Duncan White, MBE, ED, DLC.M.INST.AM. (1 March 1918 – 3 July 1998) was a legendary Trinitian and the first Sri Lankan athlete to win a medal for his country in an Olympic event. He won a silver in the 440-yards hurdles at the 1948 Summer Olympics in London, England. Duncan White is undoubtedly the most outstanding male athlete produced by Sri Lanka who, with his silver medal at the 1948 London Olympic Games remained as the only Olympic medal for the country for 52 years.

The cricketers and athletes today have magnificent stadiums filled to capacity where they perform and the whole country watching and supporting them on TV. Media coverage of sporting events and everything else is instant, wide and intense, and video footage shown from time to time keep the feats of our sportsmen and women alive for all time. The national recognition and plaudits for them are limitless. For Duncan White there was none of that. When he returned home by sea, it was his alma mater Trinity College that accorded him a simple but warm welcome at the Colombo jetty. It was only a year before Duncan passed away in England where he made his home, that his country recognised his worth by awarding him the woefully belated national honour of ‘Desha- Manya’. Tears in Duncan’s eyes can be seen when after the ceremony he told the TV reporter covering the occasion, “I should have been given this honour 50 years ago.”

Duncan White’s road to Olympics too was not paved with gold. White was born on 1 March 1918 in Lathpandura near Kalutara, in the then British-ruled Ceylon, the second of four children of John Bernard White and Cecilia Hawk White. He was educated at Trinity College, Kandy where he was awarded the prestigious ‘Trinity Lion’ award for athletics and was the Captain of Athletics at Trinity. The Lion award was subsequently withdrawn from him due to minor disciplinary reasons at the time.

Though he was born into a middle-class family it was a hard battle for his father, an apothecary at Matugama to pay the school fees of his son at Trinity College, one of the leading educational institutions of Sri Lanka. In fact Duncan White found it difficult to even buy a pair of running shoes. In those days there were no sports foundations to pick up the bills of promising sportsmen. But in the fiery spirit of winners he was not put off by such shortcomings.

His moment of glory came in 1948 when he sailed across 440 yards of hurdles with a timing of 51.8 secs in the XIVth olympiad held in London.

He had trained for only about 3 months before the games while the gold medalist, Roy Cochran of the USA, had trained for about 4 years. White’s time for the event, 51.8 seconds, was only 0.7 seconds behind Cochran, which along with Cochran’s time bettered the existing Olympic record.

Duncan White Performing

The report of Duncan White’s 1948 London Olympic Games record 440 yards Men’s Hurdles Event was as follows:

Duncan White donated his Olympic Silver Medal to Trinity College. The medal currently lies in the College Archive.

Duncan White donated his Olympic Silver Medal to Trinity College. The medal currently lies in the College Archive.

“In the final Cochran was in the third lane, White of Ceylon (as Sri Lanka was known then) in the fifth lane and Larsson of Sweden on the outside. White went off at a terrific pace but by walf distance Cochran, hurdling in superb form was ahead. He won by a huge margin in 51.1 seconds, a magnificent victory. White of Ceylon, who was second, had very little competition before the games and his achievement of 51.8 seconds deserves the highest praise.”

The extraordinary Duncan White’s single medal placed Sri Lanka 28th in the medals tally. Apart from India (1 Gold), Sri Lanka was the only other South Asian country to have won a medal at the London Games.

White won his Olympic medal the same year Ceylon gained independence from Britain. The year in which Sri Lanka was born a new nation after 443 years of colonial domination. The happy coincidence infused the nation with new hope. It gave them some pride.

After the Olympic victory, White was welcomed at a ceremony at Trinity, and was honoured by returning his ‘Lion’. Making a speech at the special assembly, White stated that “although my victory at the Olympics is prestigious, the Trinity ‘Lion’ award makes me feel more honoured than that”, and received the ‘Lion’ with open arms.

Two years later in record breaking time, Duncan won a gold medal in the 440 yards hurdles event at the British Empire Games, Auckland 1950 – he beat the “hot” favourite Dutch Holland of New Zealand into 2nd place and broke the existing Empire Games record;

Duncan retired from competition in 1950. Not for Duncan were there limousines, luxury houses, sponsorships, and advertising contracts. He asked, but to no avail, for a house to live in somewhere close to Colombo if he were to return home to help in athletics training for our youths. Duncan’s days were days when sportsmen were paupers. At a sportsmeet in Colombo during the war to which he travelled from Trincomalee, where he was stationed, he ran the 120 yards hurdles in a pair of tennis shoes to beat a former Olympic athlete Group Captain Finlay of the Royal Air Force.

Returning from Loughborough after the London Olympics, Duncan bought his own car, a green Morris Minor convertible with a loan. With Angela his newly wedded wife he occupied a ramshackle “bungalow” in the old military camp at Maharagama, which had become the Government Training College, where he took up the poorly paid Physical Education lecturer’s post.

He gave excellent lectures in Theory of Physical Education and trained students in PT and sports. He coached a superb quartet of fellow students in the 440 yards relay. That was in 1951 and teacher trainees at that time felt exceedingly proud and deeply honoured to have an Olympic medalist and Trinity Lion as a PE lecturer. Duncan, however, was the humblest, the most unassuming, the most cheerful and friendliest of the lecturers in those glorious days of his youth.

Years later he was selected as coach of the Sri Lanka Schools Athletic Association, a post offered to him by the Education Department. By this time he had joined the Army as a Major in the Volunteer Force.

After his stay in Ceylon he left the country with his family and was domiciled in England. He was awarded the Order of the British Empire(MBE) in 1949 but only many years later in 1988 was he honored by his Sri Lankan homeland by a postage stamp.

He married Angela Jeanne Siebel in March 1952 and fathered six children: Maxine, Nita, Christopher, Daniel, Marilyn and Fiona. He had three brothers, Frederick A. White, also an athlete, Stanley Leonard White and Douglas Andrew White (died 1960). He was also blessed with eight grand children.

Duncan White with some of his family members

Duncan White had never forgotten his roots. He used to visit his mother country Sri Lanka as often as he could. He and his wife would always give a helping hand to anyone that needed their help. With his service to his fellow men he won the Gold medal minted in the memory of all those who knew Duncan White.

The athlete passed away in the town he’d inhabited for most of his later years, Nuneaton, Warwickshire, England. His wife Angela is still homed in Nuneaton.

Remarkable qualities from this great man’s life:

* He was a role model to young people. His elegance in sports, attitude, enthusiasm and simplicity in life is the hallmark of success.

* Unlike today’s sportsmen, White’s life was never a ‘bed of roses’. It was his sheer determination which paved the way to success.

* White’s secret to overcome these setbacks was his never-say-die attitude, which paved the way for him to put Sri Lanka on the world map. It was an era, where there were no sponsors and big money in sports.

* All upcoming sportsmen should emulate the willpower of the legendary Duncan White. For this officer and gentleman, nothing was impossible.

Duncan White

To this day, Duncan White’s name is etched in gold on the ‘Honors Board’ inside the Trinity College Hall as one of the great Trinitians who captained Trinity College Athletics during their school years.

He passed away in July 1998, but his memory, his Olympic silver medal, his Gold medal at the British Empire Games in 1950 and his services for his mother country will outlast him in the annals of Sri Lankan History and will be forever remembered.


Article Prepared By Yashwanth Dahanayake

Sources : Wikipedia, Sunday Times, Daily News and Sunday Observer

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Published 13 years ago by Yashwanth Dahanayake

Posted in Alumni, Athletics, History, News, Sports

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