Duncan was a record beater in every sense of the word
By Ken de Joodt
Unforgettable ! That’s what it was – some of the most incredible achievements in Sri Lanka and world athletics that took place more than 67 years ago. Little-known Sri Lanka was then famously known for Ceylon Tea and was one of the treasured islands of the British Colonies. Springing out of this “Pearl of the East” was a precious jewel named Duncan White, who was no spring chicken in sports but who was recognised as a talented, versatile young athlete from Trinity College, Kandy, in the early 1940s. Duncan White was considered a rare specimen of a Sri Lankan gem, as he developed his own style and unbelievable skills in hurdling, to be awarded the coveted Trinity “Lion” for his outstanding performances in Athletics – his pet event being the 400m hurdles. In 1937, while still at Trinity College, Duncan became the only schoolboy to represent the country at an international athletic meet, when he took part in the 400m hurdles at the Empire Games in Sydney Australia. Soon after winning public schools athletic honours and quitting college, he pursued his athletics career and proved to be a sensation at the National Athletic Championships held each year. In November 1947, Duncan was demobilised from the Ceylon Light Infantry having first being commissioned in 1942. He was commissioned as Major Duncan White, possessing an imposing number of credentials after his name – MBE, ED, DLC, M.INST and AM – and was a record holder at the public schools championships, Ceylon championships, and India-Ceylon championships before he was called to participate at the Olympic Games trials. Duncan entered in five events in order to make doubly sure he would do well in all the events. A key feature in Duncan White’s preparations for the Olympics was that he was always the first to arrive at training at the Colombo venues.
At the trials, Duncan won the heats in all five events but for the finals he decided to drop out of the 100m and 400m as he felt the other events 110m hurdles, 200m and 400m hurdles, were the best races to concentrate on. In the second heat of the 400m the winner was H.M. Perera and this caused the press to predict a “White-Perera Duel” in the finals. Yet, he preferred to withdraw from the final due to the strain of taking part in his other events – but he was told that if he did not take part in the 400m he would not be considered for selection at all.
In the selectors discussions there as talk he was “too old” for the Games (Duncan was then 29 plus). This made him more determined and his desire to go to London was so intense, that he agreed to take part in all the races. Long story short, Duncan set such a cracking pace that H.M. Perera gave up round the last bend of the 400m and Duncan won four of the five events he contested. Unanimously, Duncan was selected to represent Sri Lanka (Ceylon) –and was also appointed captain of the national team. At the gala opening ceremony of the Olympics in London, Duncan White as captain, was given the privilege of carrying the Ceylon National flag during the march past and it was an exhilarating experience for him. Then came the startling moments of his career, when at the age of 30, Duncan produced national records and progressed to establish world records in the 400m hurdles (440 yards), between 1948 at the Olympic Games in London and the Commonwealth Games of 1950 in Auckland New Zealand – which were simply amazing! This solitary silver medal remained the only Olympic medal Sri Lanka won for a period of 52 years. What Duncan White achieved at the 1948 Olympics is still looked upon as the highest
achievement, by a Sri Lankan athlete at the games.
In tracing back to his roots in Sri Lanka, Duncan White’s father was a medical doctor, John Bernard White, and his mother Cecilia produced four big-built boys. His three brothers were Stanley the eldest, an agriculturist, and the next was Douglas (who married my eldest sister Norah de Joodt in 1948 and had one daughter Crystal who resides in Australia with her three children). Duncan’s youngest brother Freddy White, also was one of the finest sportsmen produced by Kingswood College, Kandy, in the early 1950s.
Apart from being an elegant athlete Freddie turned out to be a brilliant hockey goalkeeper, acclaimed as one of Sri Lanka’s and Asia’s best hockey goalies in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. Since Duncan’s fabulous athletic achievements from 1948, the White family were well-known and popular figures in the quaint, evergreen hamlet of Kandy. Though Duncan was born on March 1, 1918, in Kalutara, Dr. J.B. White and the family moved to a more salubrious climate and beautiful setting in the hills of Kandy. In fact, they took residence on the eastern slope of the main hill on which Trinity College is built, in the forest known as Udawattekelle, which is now a national bird and wildlife sanctuary. His athletics training was not confined to the Asgiriya grounds only but he also used to his advantage the fine, fresh forest air and roads in the early part of the mornings, to do cross-country runs, for stamina, strength and striding.
Duncan White won his Olympic silver medal in 1948 – the same year Ceylon gained independence from Britain – after training for only about three months before the games. It was said that the gold medalist, Roy Cochran of the USA, had trained for about four years but Duncan’s time for the event of 51.8 seconds, was only 0.7 seconds behind Cochran, which along with Cochran’s time bettered the existing Olympic record.
In the 1950 British Empire Games in Auckland, New Zealand, Duncan won the gold medal in the 440-yard hurdles, only 0.3 seconds behind the world record. He was awarded the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in 1949. Many years later in 1988, the Sri Lanka Government honoured Duncan White with a special issue of a postage stamp, to commemorate the splendid achievement.
Another significant, memorable award to Duncan, was the re-awarding of the Trinity “Lion” for athletics, soon after the Olympic victory in 1948. A grand procession was organised through Kandy town, which culminated at a massive welcome ceremony at Trinity College Hall where the whole school assembled to honour him. This was due to the fact, that while he was a schoolboy at Trinity, the “Lion” that was awarded at that time, was confiscated from him on disciplinary grounds.
Duncan left school without a “Lion” but a magnanimous gesture of the then Trinity Principal C.E. Simithriarachchi, saw Duncan regain it. On this occasion, Duncan was so deeply touched and overwhelmed that he gave a heart-warming speech at the special assembly: “Although my victory at the Olympics is prestigious, receiving the Trinity “Lion” makes me feel more honoured than that.”
This statement has been recorded, as a part of the sentimental history of the greatest athlete, gentleman and sports star, Duncan White, who Trinity College Kandy has produced.
In later years, Major Duncan White married Angela (née Siebel) and brought forth six children, namely Maxine, Nita, Christopher, Daniel, Marilyn and Fiona. He was a major in the Ceylon Army Volunteer Force, before migrating with the family to England, which he loved at that time and compared Sri Lanka as “the only country in the world to match England in beauty and exceed it in peace”.
Duncan White died in 1998, in the town he had inhabited for most of his later years, at Nuneaton, Warwickshire, England.
Another classic gesture made on the part of the Sri Lanka Sports Societies, initiated by former Sri Lanka’s brilliant rugby player, CR&FC captain and SLRFU President Kavan Rambukwelle, was the formation of the gthe Duncan White Sports Foundation This was founded on Duncan’s 72nd birthday, on March 1, 1990, with the sole purpose of identifying, assisting and recognising athletes’ achievements by making substantial awards to encourage and be of some useful benefit to the “achiever”.
For instance, some of the outstanding athletes, who have won this prestigious award are Nagalingam Ethirveerasingam (1958 Asian Games high jump gold medallist, and Olympian in 1952 & ‘56), Susanthika Jayasinghe (2000 Olympic Games 200m silver medal in Sydney Australia in 200m).
The records show that the first award was presented to Sriyantha Dissanayake (1990 to ’93 –100m and 200m won gold and silver (Colombo) and bronze at the Asian Games in Dhaka & Beijing) by Duncan White himself on March 1, 1991
He was given the Deshabandu Award in 1992.
Duncan White, Awarded the MBE (Born 1st March 1918 – Died 3rd July 1998), was the first Sri Lankan athlete to win a medal for his country in an Olympic event. He won a silver medal in the 400m hurdles at the 1948 Summer Olympics in London, England. He was also the only South Asian to have won an Olympic medal in track and field for more than 50 years. In 1950, at the Commonwealth Games in Auckland, New Zealand, he won the gold in a new record time.
Note: This article was first published in 4th edition of Quadrangle Magazine, in 2016. All images are copyright protected.