White’s silver in 1948 is still Lanka’s best - Daily Mirror Wed Aug 25 2004

With the greatest sports festival on earth-The Olympic Games- kicking off a few days back, it seems to be the ideal time to recall Sri Lanka’s memorable moments at the games. In 1948 a remarkable event took place coinciding with Sri Lanka gaining independence. The venue for the Olympics was London. Duncan White made history by establishing an Olympic record when he skimmed over the hurdles placed on the 400 meter track in 51.8 seconds, bettering the record established in Ceylon by 4.2 seconds. The solitary silver medal remained the only Olympic medal Sri Lanka won for a period of 52 years. What White achieved at the 1948 Olympics is still looked upon as the highest achievement by a Sri Lankan athlete at the games.

Major Duncan White, possessing an imposing number of credentials after his name- MBE, ED, DLC, M.INST, AM-was born on 1 March 1918 in Lathpandura, Kalutara. This unpredictable feat was looked upon as a “freak performance”. Those who are knowledgeable about athletics will vouch that White won the award due to a combination of dedicated training and inborn ability. White had been a record holder at the public schools championships, Ceylon championships, India-Ceylon championships before he took part at the Olympic games. A key feature in White’s preparations for the Olympics was that he had been the first to arrive at training.

White later recounted the most significant moment of Sri Lanka’s sporting history with characteristic humility in an article that was published in the Golden Jubilee Souvenir of the National Olympics Committee.

The article follows-

“In November 1947 I was demobilized from the Ceylon Light Infantry having first being commissioned in 1942.

A decision had been made to send, for the first time, a Ceylon team for the games in London and I made up my mind that should an athlete be picked that it had to be me. When entries were called for the trials I therefore entered for five events in order to make doubly sure that should I do well in all, the selectors would have no alternative but to select me.

At the Trials I won the heats in all five events but for the finals I informed the Officials that I was dropping out of the 100m and 400m as I felt the other events, which were110m Hurdles, 200m and 400m Hurdles, were the best ones to concentrate on. The winner of the second heat in the 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 went back into the dressing room when an official, who was also one of my friends, informed me 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. (I was 29 plus). My intense desire and determination to go to London 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 H.M. Perera gave up round the last bend. I had won four of the five events I entered for. I was selected to the team and also appointed as captain.

The big day began with the opening ceremony and I, as captain, was given the privilege to carry the Ceylon flag during the march past. Our manager, W.H.D. Perera, wished that I kept out of the march past as the heats for the 400m hurdles were scheduled for the next day. I however insisted that I take part at the march past 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, the pictures from a photo finish confirmed I had finished in third place.

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. The official Olympic report commented, “White went off at a terrific pace”. There was a change in the way I strode when reaching the seventh hurdle and this allowed Cochran of USA to take the lead. I felt content that I would finish in second place and didn’t make an effort to challenge Cochran who went on to win the event 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 two-years preparation for the race as did Cochran the winner!

The most unforgettable and emotional moment was stepping on the victory rostrum and seeing the flag of one’s country being hoisted before 85,000 spectators at the stadium.

I was also entered for the 200m and 400m events. The day after my success in the hurdles I was to compete in the heats of the 200m. I was running well alongside Mel Patton of U.S.A. who went on to win the final. When entering the ‘straight’ my left hamstring muscle gave way and I could no longer take part in the Games.

I returned home after the Olympics to a rapturous welcome. The occasion will live in my memory forever.”

Prompted by the Olympic medal, the Government awarded Duncan a scholarship to Loughborough University in the UK, where he captained the University athletics team for three consecutive years. His feats made Loughborough University athletics champions. However, the Olympic medal won in 1948 remained the key feather in his cap. This achievement also garnered him the dual honors of “Member of the British Empire” (MBE) and the Helms World Trophy as the “Most Outstanding Athlete” in Asia.

White continued to bring glory to the country through athletics. At the age of 32 White won a gold medal at the British Empire Games in Auckland, New Zealand and also established a new British Empire Games record. At the games he bettered the Empire (Commonwealth) Games record. However, he just missed the World record by only 1/15th of a second in spite of almost tumbling on his knees early in the race after knocking down a hurdle.

On completing his studies at the Loughborough University White returned to Ceylon in September 1951 and took up the post of lecturer at the Teacher’s College in Maharagama. Eight years later White used his experience to train the next generation of Olympic hopefuls by taking the post of schools coach in the Government’s Department of Education.

In 1963 Duncan White, along with his wife and six children, left for Nigeria to accept the post of senior lecturer at the University of Ibadn. He subsequently returned to Warwickshire, England and resided there with his family till his death in 2002.