Duncan White: Trinitian, Olympian, Ceylonese

Anonymous Author **

This is the third occasion the Olympic Games will be held in the City of London. The first was in 1908 and the second was in 1948. The 1948 Games of the XIXth Olympiad was of significant importance to Sri Lanka as it was the year that Ceylon, as it was known then, obtained Independence from the British Empire. At this Games Ceylon was blessed with an Olympic Silver medal by Duncan White as a reward for this accomplishment of gaining Independence to the country.


Duncan had his early education at Trinity College, Kandy, where he received Trinity’s coveted ‘Lion’ even before gaining his school ‘colours’ for Duncan’s record breaking performances at the Public Schools Championships. He left Trinity College in 1937 and was commissioned to the Ceylon Light Infantry in 1942.

The outstanding achievement at the 1948 Olympics prompted the Government to award Duncan a scholarship to Loughborough University in London. At Loughborough he captained the University Team for three consecutive years. During this period the University was the British University Athletic Champions.

The 2012 Olympic Games will bring into prominence the elite athletes of the world in their various events of participation. While a few athletes will excel others will not, but they would equally enjoy the fierce competition in a superior atmosphere where they had to wait four long years and training to compete.

The sports enthusiasts were fortunate to read recently in one English Daily by scribe Reemus Fernando a scintillating narration of events by John de Saram, the only living Sri Lanka member of the 1948 Olympic Games, captained by Duncan White. Duncan’s Olympic team travelled to London by sea on May 22, 1948 on the ss ‘Herefordshire’ with John de Saram, G Diomond Peiris (athletes). Edward I Gray, Leslie D P Handunge, Albert Perera and Alex I Obeysekera (boxers). M H D Perera was the Team Manager.

Another feature by the same scribe articulating the manner in which Duncan White trained and participated at the London Olympics described by Dr A A D Perera a contemporary of Duncan. Dr Perera says, “When Duncan and other athletes trained they had minimal facilities. The track was uneven and not properly mowed, had no fleet of hurdles and no proper coach to guide them. At that time there were no performance enhancing drugs if they were tempted to take as they are abundantly available today. Yet, these athletes were able to compete at international level and even came close to a world record”!

Volumes of stories and anecdotes have been written over the years about Duncan White’s spectacular and astounding Silver Medal win at the 1948 Olympic Games. Yet, it was still not enough written on his race in the 400 meters Hurdles in which he was beaten by Roy Cochran of the United States by only 7/10th of a second. While Roy Cochran established an Olympic Games Record, Duncan improved on it too by 2/10th of a second that astounded the world by an Asian athlete.

At the 1950 British Empire Games in Auckland, New Zealand, Duncan won the Gold Medal in the 440 yards Hurdles and was only 3/10th of second outside the World Record.

Duncan White’s spectacular Hurdling was not recognized until several decades had passed as those engaged in sports did not understand the significance of his achievement. No proper recognition was accorded to Duncan though he held the Olympic victory for nearly 52 years.

Duncan White was born on March 01, 1918 at Lathpandura, near Badurueliya, in the Kalutara District. Duncan married Angela Siebel and they had six children: Nita, Marylene, Fiona, Dan, Maxine and Chris. Duncan was awarded the Member of the British Empire (MBE) in 1949 and the Helms World Trophy as the ‘Most Outstanding Athlete’ in Asia. Many years later, in 1988, he was honoured with a commemorative Postage Stamp recognizing his achievement.

Earlier, the Late Cyril Gardiner, the then Chairman of the Galle Face Hotel, as a gesture to Duncan, adorned his name on a plaque at the entrance to the Galle Face Hotel as a distinguished Guest of the Hotel. Major-General Denzil Kobbekaduwa in 1991 organized a Peace Relay Run from Vavuniya to Colombo to celebrate the Foundation and Duncan. When the runners came to Kurunegala they were given Tshirts with the Duncan White logo embossed. One runner while putting on the T-shirt asked another “kawda yako me Duncan kiyanne.”

In 1996 the Late Honourable Lakshman Kadirgamar initiated and obtained Dual Citizenship for Duncan and Angela White. On April 04, 1998 Duncan was conferred the honour of a Deshamanya by President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaranatunga celebrating the 50th Anniversary of his Silver Medal at the 1948 Olympic Games.

In 1963 Duncan White, with his wife and six children left for Nigeria to join the University of Ibadan as a Senior Lecturer. At the end of his 12 year assignment Duncan decided to reside in England instead of returning to Ceylon. He was employed by the local Borough Council and retired in 1983. The same year Duncan returned to Nigeria to take up a two year appointed as Sports Adviser.

Celebrating the Golden Jubilee of the National Olympic Committee [NOC] of Sri Lanka in 1987, the NOC invited Duncan and Angela White as Special Guests of Honour being the only Sri Lankan Olympic medalist in the history of sports. Duncan’s alma mater, Trinity College, accorded him a rousing reception when he visited Kandy.

A few people still found the recognition of Duncan’s feat was not adequate. In 1989 Milinda Moragoda, James Lanerolle [former Minister Counselor of the Sri Lanka Embassy] and the writer, met in Washington DC, to discuss and honor an outstanding Sri Lankan who had excelled other than in politics. They saw no person better than Duncan White who deserved the recognition and saw fit by proposing a Foundation in his name and it be named the Duncan White Sports Foundation. Major General Denzil Kobbekaduwa was also in Washington DC, endorsed this proposal and was a great supporter of the project.The writer was requested to contact Duncan White and obtain his permission and approval if a Foundation could be founded under his name. The letter giving Duncan’s approval is reproduced here.

The Duncan White Sports Foundation [DWSF] was founded on March 01, 1990, on Duncan White’s 72nd birth anniversary. The inauguration meeting was attended by a distinguished gathering of 27 persons from the Ministry of Sports, Sri Lanka Armed Forces, the Sri Lanka Police, Media and the conveners: Kavan Ramukwella, Major General Denzil Kobbekaduwa, Ken Balendra, Milinda Moragoda, James Lanerolle, Neville Abeygoonewardene, Charitha Ratwatte, P A Senaratne, Prema Pinnewela and C Vijitha Fernando.

The DWSF Constitution that was adopted at the inaugural meeting was the entire efforts of Srilal M Perera, Sarala M Fernando and Devinda R Subasinghe. The Duncan White Award was a gift by the Sri Lanka Association of Washington DC, USA.

Under Inland Revenue Act No: 28 of 1979, Notice under Section 31 [9] [a], the Minister of Finance Hon D B Wijetunga in 1991 declared the Foundation an Approved Charity. In 1992 Member of Parliament Hon C V Gooneratne introduced a Private Member’s Bill and steered successfully through Parliament to incorporate the Foundation; Act No: 21 of 1992.

Duncan White passed away on July 03, 1998 at 80 years of age. With Duncan gone, his Silver Medal victory has been permanently etched in the annals of sporting history of Sri Lanka. An array of distinguished and prominent people were associated at the inaugural meeting and thereafter. The first President, 1990-94, was Kavan Rambukwella. The second, 1994-98, was Ken Balendra. Jennifer Moragoda, was the third President, from 1998-2002, and the fourth President is Chrisantha Perera. The Foundation did not hold the Annual General Meeting thereafter for several disturbing reasons.

Distinguished persons and businessmen were members of the Council of Trustees, the Committee of Delegates and the Board of Directors, serving from 1990 thru 2002, as Trustees, Delegates and Board members; they were: Major General Denzil Kobbekaduwa, Christopher White [Duncan’s son], Milinda Moragoda, Elmo Rajasooria, the Liaison Committee – Washington DC, represented by C Vijitha Fernando, Ranjit Abeysuriya, Gwen Herat, Hon Lakshman Kadirgamar, Stanley Unamboowe, Ravi Fernando, Mitra Ariyasingha, W M Bandaranayaka, Imthiaz Cader, Brigadier C Nissanka Panabokke, Christopher de Saram, Summa Navaratne, Malik Samarawickreme, Rear Admiral Justin Jayasuriya, Brigadier Devinda Kalupahana, Brigadier B Munasinghe, Anton Wijeyegoonewardena, Nilani Fernando and Neville Abeygoonewardena served as Secretary to these bodies.

The Liaison Committee of Washington DC was represented by Mohamed V Muhsin (Chairman and former Vice President of the World Bank), Srilal M Perera, Devinda R Subasinghe, Cecil M Perera and C Vijitha Fernando (Secretary) (all of the World Bank) and had the support of senior World Bank staff: D A de Silva and David Loos. The Liaison Committee of Australia was headed by Edward I Gray [now deceased].

The Liaison Committee of Great Briton had as its Chairman Elmo Rajasooria and Trinitian Gamini Sumanasekera served as a member.

In Jennifer Moragoda’s Presidency, the Foundation recorded with great delight, enthusiasm and relief, the victory of another Olympic Medalist at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia. The amazing sprint in the Women’s 200 metres by Susanthika Jayasinghe winning a Bronze Medal. This Olympic medal was won after a lapse of 52 years. Friends of Chrisantha Perera in Los Angeles assisted Susanthika to obtain the services of a top notch coach in Tony Campbell. Jennifer organized a Trust Fund for her and later gave it to Susanthika to manage.

Duncan was indeed an extraordinary gentleman. Those who rallied to honour him are also exceptional people. If they weren’t, Duncan would not have enjoyed the recognition he
deserved after some five decades.

** This essay was sent to me by Lalin Fernando and bore the title “Epitome of an Olympian;” but I have taken the liberty of inserting my own imprint. My efforts to retrieve the author’s name have failed thus far. Web Editor.


Filed under heritage, life stories, sri lankan society, unusual people, world affairs

4 responses to “Duncan White: Trinitian, Olympian, Ceylonese

  1. Pingback: An Epitome of an Olympian — Duncan White « Critiquing Cricket

  2. Christopher White

    As Duncan’s son, and on behalf of the family, thank you very much for this informed article. My father was an exceptional man, a legend so worthy of the Foundation that was registered in his name.

    For those exceptional and influential Sri Lankan’s who recognize the enormity of Duncan’s achievements, perhaps a more permanent acknowledgement by way of statue, sports stadium, or even a boulevard strip in honor of his name, will ensure he remains forever etched in the history of the country.


      ALSO a handsome bloke! Wow!. Any family snaps? pleases end me your email address as Comment [will keep it under cover]

  3. Pingback: Duncan White: Trinitian, Hurdler and Trailblazer for Ceylon | Thuppahi's Blog

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