record stood at 10ft.10 in. And almost one year later, he improved his record by becoming the first Ceylonese to go over the 12-foot barrier. Subsequently, he raised the national pole vault record to 12ft. 7½in, thus becoming a legend as a pole vaulter.

He performed those three record-breaking efforts while being an undergrad in the University College. Amazingly, his involvement with the pole vault event continued for almost two decades.

Wewage Arthur Cletus Dep is one of the most distinguished athletes in the island’s athletics history.

Just like the dual meets in schools’ athletics during the 1950s and 60s, there were inter-club athletic competitions in Colombo suburbs in the late 1920s and early 1930s. It was one of such meets that brought Arthur Dep to the limelight.

An athletic contest between Scarlet Runners of Wattala Averiwatta area and Bolton Wanderers of Wattala Mabole area resulted in producing a pole vaulting prodigy. His natural talent in the event amazed the onlookers. The news spread not only within the four boundaries of the village but also in the school he was studying in. By then he was a young student of St. Joseph’s College, Maradana, Colombo wherein his father was an old boy and staff member. At that time legendary athletic coach Marcus Perera was in charge of athletics at St. Joseph’s. He was instrumental in producing a good number of athletes of high calibre and Arthur Dep had the opportunity of having the guidance of this renowned coach early in his athletic career.

Dep always used a bamboo pole during his early years and as he recalled later, “of course, there were no pits or take-off boxes, and we had to land on the bare ground.”

In 1933, for the first time, Arthur C. Dep participated in the Public Schools Athletic meet. History reveals that it was the fourth edition of the Public Schools Championship meet for the Tarbat Challenge Cup. At that time the Public Schools record for pole vault event was held by J.W. Zehnder (St. Thomas’), and W.W. Tambimuttu held the All-Ceylon record. A circular issued by W.H.D. Perera, Hony. Secretary by Order of the Ceylon Amateur Athletic Association, relating to the Public Schools Meet (1933) mentions that an entry fee of cents 50 per event and Rs.2/- per team for relay events was levied. The distinctive competition number allotted to Dep was 54 while G. Roshkowski, first official athletic captain of St. Joesph’s had No. 60 on his competition attire. Dep was placed second in the pole vault event.

The year 1935 was a landmark year in Arthur C. Dep’s athletic career.

At the College inter-house meet, as the “Blue & White” magazine (1935) detailed, “the best performance of the meet, however, came from the star athletes of Marque House – S.A. Edwards, A.C. Dep and M. Spittel”. Edwards won the High Jump event, Malcolm Spittel won the Pole Vault while Dep carried off the Long Jump title. Amazingly, Dep was the runner-up in his favourite event.

Then came the Public Schools’ Athletic Meet (1935). A keen tussle was expected in the pole vault event between the existing record holder R. Peiris and the Josephian duo Malcolm Spittel and Arthur C. Dep. Eventually, Dep made history with a record-breaking jump of 10 feet. 7 7/10 inches. His schoolmate and inter-house champ Malcolm Spittel too performed brilliantly to secure record-breaking second place.

It was A.C. Dep’s maiden record-breaking jump. Many more records were to follow.

While A. C. Dep was having a firm grip on his chosen event and sport – pole vaulting and athletics, Malcolm Spittel abandoned pole vaulting and concentrated on cricket. Interestingly, a few years later saw A.C. Dep representing the country in athletics while Malcolm Spittel became a member of the All-Ceylon cricket team!

A.C. Dep’s Public Schools record did not last long unlike his national record. But the Pole Vaulting record created by his younger brother Lucien Dep (later Rev. Fr. Lucien Dep) at the Public Schools Athletic Championship Meet in 1948 remained unbroken for nearly five decades! Recalling his record-breaking jump, Fr. Lucien once said: “In those days there were no fibre glass poles available, and my brother Arthur, who was an Assistant Superintendent of Police at Matale prepared an ordinary bamboo for my use. It was with this, that I broke the Public Schools record in 1948.”

Leaving school Dep joined the University College. Colombo, then affiliated to the University of London. He followed the Bachelor of Arts degree course. Certainly, he was at his brilliant best in pole vaulting from 1936 to1939 when he represented the University College in athletics.

During the Ceylon A.A.A. Championship meet in 1936, Arthur C. Dep became the first Ceylonese to go over an 11-foot bar in pole vaulting. With this historic jump, he broke the existing record held by L.A. Leembruggen of 10ft. 10in. Creating a new All-Ceylon record, Dep joined the illustrious band of record-breaking pole vaulters in the country’s sporting history, such as W.W. Tambimuttu (Excise Department), Ronald Peiris (St. Peter’s College, Colombo) and L.A. Leembruggen among others. The Pole Vault event result of the 1936 Ceylon A.A.A. Meet read: 1. A.C. Dep, 2. W.W. Thambimuttu, 3. L.A. Leembruggen and L.D. Smith.

Here it is apt to quote a few lines from an article written by renowned sports journalist M.M. Thawfeeq: “In the quadrangular Meet of the same year (1936) Dep cleared 11 feet 6 inches. Commenting on this Sir Sidney Abrahams, Ceylon’s Chief Justice and a former Olympic athlete said: ‘I would award pride of place to Dep’s record-breaking pole jump. The mechanics of this particular event are so difficult that it took long years in England before a native jumper cleared 11 feet and Dep’s effort of 6 inches more, I think, I am safe in saying, have gained him a Blue at either Oxford or Cambridge any years since 1924’.” Decades later, Ceylon was renamed Sri Lanka and in the second decade of the new Millenium, A.C. Dep’s eldest son Priyasath became the Chief Justice of the island.

In the following year, the pole vaulters Dep and Leembruggen both sailed over 10ft. 6 ¾in. at the A.A.A. meet, but the latter was declared the winner considering the “fewer failures in the earlier jumps” out of the two.

A few days later in the same year 1937, A.C. Dep made another impressive stride when he cleared 12-feet to establish another All Ceylon record and became the first Ceylonese to go over this height. In 1939, still a student at the University College, he raised the Ceylon record to 12ft. 7½in. in the pole vault event. Incidentally, this record remarkably remained intact for 23 long years.

During the period from his debut year 1936 to 1952, there were only a couple of athletes, Caxton Njuki (1939) and C.H. Jansz (1948 & 1952), who were able to oust Dep from the pole vault title at the A.A.A. Championship meet.

The “Ceylon Daily News” in 1979 carried an interesting article under the caption “Ugandan Wonder” and written by “L.G.S. (Nugegoda)”, which depicts the sporting ability of Njuki and the sportsmanship of A.C. Dep. Among other things it read: “-----But encouraged by his coach the late J.C.Thurairatnam, he (Njuki) entered for the A.A.A. meet. Although he had always won the pole vault at the Southern meets for several years he had not attempted anything above 9’ 6” due to the lack of a good pole. A more reliable pole was obtained in time for the A.A.A. meet and it was transported to Colombo by rail. It was only when he attempted his first jump and the pole broke in two that he realised that it had suffered a crack in transit. It was at this stage that A.C. Dep with true sportsmanship offered his own pole to Njuki who not only cleared 11’3” a height he had never dreamed of but also won the event, being the first to beat Dep in Sri Lanka.”

A few words about Caxton Njuki: This versatile sportsman from Uganda represented Richmond College, Galle in cricket, athletics and soccer among other games, in the late 1930s and early 1940s. He captained the Richmond cricket team in 1940 and 1941 and had a big hand in celebrating victories in the famous Richmond – Mahinda traditional cricket encounter in both years.

In 1938, A.C. Dep represented the National team at the British Empire Games held in Sydney. The other members of the Ceylon team were: W.W. Tambimuttu (Captain) - Long Jump, H.A. Perera – High Jump and Duncan White – 440 yards. Although Dep was unplaced in the pole vault event, it was reported that “while on his way to Ceylon from Sydney, he cleared the best height by a Ceylonese, jumping 12 feet 4 inches in Perth.”

The first-ever India-Ceylon Athletic Meet was held in Colombo on the 25th & 26th days of October 1940. The Ceylon team led by champion hurdler J.C.W. Obeyesekera had three competitors for the pole vaulting event. They were A.C. Dep (No.27), C. Njuki (No. 38) and former record holder Ronald R. Peiris (No.40). By the time the Indo-Ceylon meet was held, the All-Ceylon record holder was A.C. Dep for his 12ft. 71/2 in. jump. The Pole Vault event was the second item on the competition itinerary on day two of the meet. The event judges were W.T. Brindley, H.C. Buck and S.A. Pakeman. Eventually, Dep cleared 11ft. 5 3/4in. to be the winner of the event. The second and third places were occupied by two Indian jumpers A.K. Mukherjee and Amar Singh respectively. It is said that Caxton Njuki, who ousted Dep in the A.A.A. meet was unplaced in the Indo-Lanka competition as “he muffed all three jumps at the initial height itself.”

This international dual meet held at the Police ground turned out to be a novel experience for both the participants and the spectators. According to a news report “After the Governor Sir Andrew Caldecott, who was met on arrival by Mr. Langran, President of the Ceylon A.A.A., and Mr. W.H.D. Perera, Honorary Secretary, had declared the contest open, the Union Jack and the flags of India and Ceylon unfurled, while the Police band played ‘Land of Hope and Glory’, and 300 small balloons of various colours were released from the further end of the ground. The Indian team, a stalwart body of athletes in flannels, light blue blazers and blue turbans stood in two rows facing the Ceylon team, who were in the athletic kit.” To the amusement of the spectators, there was a fanfare of trumpets before the commencement of the first event!

A couple of years later, in 1942 Dep joined the Ceylon Police, as an Assistant Superintendent. For him, the busy official work schedule made no hindrance to his sporting schedule. At times he was stationed in remote places such as Ratnapura, Talaimannar, Batticaloa, Matale and Uva, yet he was able to continue with his practice schedule with minimum facilities and little spare time. After joining the Police department, he won the national pole vault title for five successive years (1942-46) and again in 1948 and 1951.

Bangalore was the venue for the second Indo-Ceylon athletic contest. The year was 1946. The honour of leading the Ceylon team was bestowed on Arthur C. Dep. It was another colourful chapter in Ceylon’s athletic history. Before the departure, the Ceylon team were entertained to a farewell party at the Galle Face Hotel. Those present included Minister of Agriculture and Lands Mr. D.S. Senanayake, Mayor of Colombo Mr. R.A. de Mel, Col. J.L. Kotalawala, Dr Ivor Jennings – Vice-Chancellor University of Ceylon, Mr. R. Marrs – former Principal of the University of Ceylon, Col. R.R.M. Bacon – Inspector General of Police and Dr V.R. Schokman. The farewell party was hosted by Mr. W.H.D.Perera, Hony. Secretary of the A.A.A., who was also the Manager of the tour party.

The team reached Danushkodi from Colombo Fort by train and boat and arrived at Egmore in Madras by rail. From Madras to Bangalore another whole-night train journey. In the end, only three athletes out of the 25-member Ceylon team were able to earn a “First” place in their respective events apart from winning the two relay events. As expected Captain of the team, A.C. Dep won the Pole Vault event while H.M.P. Perera won the 400 metres and Duncan White won the 400 metres hurdles event.

Arthur C. Dep’s 12ft. 7 1/2in. pole vault record established in 1939 was eclipsed in July 1962 – after a lapse of 23 years, by Vijitha Wijesekera of the Ceylon Army. During the Asian Games athletic trials at the National Sports Festival held at the Police Park, Wijesekera went on to establish a new Ceylon record at 12ft. 9in.. It was reported in the media that first to congratulate the new record holder Wijesekera was the previous record-holder A.C.Dep. Incidentally, Dep was one of the judges of the pole vault event at the contest.

A few days later in July 1962, famous journalist Manik De Silva writing for the “Ceylon Observer” questioned: “Why did this record stand so long? – The vaulting void from Dep to Wijesekera.”

To quote a paragraph or two from Manik De Silva’s article: “The shadows had drawn over the ground; Brooke D’Silva had just broken the record in the Javelin throw; Sir Andrew Caldecott, Governor-General was waiting to distribute the awards; Then A.C. Dep soared over the horizontal bar that stood tantalisingly over him at 12 feet 7 1/2 inches, balanced on two wedges of wood, to fall at the slightest touch. For Dep, it was the culmination of years of training, an improvement of a record he had established three years previously; a record destined to stand for twenty-three years, till the lithe and lean Vijitha Wijesekera broke it at the Asian Games trials just the other day. Why did this record stand for so long a period? Perhaps, because it was an achievement out of the ordinary. The Indian record at that time was 12 foot 1. Certainly, it was the best in South East Asia at the time and athletes of Asian class produced by Ceylon are few and far between.”

A.C. Dep was associated with Ceylon Athletics for more than five decades. He first participated as an athlete, thereafter as an official of the Ceylon Amateur Athletics Association by officiating as a judge and referee at the athletic meets conducted by the Ceylon A.A.A. and later functioned as an administrator by being a Vice President of the Ceylon A.A.A. for more than a decade. His last association with Ceylon Athletics was when he accompanied the Sri Lanka team to Chandigarh, India as Chef de Mission in 1976.

A.C. Dep retired from the government service in 1972 at the age of 55. He was then a Deputy Inspector General of Police. When he was stationed in Uva province he took a keen interest in scholarly research which resulted in a lengthy article on the “collection of Bambara Honey in Uva” which was later published in the Journal of the Ceylon Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society. This was followed by his masterpiece of research, the “History of the Ceylon Police”, published in 1969. On retirement, he authored a few more books on historical subjects, such as “Ceylon Police and the Sinhala – Muslim Riots of 1915” and “The Egyptian Exiles in Ceylon”.

To celebrate its 75th anniversary, the Amateur Athletic Association published a very informative souvenir in 1997. The publication was dedicated to the late J.C.W. Obeyesekere, Captain of the Ceylon team that took part in the first India - Ceylon athletic contest. Among the contents was a record on “Sri Lanka All-time Greats for the past 75 years” (1922-1997). A.C. Dep ranked first in the “Pole Vault Greats” list with 109 points. The others listed are 2. Ruwan P. Perera (102 points), 3. Vijitha Wijesekera (53), 4. D.M.G. Dissanayake (50), 5. W.W. Thambimuttu (39), 6. M.A. Akbar (35), 7. M.A. Hakeem (31), 8. L.D. Smith (31). Then in the “Overall Rankings” of the all-time athletic greats (Men) of the country, A.C. Dep (Pole Vault 1936-52) is allotted the No. 6 slot. Above him were 1. Duncan White (400 m. Hurdles 1939-50), 2. Nagalingam Ethirweerasingham (High Jump 1951-62), 3. W. Wimaladasa (400m. 1965-78), 4. C. Senanayake (Discus Throw 1936-52) and 5. K.A. Karunaratne (10000 m.).

Certainly, this is one of the rare instances wherein A.C. Dep’s extraordinary athletic prowess is duly recognised. Anyhow, by then nine years had elapsed after the demise of the legendary ‘Master Pole Vaulter’.

(Neil Wijeratne is an author of several books and this article was run in the souvenir published recently to mark 100 years of athletics in the island)