The recent TV broadcasts of the Commonwealth Games at Birmingham and the Athletics Championship at Eugene in Oregon stimulaed thoughts of the breakthrough for Ceylon aka Sri Lanka initiated by the Trinitian athlete Duncan White in 1948. In securing the second place in the exacting 400 metre hurdles in the London Olympics on 31st Ju;y 1948, Duncan White carved his name in silver in the annals of Sri Lankan sport.
In assembling photographs and items that mark his life, I am overjoyed that two individuals who featured in my life world at the University of Ceylon in Peradeniya as it was then known also come into focus. One is Leslie Handunge, the industrious and energetic Direcor of Sports in my time at Peradeniya University in the late 1950s through to the 1960s: he was a top-claSs boxer in his manly days and was also part of the Ceylon Olympic squad in London …. and, boy oh boy, isn’t the picture of that squad enough to capture many female hearts.
The other is KLF Wijedasa an athlete of considerable prowess himself: he has written a news article on Duncan White. “Wijey” was senior to me at Peradeniya University and a leadign athlete who went on to ecome Director of Sports at the Colombo Campus and thus a friend whom I interacted with on occasions in the late 1960s and early 970s.
Needless to say, Duncan White was feted when he returned to Ceylon and the picture of him with John Kotelawela and another Minister at some ceremony is one mark of the weight that was attached to this Lankan man of excellence.
However, perhaps the most significant statement in the light of the island’s disastrous political upheavals in the years 1956 to 2022 is the photograph of the four athletes who carried a baton to the podium where DS Senanayake and other dignitaries stood for the march-past marking Ceylon’s Independence on 4th February 1948.
“Duncan White, Lakshman Kadirgamar, Sharm Mustafa and Oscar Wijesinghe are seen in this picture which appeared in The Ceylon Daily News decades ago. Duncan White, Lakshman Kadirgamar, Oscar Wijesinghe and M.A.M. Sherrif represented the four communities when they brought four scrolls to the Independence Square to be handed over to the Prime Minister D.S. Senanayake to be read for the public to hear.”
“The four reputed athletes represented the four communities. They were Oscar Wijesinghe (Sinhalese), Lakshman Kadirgamar (Tamil), Mohamed A Sherrif (Muslim) and Duncan White (Burgher). Arriving at the Independence Square they handed over the scrolls to young females representing the four communities. Swarna Amarasuriya (Sinhalese), Srimani Ramachandran (Tamil), Ayesha Zally (Muslim) and Phyllis de Kretser (Burgher). In turn the four damsels handed over the scrolls to the Prime Minister who read them over the public address system.”
Alas, those hopeful multi-ethnic strands of oneness now lie sundered and brittle. Within this context, there is no event that marks this sundering more deeply than the assassination of Lakshman Kadirgamar by the Tamil Tigers on the 12th August 2005 — shot by the side of his house in Colombo 7 by a sniper using the house of a Tamil gentleman named Thalayasingham.**
REFERENCES & OTHER LITERATURE
KLF Wijedasa: “A Symbolic Moment of Ethnic Otherness at Independence Day, 4 February 1948,” 4 February 2021, https://thuppahis.com/2021/02/04/a-symbolic-moment-of-ethnic-oneness-at-independence-day-4-february-1948/
Trinity College: “Duncan White: The First Athlete to win an Olympic Medal for Ceylon,” October 2019, …………………………………………….. https://trinitycollege.lk/2019/02/10/duncan-white-the-first-athlete-to-win-an-olympic-medal-for-sri-lanka/
George Braine: “Duncan White and the returned Trinity Lion,” 6 October 2022, https://island.lk/69917-2/
Philip Gourevitch: “Killing Kadirgamar,” 22 August 2005, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2005/08/22/killing-kadirgamar
Rear Admiral Dr. Shamal Fernando: “Duncan White’s Silver in London and His Spectacular Astounding Hurdling,” 18 July 2021, sundayobserver.lk/2021/07/18/sports/duncan-white’s-silver-london-1948-and-his-spectacular-astounding-hurdling