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
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
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
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.