Memories of Josephian Athletics and Athletes
BY NEIL WIJERATNE
We were awaiting the arrival of those flying runners. They will outclass all other competitors, as we were told, and would bring glory to our school. Unbelievable.
I had a hurried lunch, a few slices of “seeni sambol” bread and a glass of “lime juice” at the College “tuck shop” and ran back to the grounds, even before the ‘Tucky” sorted out the balance. The fliers were yet to mark their arrival. The primary school office assistants, Marceleenu and Sarpeenu told us to lined-up under the Maara tree, near Father Noel Perera’s office, if we were keen to watch our athletes flying. We obliged. There was an inter-school athletic meet at the College grounds and it was the sprint events that marvelled us. Our College athletes ran fast and hard to emerge winners in almost all the sprint events. We, being primary school students went on cheering continuously. Later-on, the seniors informed us, that we were the Colombo North Group Meet Champs. That’s all. My classmates were thrilled and happy. But I was expecting something different; something extra-ordinary. I was expecting someone to emerge like a phoenix, from the far end behind the school and that he would hop on to the Beira grounds, step on the middle grounds and jump over the main grounds. It never happened!
A couple of years later when I saw our athletic captain Adolf Silva at his best on the field, I realised what Marceleenu and Sarpeenu meant the other day. He was a flyer; a complete athlete. Like Priya Perera in cricket, Hiranjan Perera in rugby football, Adolf became my hero in athletics. In 1960, I saw him carrying away the “Leigh Smith Cup” at the Inter House meet for the best individual performance and I was told that he was the winner in 200 meter sprint event and second in 100 meters in the A.A.A. junior championship meet. And also I heard from the seniors how my favourite athlete “ran in the third laps of two relays turning each race into a victory for the Josephians at the Public Schools Meet”. The “Blue and White” magazine had this to say about him: “Adolf has played a heroic part in helping us to win one Junior Championship (1958) and three consecutive Senior Tarbat victories and numerous relay triumphs in the victories of Daily News and Jeaffreson trophies”.
As per historical records of St. Joseph’s College, Colombo, the first athletic captain of the school is Greg Roshkowsky. That was far back in 1932. He was among the first batch of athletes along with Norman Matthews, G. Sivapragasam and D. Jayasekera, who were awarded Athletic “Blues”. Along with that came the formation of the Josephian Athletic Club.
Astonishingly, even before the college athletic wing was formed and athletic captain was appointed, the school had established itself as a force to be reckoned with. One classic example for this is the gallant performance of long distance runner Norman Mathews in 1930.
Date: October 4, 1930. Venue: Police grounds, Bambalapitiya. It was the second day of the first ever public schools athletic meet organised by the Ceylon AAA. Events for the day started at 3.30 p.m. with 4 x 100 relay, followed by Pole Vault, Quarter mile race, 100 yards finals and one-mile race as the final event, before the prize distribution. So the glamour event in front of the chief guest the Governor General of Ceylon and the other distinguished gathering and spectators turned out to be the one mile race.
On the following day, the broadsheets mentioned that “Norman Mathews, a 15 year old from St. Joseph’s ran an astonishing race to win the mile in 5 mt. 6 secs.” Certainly, this was the earliest instance where St. Joseph’s College engraved its name in the annals of school athletics history in the island.
History reveals that the Josephians played their first ever inter collegiate cricket match just two seasons after the inauguration of the school in 1896. They played soccer too. And also had the annual sports meet almost since inception.
The inaugural issue of the College magazine (1905) carried the following account about the “Athletic Sports Meet” held in January 1905. “There was a special pavilion to accommodate His Grace the Archbishop, and the other Bishops who were present; and here the prizes were tastefully arranged and displayed. There was a fashionable and brilliant assemblage to witness the proceedings, while the Volunteer Band was in attendance and played a charming selection of music. The grounds presented quite a festive appearance; being decorated with greens, flags etc., and the course was carefully marked and prepared. The sports commenced at 3 p.m. sharp.” Apart from the customary events such as short and long distance races and other items, there were also “100 yards sack race”, “obstacle race”, “one mile bicycle race”, “menagerie race” and “old boys slow bicycle race”.
In 1927 the Josephians were fortunate to have a galaxy of well known sports personalities in the country volunteering as ‘Judges’ of the College meet and amongst them were Col. E. H. Joseph (who is considered as ‘father of Ceylonese rugby’ and former president of NCC and first president of CR & FC), Dr. V. Schokman (All-Ceylon cricketer, ruggerite and former President of A.A.A.), Dr. C. H. Gunasekera (former skipper of the All-Ceylon cricket team), Dr. A. Raffel, P. J. Parsons and C. T. Van Geyzel (being the first Ceylonese to clear the six-foot barrier in high jump and former President of the Ceylon Amateur Athletic Association from 1952 to 1966, a period of 15 years!). It shows the importance and acceptance of the Josephian ‘athletic meet’ amongst other sporting activities of the island at the time.
Although the running and jumping athletic events were very much popular amongst the students and the sports meet was held annually, the athletic spirit was yet to reach the organizational level of cricket and football activities in the school. Thereby in 1932, the tenure of Rev. Fr. T. L. Victor Fernando as Prefect of Games, saw the formation of St. Joseph’s Athletic Club. Greg Roszkowski, being a Put Shot champion was appointed as the first captain of St. Joseph’s athletics. The historic photograph of first members of the “SJC Athletic Club” with Rev. Fr. Rector and POG was later published in the College magazine in its 1932 November issue with a detailed description of the newly formed Athletic Club. The school also introduced a new scheme of awarding athletic colours, popularly called “Athletic Blues” during the period of 1931-32.
In the formative years the annual sports meet of St. Joseph’s was followed by a grand “Garden Party”. For a longer period of time, the end piece of the annual sports meet was the Garden Party, well attended by the Priests, guests, well-wishers and importantly, the old boys, who were the organisers of the meet since the formation of the OBU. And interestingly, most of the time the annual meet was held on the Rector’s day.
It was only in 1935, nearly four decades after the opening of the school, that the “Athletic Sports Meet” which was an annual feature of the school by then was named “Inter House Athletic Meet”. The first athletic meet conducted on the House system was held on the 20th September 1935. The College magazine reported: “This meet was in every respect the most successful we have had for many years. The events worked off without a hitch before a large gathering. A radio set discoursed a fine selection of music, and announced items and results. The prize table presented a gorgeous spectacle of trophies. This year saw the inauguration of the system of challenge cups for all events reckoned for the House Championship. The major share of the credit for this glittering array of silver goes to Rev. Fr. Alfred Nanayakkara, our new Prefect of Games.” (1935)
At the end of the 1935 sports meet, Bonjean House emerged first winner of the Inter House championship with 49 points, closely followed by Coudert House with 46 points. The College magazine (1935) whilst giving a detailed account on the individual performances stated that “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, Spittel won the Pole Vault whilst Dep carried off the Long Jump title.
Interestingly, in the Public Schools Meet of 1935 A. C. Dep and Malcolm Spittel performed brilliantly to secure record breaking first and the second places respectively in the Pole Vault event. High Jump champ S. A. Edwards also won his event comfortably with another stunning record jump. According to the ‘Blue & White’ magazine (1935): “ A. C. Dep broke the schools record with a vault of 10 ft. 7 7/10 ins., and narrowly missed setting up a new Ceylon record. Spittel did remarkably well in going up to 10 ft. 5 ins. with little or no training!”
A few years later Arthur C. Dep became the first Sri Lankan athlete to go over “eleven-foot” barrier and then the “twelve-foot” barrier in the Pole-Vaulting event. And Malcolm Spittel went on to represent the All-Ceylon team in cricket!
Josephian participation in the Tarbat Cup competition was to follow.
It was in 1937 that the Josephians first touched the Tarbat Challenge Cup. They became the Public Schools champs by totaling 24 points. The following year – 1938 they had to share the school athletic supremacy when they tied with St. Thomas’ Mount Lavinia (20 pts. each). The “Ceylon Daily News” stated: “At a meeting of the Sports sub-committee of the Ceylon AAA held early this week (October 1938), it was agreed that another replica purchased and awarded to St. Thomas’, who tied with St. Joseph’s for the Championship at the recent schools Athletic meet.”
There is an interesting story behind the “Leigh Smith Cup” which is synonymous with the House Meet at St. Joseph’s. This piece of silver was originally called “Victor Ludorum Cup” which was won outright by a scholar and athlete the late Mr. Leigh Smith whilst at the University of Durham, England at the beginning of the twentieth century. According to an article published in the College Magazine (1953 issue): “Mr. Leigh Smith, who won this Cup, has been aptly called the father of Ceylon Athletics by one of her greatest sporting statisticians Mr. S. P. Foenander. It is a rare privilege for St. Joseph’s to get this Cup, where one of Mr. Smith’s pupils is kindling athletic fires in obedience to his wishes and loyalty to his school. It is a noble piece of silver which would fetch a round six hundred rupees to-day. It is an athletic treasure. It has been decided to award this trophy as a perpetual Challenge Cup to the Josephian Athlete, regardless of age, whose performance shall be considered the most outstanding for the year. For 1950-51 the brilliant and deserving winner has been P. D. Victor, only fifteen years of age, for breaking the best Junior Public School’s long jump performance of Rev. Bro. Darnley de Souza, by fully 1 ft. 2 ins. when he cleared 19 ft. 11 ins.” (Blue & White magazine – 1953)
During my years in the primary school and middle school at St. Joseph’s, I must say, the glamour sport of the school was not cricket, it was athletics.
In between the years 1960 to 67, we were privileged to witness some outstanding runners leading the athletic team, who brought fame and glamour to the sport. We saw how Adolf Silva, Neomal Basnayake, Srian and Janaka Perera, Shantilal Fernando, Joseph de Soysa and Constantine Wickramasinghe among many others stole the limelight in the athletic sphere.
When Adolf Silva’s team won the Tarbat Cup and C. C. Dissanayake Cup in 1960, it created a carnival atmosphere in the school. Loads of stories on their heroic display were told and re-told. We listened to our class masters and seniors, as if we are listening to a Fairy Tale. It was all about courage and determination. And of Josephian grit.
They illustrated before us, how Sam Lovell, our goal-keeper in soccer came first in the 120 yards hurdles; how Samuel Joseph threw the Javelin and Discus; Adolf Silva’s performances in the relays; and importantly how our “flying sprinters” created a record in the 4×110 relay to make sure of the title.
To recapture that memorable run in the 4×110 relay, according to the “Blue and White” Magazine: (In the first Lap) “B. Sangaradasan made a comparatively slow start, but fought away courageously and handed the baton in third position to Neomal Basnayake. (Second Lap) Neomal Basnayake forged into second place with an incredible burst of speed amidst a storm of cheering and handed the baton still ten yards behind the leader to Adolf. (Third Lap) “The lead Adolf (Silva) gave to Brian Buultjens running in the last lap could not be an inch less than a conservative twelve yards. (Fourth Lap) Then Darrel Liversz of Royal made a gallant bid for the lead, the challenge was strict heartedly accepted and Brian Buultjens drove on doggedly to victory and glory. St. Joseph’s had made a record!”
Apart from the achievements in the Public Schools athletic meet, another wonderful scenario was witnessed at the annual Relay Carnival. The way that St. Joseph’s emerged champs year after year for seven long years in-a-row from the inaugural Relay Carnival in 1961 is one of the most colourful chapters in Josephian history.
It was during Adolf Silva’s year that the Josephians won the inaugural Public Schools’ Relay Carnival championship. Recording overall 54 points (Royal 49, S.T.C. 38), they achieved the honour of being the first ever recipient of the “Daily News” Challenge Cup. And on the following Monday, Rev. Fr. Rector called the students for “Assembly” at the Bonjean Hall in honour of our flying heroes.
In the following year too our athletes dominated the “Relay Carnival”. The “Blue and White” magazine carried a lengthy, vivid and comprehensive account on the rainbows of the meet. According to the College magazine, “Just before the Inter House Meet we fared quite well at the Second Relay Carnival winning the trophy again. Neville Perera, Suraj Perera, Srian Perera and Naomal Basnayake were second in the 4 x 200 metres and the same runners were winners in the 4 x 100 metres Seniors. In the 4 x 400 metres Randolph Mendis, Joy de Alwis, Terence Kuruppu and Naomal Basnayake ran fourth and in the 4 x 800 metres Randolph Mendis, Joy de Alwis, Terence Kuruppu and Naomal Basnayake were third. We also won the 4 x 100 metres Seniors with the same team as in the 4 x 200 metres Seniors. The under 14 Juniors ran a fair third in the 4 x 100 metres though the under sixteens were disqualified at this same distance. But S. K. de Alwis, S. Perera, S. Athukorale and Shanti Fernando easily won the 4 x 200 metres. The total points scored by us were (SJC) 56 points to 42, 41 and 35, scored by St. Peters, St. Thomas’ and Royal respectively”.
Frankly, for me the most stylish sprinter I have seen during my schooldays at St. Joseph’s was none other than former athletic captain Neomal Basnayake. His style of running was of copy book perfect and rhythmic too.
The flying saga continued year after year as we were moving from class room to class room at the end of each year; becoming students of new class teachers and masters. “To have won the Relay Championship year after year for seven years without a break, right from the first year of the inception of the Relay Carnival, is a unique achievement in the history of Ceylon Athletics, an achievement of which all Josephians may well be proud. It is one more brilliant record added to the long list of outstanding achievements to the credit of St. Joseph’s” reported the College Magazine in its Diamond Jubilee Issue, published in 1969.
By then, the Josephians not only bid adieu to their great athletic coach Anthony Abeysinghe, who had been appointed as the national athletic coach but also surrendered the dominance of the Relay Carnival. It was a coincidence that both happened almost at the same time. “However, in the same breath we have to add, most regretfully, that this appointment (Mr. Abeysinghe’s), though a gain to the country, is a loss to St. Joseph’s” added the College Magazine.
Another memorable year to remember during my schooldays was 1966; the year that the Josephians became triple champs! Led by Joseph de Soysa, the Joes won both the Senior and Junior Tarbat trophies and also the C. C. Dissanayake trophy for field events in the “Pubs”, the Group meet title and Relay carnival trophy.
To name some of the athletes in the 1966 SJC Athletic team: Joseph de Soysa (Captain), Graham Ludowyke, Constantine Wickremasinghe, Tuan Kitchell, Brian Obeysekera, Sunil Hettiarachchi, Rohan de Alwis, Arthur Hakel, Domma Ranasinghe, Asoka Wickremasinghe, J. Fernandopulle and Priyanga de Alwis. Anthony Abeysinghe (Coach), Cyril Fernando (Master-in-Charge), Ben Ockersz (Sports Secretary).
More memories on 1966 “Pubs”: Having arrived from Madras after representing the country in a basketball tournament, Graham Ludowyke dashed straightaway to the grounds to throw the 12 pound put-shot 41 feet away to win the first place of the event.
The 1966 SJC athletic team was a rare combination of star studded all-rounders in sport. Skipper Joseph de Soysa, Graham Ludowyke, Brian Obeysekera and Rohan de Alwis were outstanding ruggerites; Brian Obeysekera was a dashing batsman (remember his 161 against St. Thomas’ in 1969) who went on to represent the country in cricket; Arthur Hakel’s 5 for 29 in the 2nd innings of Josephian – Benedictine match in 1969 is still haunting my memory; Rohan de Alwis showed his cricketing prowess at junior level but as a senior player opted to concentrate on rugby and athletics; Sunil Hettiarachchi was the goal-keeper of the football team at the time and later represented Ratnam Football club in ‘A’ division football tournament.
And then there was another fine sportsman Tuan Kitchell who clinched title in sprint double at the Public schools meet. Two years earlier, in 1964, he was the fastest runner in the country at junior category, wherein he established a new “Public Schools” record in the 100 metre event by timing 12.3 secs. Importantly, he gave a new dimension to Josephian rugby with his sudden-burst of match winning drop-kicks. I could still picture in my memory of his marvelous and decisive drop goals against St. Thomas’ at our own Darley Road grounds.
In a preview on 1967 Relay Carnival, “Ceylon Daily News” predicted “St. Joseph’s will go out to retain ‘Ceylon Daily News’ trophy for boys schools at the 7th annual relay carnival at Police grounds. With athletes like Tuan Kitchell, Constantine Wickremasinghe and Rohan de Alwis in the ranks, Josephians likely to win again.” And they did so, recording 53 points as against 40 points scored by the second placed Thomians.
And that was the time when athletics beat cricket in popularity at St. Joseph’s.