It was such a joy and honour to meet up with an active living legend, Summa Navaratnam, at the Royal College Sports Complex in Colombo recently. Still brisk
and bright and actively involved in a Junior Rugby Academy he set up at Royal.
In the 1940s and ’50s Summa was the cynosure of all eyes as he streaked through at lightning speed to score brilliant tries on the rugby fields, while on the athletics fields he scattered the sprigs of grass on the turf, with his brilliant sprints, to smash many Sri Lanka and Asian athletics records. In 1953, Summa Navaratnam was dubbed “Asia’s Fastest Human” and “Fastest Man in Asia” – when he broke the existing 100m record at the Indian States Olympic Meet in Madras (renamed Chennai), running neck to neck with Lavy Pinto, the best of the
Indian sprinters. His astonishing time of 10.4 seconds surpassed both the Indian
and Asian records and compared well with the 1948 London Olympic record of
10.3secs and the Helsinki Olympic record of 10.4secs in1952. In the 1960s, sprinter Summa Navaratnam was not only known as the “Fastest man in Asia” but he weathered many a storm in life and sailed on in great style to be a winner as the “fastest winger” on the rugby fields, excelling for Royal, then CR & FC and Sri Lanka. As it was said at that time: “They don’t make such a calibre of giants any better!” This was the description of the legendary sportsman who had an enormous impact on athletics and as a dazzling runner with the rugger ball, and superb tackler.
Summa Navaratnam is the son of late Mr S.S. Navaratnam of the former Ceylon Civil Service and Mrs K.T. Navaratnam, the daughter of Dr C.S. Ratnam, a reputed provincial surgeon, born in 1925 in the remote village of Araly North in Vadukodai in the Jaffna Peninsula.
He faced a major dilemma whether to run in his “pet” event, the 100m, or to help the college win the relays and thus the major trophies
His civil servant father wanted the son groomed in the traditions of the British Public Schools and so Royal College was chosen for him to “learn of books
and of men and how to play the game”. Summa also recalled his first
significant achievement, as a nine-year old at The Training College (formerly
Royal Primary School) – he won the “lime and spoon” race over a distance of 25m and claims that “this is what propelled me into athletics”. He has never looked back since. In addition, his first major sporting achievement was as a boxer representing Royal College at the Stubbs Shield boxing meet of 1939. He successfully fought his way through the preliminary rounds of the bantamweight class but lost narrowly in the final. Yet, Royal College honoured him by awarding college boxing colours for an outstanding performance at that tender age. At the
early age of 15, he was awarded colours for athletics in 1940, and it remains to date as the youngest athlete to achieve this at Royal College. Without any hesitation, Summa is still identified as one of the greatest and finest sporting personalities Sri Lanka has ever produced, both in athletics and rugby. As a rugby coach, he produced some of the finest players in clubs and schools. Summa coached the Royal College 1st XV for 14 seasons and still takes on the boys at grass-roots levels. In all, he has been a coach for well over 50 years. A few
years ago, Summa was felicitated by the Royal College (Colombo) Old Boys’
Associations, in a few countries around the globe, to show their appreciation of
By Ken de Joodt this one-time “King of the Tracks”. These were the fruitful results of hard and tough disciplined training in his school days at Royal College, where his speed and brilliant sprint-starts off the blocks were seen as though the
cinders were being burnt under his spiked running shoes. Summa’s blistering runs were usually seen in his “pet” events of the 100m, 200m and 400m. Through the years of competing from 1940, Summa became the Champion Junior Athlete at Royal College, winning the under 14, under 16 and Best Performance Cup at the Public Schools meet and Schools AAA in 1943.
In the Public Schools meet of 1943, Summa won the 200m and 400m events with some excellent timings. He was also a key member of the 4 x 110 winning relay quartet, anchoring the team. In one instance, he faced a major dilemma whether to run in his “pet” event, the 100m, or to help the college win the relays and thus the major trophies. Summa sacrificially decided to run only in the relays – which finally gave Royal both the Tarbat and Jefferson trophies. This unselfish act also won him respect and high praise from his teammates, as it epitomises the character and spirit of sportsmanship in this young man’s heart – to put school before self and team before individual glory.
Pursuing his athletics prowess, Summa proved himself to be exceptional, a talented athlete who captained Royal College in 1942 and 1943. In 1944, he represented the Royal Old Boys in the Nationals, which saw him power his way through to the 100m and 200m national titles. He was easily identified as a “rising star” and shortly after Summa was named in the national team in 1945. He represented Ceylon in the dual meet against India and won the 4 x 100m relay, running with outstanding athletes such as Duncan White, R.E. Kitto and Basil Henricus. In 1947, Summa again stamped his class as the fastest man in Ceylon by annexing the 100 yards sprint at the nationals. Incidentally, in 1944, 1946 and 1947 Summa carried away the Wilton Bartleet Trophy for the best individual performance at the nationals.
In 1950, Summa had the honour of representing his country at the British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Auckland, New Zealand, and competed in the 100 yards and was a member of the 4 x 100 relay quartet. In 1951, Summa represented the Ace Athletic Club and confirmed his status as the fastest man by clinching the 100m title at the National Championships.
Then in 1953, in what was to be the forerunner to the SARC Games, Summa sprinting in the 100m at the Madras Provincial Olympic Association Meet, clocked a fantastic 10.4 seconds – the fastest time ever recorded on a grass track anywhere. The brilliance of this can be judged from the fact that in the 1948 Olympic Games in London, the winner’s time was 10.3 seconds, while the second and third clocked 10.4 seconds. In the 1952 Helsinki Olympic Games, the winning time was 10.4 seconds while in the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne, Australia, the winner posted a time of 10.5 seconds.
In 1948, Duncan White was the first from Ceylon (Sri Lanka) to win an Olympic silver medal, when he ran second in the 400m hurdles, in record time in London. Duncan White received a prestigious award from the Queen of England, Member of British Empire (MBE), as Ceylon was a Member Country of the Commonwealth. Duncan also was the leader of the Sri Lankan contingent to the London Olympics. As an old boy of Trinity College, Duncan was the captain of athletics and won the “Lion” in 1937 for outstanding performances. (There will be more written on this legend in our future issue!).
However, it would surely have been another Olympic medal for Ceylon through Summa, if it was not for nepotism on the part of the then selectors who stood in the way of this superb athlete. He missed inclusion in the Ceylon team for the 1948 London Olympic Games (which he confirms again was due to “nepotism”), although he was chosen for the trials to form a national squad. Finally, Summa was selected for Ceylon in 1950 to compete in the Commonwealth and Empire Games in Auckland, New Zealand, running with Duncan White, Oscar Wijesinghe and John de Saram, in the 100m relay.
Summa had a unique experience in 1953, when he had to participate in the 100m international event of the Ceylon AAA Nationals, in which the Asian record holder, Lavy Pinto of India, and a host of other local athletes took part. Having won his heat very comfortably, he was scheduled to represent Ceylon in a rugby international game against the Australian Colts. So Summa was rushed at 4pm to the CH & FC rugby grounds, immediately after the international athletics event – a rare feature for anyone to be representing the country in two international sports events on the same day. BUT Summa did!
On the next day, although Summa was suffering from the effects of concussion sustained in the rugby game he defied doctor’s orders and was at the starter’s orders. It turned out to be the most thrilling highlight – the 100m final. Summa’s fantastic determination and guts to compete with the Asian record-holder Lavy Pinto had the sports journalists describing the race dramatically: “Shoulder to shoulder, stride to stride, toe to toe, the two ‘thoroughbreds’ Pinto and Navaratnam ran the race of their lives – and at the tape, it was a photo-finish. Though Pinto was declared the winner, both runners had the identical timing of 11 seconds!”
This competition continued and again in 1953, Summa participated in the 100m at the Indian States Olympic meet in Madras, which was considered the most glamorous event. Summa ran in the 100m competing with India’s best sprinters and covered the sprint in the unbelievable time of 10.4 seconds. This shattered the Indian and Asian records and earned him the famous title “Asia’s Fastest Human”, for an incredible performance.
As a matter of interest, Summa’s timing of the 100m compares well with the 1948 London Olympic Games, where American sprint champion Harrison Dillard won the gold medal returning a time of 10.3 seconds, while in the 1952 Games in Helsinki Lindy Remigino of the US struck gold in a time of 10.4 seconds. In the 1956 Olympics at Melbourne, Robert Morrow, also of the US, won the event in 10.5 seconds.
All these performances were on cinder tracks, which helped athletes improve on their timings and compete better with sprinters from other foreign countries. In those “old days” in Sri Lanka, our local athletes ran on grass tracks only – not on any special tracks. One could well imagine the results and enhanced timings of Summa Navaratnam if he had these facilities in Sri Lanka then.
In his later years, his expertise as an athletics coach produced five classy athletes around the 1960s; to name a few were Darrell Lieversz, (Royal College 200m and 400m, and national champ), Lakshman de Alwis (St. Anthony’s College Kandy, Sri Lanka’s champion sprinter and later national coach), Nirmala Dissanayake (women’s 200m), Lorraine Rutnam (100m champion 1960 Asian Games), and Jilska Flamer-Caldera (80m hurdles champ).
Switching to rugby, Summa recalls with fascination the year 1941, when Royal, captained by Minoo Jilla, beat Trinity College, Kandy, for the first time by 11 points to 3, at Reid Avenue. Trinity was always referred to as the “Cradle of Rugby in Sri Lanka” and had a string of victories to its name. Before that, he recalls playing against St. Peter’s – W.A.Chandrasena’s team that included another outstanding sportsman Ralph Stork who also competed against him on the track and later joined the Royal Air force with him. Royal won this encounter 5-0. Once again, in 1943, to make it more impressive, Summa was in the Royal team that defeated Trinity in two matches for the first time. In the match played in Colombo, Royal triumphed 6-0 at the Police grounds, Colombo.
Summa’s moments of glory in the Royal-Trinity fixtures came in the second leg when he deputised as captain (for the regular captain, Dr. Larry Foenander, who did not play due to injury). He clinched a 5-3 victory for Royal by using his speed to sprint over 60 yards, to score a “dream” gift try under the posts.
In 1944, Summa left Royal to join the Royal Air Force and in that year Trinity won both games convincingly (15-0 in Colombo and 17-0 in Kandy). In 1945, the Royal Principal E.L. Bradby presented the Bradby Shield and based the award on the aggregate of scores in both matches. Trinity, captained by Dr Robert Sourjah in the first game, lost 3-0 but in the second game in Kandy, S.B. Pilapitiya captained to lead Trinity to an exciting 6-0 victory. Thereby, Trinity won the Bradby Shield in the inaugural year, and subsequently Royal won it in 1948 for the first time under the astute captaincy of Ashey Cader. Ashey was another outstanding rugby No.8, who developed his brilliant career, captaining CR & FC and later Ceylon in 1962.
Summa was selected to play rugby for the Colombo Rugger Club as their “star” wing three-quarter and in 1947 the CR & FC restarted rugby after World War II and produced their first team with Fred Kellar captaining the side. Summa played with great success and was seen as the fastest winger. His finest moments in both sports, rugby and athletics were in 1950, when he was chosen to play for Sri Lanka against the touring British Lions Rugby XV. Only three Sri Lankans were selected to play in an otherwise “All-white” Sri Lanka team, and they were Summa, Leslie Ephraims and Clair Roeloffsz.
Although Sri Lanka lost by 44 points to 6, the British Lions manager paid Summa Navaratnam a great compliment by saying that he is the only player who could be given that position to play in the British Lions team.
Summa’s turn as captain came in 1954 and 1955, when he led the CR & FC to victory in the Clifford Cup Tournament. Many outstanding players, helped in this success and won positions in the Sri Lanka teams, such as Dr. Trevor Anghie, Norman Gunawardena, A.B. Van Twest, S. Bambaradeniya, Ago Paiva, Yenfoo Pakstun, Devaka Rodrigo – and a fabulous third row consisting of Geoff Weinman, Ashey Cader and H. Numan.
During his lifetime, Summa has always kept himself disciplined, fit and occupied in various forms of work, not only taking top responsibility in trading organisations, but also in coaching rugby at clubs (CR & FC and Police), schools (Royal and Isipathana), and then at junior levels. His coaching stints extend over a record period of more than 50 years. He still helps in coaching the under 10s and has been a long-standing rugby coordinating coach for Royal.
Apart from rugby, Summa was “worth his weight in gold”, winning many Golds in the years gone by and using his talents, experience and knowledge in administrating in rugby committees of Royal College, CR & FC and Sri Lanka. Known as a man of impeccable character and integrity – to whom “right is might” – his judgment on many issues were precise, candid and purpose-driven, as he was himself. These innate qualities enriched Summa’s life and built him strong in mind and stature.
Summa climbed the ladder of success the hard way and his wonderful sporting achievements were the result of solid work, dedication, a sense of selfless sacrifice and relentless commitment to training. His way was truly a pathway to stardom, which he did not aspire to – but for today’s generation of sports people he could be cited as a role model who can be an inspiring and encouraging example.
Another unexpected record came his way, during his term of office as the elected President of the last CRFU (Ceylon Rugby Football Union) Committee in 1972/73. In 1973, the then government decided to change the name of our country from Ceylon to Sri Lanka. Summa was then re-elected as President of the newly named Sri Lanka RFU Committee in 1974.
With regard to schools rugby, his advice is: “Start them young, get them fit first. Teach and drill the basic skills into them until it is perfected. Do not teach them to ‘run before they can walk’. It is not only the running but the basic skills that are a priority in any sport. Great patience, understanding and true dedication is required to carry it through.”
So the saga of Summa concluded with an answer on how he kept fit and youthful … “Being active and ‘on the ball’ has done me good and nothing works better than faith in God – more things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of!”