With the Rio Olympic Games on in full swing, memories of Duncan White, the first Sri Lanka to win a medal at the Olympics, come to the mind of this writer.
While won his Olympic medal the same year Sri Lanka (Then Ceylon) gained independence. The year was 1948. The event was the 400 metres hurdles and this man won the silver. It is said that the stands swelled with cheering spectators, Cameras flashed and the air hummed with the voice of famous commentators. What notice did anyone take of the lanky youth in the sixth lane? The pistol ‘cracked’ and the athletes went flat out like greyhounds. The blonde American sped strongly, the Swede also did same, and so did the man from “somewhere”. At the penultimate hurdle he saw the American gaining. But now Duncan White made his super effort, the moment he had been waiting for. Lion-hearted and with determination written all over his face he flashed fast ahead of the Swede to take second place. Thus were Kandy and Ceylon engraved on the sports map of the world.
In 1937, Trinity College, perhaps the best schoolboy cricketing side of that year were at practice. One afternoon White was training at the school grounds at Asgiriya for the AAA meet. He was encroaching on to the area where the lst XI cricket team was practising at Asgiriya. White had a practice 100 yards sprint and it was something so magnificent that the whole cricket training squad watched and cheered. They were mesmerized by the grand sprinter’s supple limbs and the perfect athlete who owned them.
However, it appeared that he was a irresponsible youngster. There is the story that while waiting for an interview to join the Ceylon Police Force! White found time to hang on his hands. A little later one of the selectors heard about a complaint that some people from the police barracks had plucked young coconuts from an adjoining garden.
The culprit was found to be White! He had seldom taken to studies seriously. But when training for a meet all other things were unimportant. White trained with determination to win. At Trinity Duncan White won his ‘Lion’ in Athletics. He captained the athletic team. He was also a ruggerite of repute. He broke the Public Schools 220 yards record and won the 120 yards hurdles event and long jump. He also established a 440 yards record and was selected to participate at first Empire Games held in Australia in 1938. He was national champion for many years in the 120 yards hurdles, 440 yards hurdles and 400 metres hurdles.
White led the first Ceylon Olympic team to London in 1948.
Duncan White was awarded the MBE for his contribution to sports. This feat made him the first sportsman in Ceylon to be thus honoured. He was selected Sportsman of the Year by public polls. He obtained the Diploma in Physical Education of Loughborough College, UK in 1951 and was appointed Ceylon’s National Athletics Coach in 1958. He left Ceylon subsequently to take up an appointment as Director of Athletics at University of Ibadan, Nigeria.