Duncan White’s Stellar Performance at the 1948 Olympics

Rear Admiral Dr. Shemal Fernando, in Sunday Observer E-paper, May 2020 where the title runs “White who started the spark”

Having been a close observer and student of the world’s most beautiful sport of athletics for fifty years, my effort is to make a justification to the enormous impact, prestige and influence made by Sri Lanka’s inimitable athlete, Duncan White who put our country on the world map. I thought the ideal time for such an exertion is the run up to an Olympic Games.

Athletics is complex and wonderfully varied, but it also embodies passion, hard work and self-improvement. Athletics is education and entertainment, respect for the rules and self-expression. Athletics is also like life itself, with challenges and obstacles, triumphs and defeats. Many champion athletes have emulated the courage, commitment and joy inherent in the sport.

The 1948 Summer Olympic Games was taking place in London. Sri Lanka (then Ceylon), taking part in the Olympic Games, for the first time, after gaining independence from the British Empire. Our hero of the moment, Duncan White certainly infused our nation with new hope, by marching with our ‘National Flag’ at the Opening Ceremony of London 1948 Olympic Games and in just two days, winning the country’s first Olympic Medal to watch ‘Raising of the National Flag’ from the Victory Podium. Then went on to win the country’s first Gold medal after independence, to brave with tears, ‘Raising of the National Flag to the Crescendo of the National Anthem’ from the Victory Podium of the Auckland 1950 Commonwealth Games – an incredible feat!

Duncan White’s spectacular and astounding ‘Hurdling to Podium’ is a spectacle performance – celebrated, honoured and admired, though six dozen years have sailed past, and his legacy continues to linger on as strong as ever. His life was embedded with Olympic values such as discipline, friendship, respect, excellence, determination, inspiration, courage and fair play.

Major Deshamanya Duncan White, MBE, ED, is surely the foremost amongst the sporting legends of Sri Lanka. Let me invite the Sri Lankan sportsman and sportswoman to trod in his path with passion, overcome the challengers and obstacles, sail to glory and fame, reach the podium and bring glory and honour to Mother Lanka?

Blazing Spirit in Life

He was born on March 01, 1918 to a middle-class family at Lathpandura, near Badurueliya, in the Kalutara district as the second child. His parents were John Bernard White and Cecilia Hawk White. His siblings were Frederick, Stanley and Douglas. The parents decided to move to Kandy and pursue their four sons’ higher education at Trinity College and Kingswood College.

It was a hard battle for the father, an apothecary to pay the school fees of his four sons. In fact, they were engrossed with hardships and found it difficult even to buy a pair of running shoes for Duncan White. In those days there were no sponsorships. But in the blazing spirit of winners, he was not put off by such shortcomings.

Glorious days at Trinity

The family nestled near ‘Udawatte Kelle’ forest, just 200 metres away from Trinity College. It is said that youngster, he always packed his bag and ran to college after hearing the first bell, at around 7.55 a.m. and always took the lead in running. He was more into sports and took part in Rugby and Boxing. His coaches, Major Harry Hardy and Philip Buultjens noted his physical structure would be ideal for ‘Athletics’. This was the moment he entered ‘Athletics’. Both the coaches encouraged him to participate in 110m Hurdles, 200m and Long Jump.

At 16, he was selected to the College Athletic Team in 1934. At 18, he was made the College Athletic Captain in 1936. At the Sri Lanka Schools Championships 1936, he was able to win the Gold medal in the 200m clocking 23.3 secs, creating a ‘New Schools Record’ and a ‘New National Record’. He also won Gold medals in both 110m Hurdles and Long Jump. The highlight was Trinity College winning the first ever ‘Sir John Tarbet Trophy’ as the Overall Champions. Duncan’s contributions in relays annexed the ‘Jefferson Trophy’ as well. In recognition of his unique feats, he was awarded the coveted ‘Trinity Lion’, even before his ‘College Colours’. At 19, still as a schoolboy, he won his first ‘National Title’ winning the Gold medal in the 400m Hurdles at the National Championships 1937, establishing a ‘New National Record’ by achieving 52.00 secs. In the same year, he broke his own National Record in the 400m Hurdles by improving to 50.40 secs. At 19, as a schoolboy, he was selected to represent the country at the Commonwealth Games Sydney 1938. To this day, his name adores the Honour Roll at the Trinity College Hall as one of the greatest students who served as the ‘College Athletics Captain’.

Reaching the Podium

For the first time, Sri Lanka participated at the Commonwealth Games Sydney 1938 (then British Empire Games). The 20 year old Duncan White was a member of the team. He unfortunately did not achieve what he sought mainly due to a hamstring injury. He turned all the unpleasant experiences that he confronted to chart his path towards glory. In 1939, he won Gold medals in both 110m Hurdles and 400m Hurdles at the National Championships. In 1940, he secured Gold medals in the 400m Hurdles and 400m at the India-Sri Lanka Dual Meet. In 1941, he bagged Gold medals in the 400m and 200m at the Government Services Athletics Meet.

In 1942, with the onset of World War II, he was commissioned as an officer in the Ceylon Light Infantry. In 1942, he won Gold medals in the 110m Hurdles and 400m Hurdles at the National Championships. In 1945, during the war, he had travelled from Trincomalee, where he was stationed, to take part at the Defence Services Championships in Colombo. He had to run the 110m Hurdles in a pair of tennis shoes, yet, he beat a former Olympic athlete and secured the Gold medal. His days were days when sportsmen were paupers. In 1946, he won Gold medals in the 400m Hurdles and 400m Hurdles at the India-Sri Lanka Dual Meet. In November 1947 he was demobilized.

Team Selection for London 1948

Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) burst onto the Olympic scene for the first time at the London 1948 Summer Olympic Games held from July 19 to August 14, 1948. The contingent consisted of three athletes – Duncan White, John de Saram and GD Peiris and four boxers – Edward Gray, Leslie Handunge, Albert Perera and Alex Obeysekera. They had left for London on May 22, 1948 by sea.

Duncan White elaborated on the selection process: “A decision had been made to send, for the first time, a Ceylon team for the Olympic Games and I made up my mind that should an athlete be picked that it had to be me. When entries were called, I entered for five events in order to make doubly sure that should I do well, the selectors would have no alternative but me. At the Trials, I won the heats in all five events but for the finals, I informed that I was dropping out of 100m and 400m as I felt the other events (110m Hurdles, 200m and 400m Hurdles), were the best ones to concentrate on. The winner of the second heat in 400m was H. M. Perera and the Press had predicted a “White-Perera Duel” in the finals.

My request to withdraw from the final did not please the officials and selectors. I was adamant in not taking part in the 400m and an official, who was also one of my friends, informed that if I didn’t take part I wouldn’t be considered for selection. He also mentioned that there was talk that I was “too old” for the Games. My intense desire and determination to go to London 1948 made me agree to take part in the race. I took my mark with more determination to beat H. M. Perera and beat him well. At the gun, I went off at such a cracking pace that he gave up at the last bend. I had won four events, I was selected to the team and also appointed as Captain.

London 1948 Olympic Games

Duncan White’s hour of glory dawned on July 31, 1948. The Olympic Report recorded: “In the final of 400m Hurdles for Men, Cochran of the USA was in the third lane, White of Ceylon in the fifth lane and Larsson of Sweden on the outside. White went off at a terrific pace but by half distance Cochran, hurdling in superb form was ahead. He won in 51.1 secs, a magnificent victory. White of Ceylon, who was second, had very little competition before the games and his achievement of 51.8 secs deserves the highest praise.”

All Sri Lankans were delighted on hearing on the radio that Duncan White had won a medal, and his medal placed Sri Lanka 28th in the Medals Tally. The team with Duncan White returned home by sea and Trinity College organized a warm welcome at the Colombo Jetty. In Kandy, a colourful procession led him to Trinity College Hall, where he was accorded a grand welcome. In his speech, White said: “Although my victory at the Olympics is prestigious, the ‘Lion’ makes me more honoured than that” and received the ‘Trinity Lion’ with open arms and joyful tears.

Doctoral Thesis

On a personal note, I was called by the uni to defend my doctoral thesis on July 31. The first thing that crossed my mind was Duncan White’s dazzling success on a July 31. The 400 pages of the thesis matched 400 metres of Olympic glory. It was a wonderful podium for me to honour the legendary athlete. The lifelong influence was so much that I had taken part in all his track and field events. As a schoolboy, I was also privileged to share both the ‘Sir John Tarbet Trophy’ and the ‘Jefferson Trophy’. The highest I matched him was becoming the ‘College Athletics Captain’.

Reminiscences by the Legend

Duncan White shared the most significant moment with his characteristic humility in 1987: “The big day began with the Opening Ceremony and I as Captain, was given the privilege to carry the Ceylon Flag. Our Manager wished that I rest as the heats for 400m Hurdles were scheduled for the next day. I however insisted that I take part as I didn’t want to miss out any of the exhilarating experience. The next day the call came for me to take part in the heat of the 400m Hurdles. Before the heat commenced, I had assured myself that I could run as well or even better than any of my opponents regardless where they came from. I won my heat with ease and looked back and eased up nearing the finish. I returned the best time out of six heats. The semi-finals were held later that afternoon. I was well in the lead but like in the heats eased up at the finish in order to conserve my strength for the finals the next day. I made the error of easing up too early and was nearly pipped into fourth place. However, a photo finish confirmed I had finished third. The finals were held the following day and I was somewhat disappointed that I had to compete in lane five. However, I made up my mind that I would beat whoever was in the lane outside me when reaching the first hurdle, thus gaining the confidence that I would be ahead of former World Record Holder in Larson of Sweden.

There was a change in the way I strode when reaching the seventh hurdle and this allowed Cochran to take the lead. I felt content that I would finish second and didn’t make an effort to challenge him who went on to win with a new Olympic Record. I too bettered the previous record by two seconds. After the event, I thought to myself if I only had the 2-year preparation as did Cochran the winner! The most unforgettable and emotional moment was stepping on the Victory Podium and seeing the National Flag being hoisted before 85,000. I was also entered for the 200m and 400m. The day after my success, I was to compete in the heats of the 200m. I was running well. When entering the ‘straight’ my left hamstring muscle gave way and I could no longer take part. I returned home to a rapturous welcome. The occasion will live in my memory forever”.

Scholarship to Loughborough

In 1949, he was awarded a scholarship to study Physical Education (PE) at the Loughborough University in London. He was made the Athletics Captain as a result of his excellence and the university emerged British University Champions for three successive years. At the university, he was the most outstanding athlete winning five Gold medals and the Victor Ludoram Trophy. His 22.5 secs in the 200m was the best timing in 30 years.

First Ever Gold in Athletics

After a 12-year gap the Commonwealth Games Auckland 1950 was taking place from February 4 to 11. At 31, Duncan White won Sri Lanka’s first ever Gold medal in 400m Hurdles. He even bettered the Games Record in spite of almost tumbling on his knees early in the race after knocking down a hurdle. His time was 52.5 secs, just 0.3 secs outside the World Record. He was the best 400m Hurdler in the world that year.

This achievement garnered him dual honors of ‘Member of the British Empire’ and the Helms World Trophy as the ‘Most Outstanding Athlete’ in Asia. He was also a member of the 4x100m and 4x400m Relay Teams which finished fourth. He decided to hang the spikes after the Commonwealth Games. Ever since, he then took part in National Championships as a Starter. He coached athletes and laid the foundation for the development of athletics and school sports for a dozen of years or so.

Lecturer and Marriage

In 1951, he returned to Sri Lanka and took up the post of Physical Education Lecturer at the Teacher’s College in Maharagama. The teacher trainees felt exceedingly proud and honoured to have an Olympic medalist. He remained the humblest, most unassuming, cheerful and friendliest lecturer in those glorious days of his youth. He played a pivotal role in developing the sports and physical curriculum in schools.

Dr. Nagalingam Ethirveersingam, PhD, the winner of the first ever Asian Games Gold medal, University Professor and Elite Coach, shared with me how he was taken to Maharagama by his coach for a one month attachment under Duncan White, prior to the Olympic Games Helsinki 1952. He elaborated on his gentleman qualities and his untiring efforts to instill confidence to face the challengers at international competitions. To date, he considers him the motivating force for his success and appreciated his constant advice to progress in athletics and his companionship.

In March 1952, Duncan White married Angela Jeanne Siebel and they were blessed with six children. He bought his own car, a green Morris Minor. The couple occupied a ramshackle ‘bungalow’ in the old military camp at Maharagama. He was made Chef de Mission and Coach of Sri Lanka team for the Asian Games Manila 1954. In 1958, the Department of Education appointed him Coach of the Sri Lanka Schools Athletic Association. He had a stint at the National Olympic Committee as the Secretary General from 1959 to 1963. In the Ceylon Volunteer Force, he rose to the rank of a Major.

Senior Lecturer in Nigeria

In 1963, Duncan White, along with his family, left for Nigeria to serve as a Lecturer at the University of Nigeria. Later, he became a Senior Lecturer at the University of Ibadn. At the end of his 12 years, they decided to reside in the United Kingdom. He was employed by the local Borough Council and retired in 1983. The same year, he returned to Nigeria and took up a two year assignment as a Sports Adviser.

It was unfortunate that the country took 40 years to depict him on a Postage Stamp in 1988. A group of distinguished sports enthusiasts founded, ‘The Duncan White Sports Foundation’ in 1990, and got it incorporated as Act No: 21 of 1992 in the Parliament for the sole purpose of identifying, assisting and recognizing the achievements of athletes. The Foundation progressed admirably and contributed towards the growth of many sportsmen and sportswomen till around 2002. The unsung hero had to wait 50 years to receive the National Honour, ‘Deshamanya’ in 1998.


His courage, elegance, enthusiasm and simplicity in life made him a legend. His life was never a ‘bed of roses’. His secret to success was his sheer determination and his never-say-die attitude. He passed away at the ripe age of 80 on July 3, 1998 in Warwickshire, United Kingdom, surrounded by his six children: Maxine, Nita, Christopher, Dan, Marilyn and Fiona.

The author humbly proposes to name an upcoming, ‘National Sports Institution’ in his memory, identify a ‘boulevard strip’ in his honour and to erect a ‘life size statue’ for future generations to reminiscence the legendary athlete’s incredible, peerless and exemplary feats.

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ALSO NOTE ……… https://thuppahis.com/2014/09/28/cylon-olympic-squad-1948-a-rare-picture/

Left to rightEdward Gray, Albert Perera, Duncan White, John De Saram, Mr. Perera (Team manager), George Peiris, Leslie Handunge and Alex Obeysekere

Ceylon Olympic Team at the Olympic camp in Richmond Park, London ~ 13th June 1948 …. With thanks to Asoka Kuruppu

ALSO SEE Duncan White winning the 440 Hurdles at Empire Games in 1950 https://thuppahis.com/2014/10/29/duncan-white-wins-440-hurdles-in-record-time-at-empire-games-1950/


Filed under centre-periphery relations, historical interpretation, life stories, performance, self-reflexivity, sri lankan society, unusual people, world events & processes

2 responses to “Duncan White’s Stellar Performance at the 1948 Olympics

  1. Rohan de Soysa

    Wonderful to see! Thanks for sharing. Makes one wonder why others did not follow in his footsteps, until Susanthika, and then none since. Lack of commitment, dedication and will power?

  2. Patrick Rodrigo

    J C W Obeyesekere was one of Ceylons best athletes, Duncan White never
    competed against him from choice. Unfortunately for JCW he fell ill at the time of the Olympic trials, … and thereby hangs a tale.

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