1948 holds a special place in the history of sport in Sri Lanka due to the outstanding performance of Duncan White at the London Olympics. Earlier that year, G. Brant Little arrived in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon), contracted by the Ceylon Amateur Athletics Association (AAA) to coach the Island’s first Olympic team.
Little’s own sporting background was primarily in athletics having represented Canada in the 800 meters at the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam. He later won a scholarship to Notre Dame University in USA where he graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Physical Education.
After his Olympic mission was completed, Little was appointed as the inaugural Director of Physical Education at the University of Ceylon in 1948. This move hinted as a recognition by the University authorities, particularly the Vice-Chancellor at the time Sir Ivor Jennings, that academic excellence needed to be complemented by participation and success in the field of sport. Sir Ivor also was instrumental in affiliating the University of Ceylon to the All India Inter University Board. This initiative opened the way for sports teams from our University to participate in the annual Inter University competitions conducted by the sporting arm of the Board.
Little’s first major undertaking was the staging of the dual athletic meet between the Universities of Madras and Ceylon. Success in this and later championships was made possible by a very talented group of athletes. The group included athletes of the caliber of John de Saram, Oscar Wijesinghe, Upali Amerasinghe, M.A. Akbar, Lakshman Kadirgamar, T.L. Blaze, D.C. Ariyanayagam and Walter. J. May. In a sequence of years 1949 stands out as the peak year due to two excellent performances. The first was the lowering of all three All Ceylon Relay records on one day (15.10.49) by teams anchored by John de Saram and Oscar Wijesinghe. The other was a resounding win in the All India Inter University Athletic Championships held in Colombo on the 26th and 27th December 1949. The margin of victory was 58 points which in itself was a record. In addition, four new records were established by the Ceylon University athletes. The smooth functioning of the Championships was a testimony to Little’s organizational skills and the runway win a reflection of his coaching ability.
The opening of the Peradeniya Campus in 1952 provided Little with the opportunity and scope to make his most valuable contribution to the advancement of University sport. On his initiative multi-purpose sports complex was built incorporating a cinder track for athletics, tennis, a cricket bowl, rugger and soccer field and a Gymnasium. The Gymnasium was a magnificent building, constructed from the shell of an aircraft hangar – a legacy of World War II. Little used his connections with the Canadian High Commission to secure the hangar. With a floor area of 34m by 71 m it could anytime accommodate one or more court for tennis, basket ball, volleyball, netball, badminton, table tennis and an area for wrestling and weightlifting. It was completed in 1956 and was adjudged by sports professionals to be decades ahead of time.
These sports facilities were put into immediate use with the University staging (for the second time) the All India Inter University Athletic Meet and Boxing Meet in December 1953. Twenty Universities participated in these Games. In athletics, the University of Ceylon maintained its high reputation being runner-up to Punjab University by a mere four points. It won the Boxing Championships decisively.
During Little’s tenure, the groundwork was completed and the pattern was set for the University to participate in All India Inter University tournaments. Teams from most sports thereafter regularly competed in these contests with invariably, encouraging results.
Central to Little’s success on and off the field was his easygoing manner, ability to motivate and organizational skills. At the outset, his outgoing friendly approach to all and sundry required some adjustment on the part of those used to the more traditional reserved British attitude to personal contact. However, it did help to break down barriers by easing the lines of communication and open many doors as was evidence for instance in the special treatment the University received in the Inter University contests at Bangalore and Allahabad.
To many sportsmen and others motivation was his forte. His motivational techniques were many and varied and extended to other sports besides. He was a great supporter of the award of colours and colours nights. For a time, he produced a regular newsletter or column for the newspapers entitled “Varsity Spotlight” which reviewed the main sporting activities at the University for the period and highlighted both team and individual excellence. This not only served as an incentive for enhanced performances but also raised the profile of the University Sport. He also provided support for university sportsmen by attendance at games/events regardless of his familiarity with the sport. He is said to have attended cricket matches resplendent in the University blazer and tie despite his closest acquaintance with a similar ball game being baseball.
There is little need to elaborate on his organizing skills and initiative. The number of sporting activities that he initiated and successfully carried out attest to his capabilities in this regard. His master plan for Peradeniya also called for management and organizing ability of a very high order to bring it to fruition. He was no stranger to innovation and was the first to introduce the concept of the Relay Carnival to Sri Lanka. The first contest of this type was the Inter Hall Relay Carnival in Peradeniya in 1955. The Public Schools Athletic Association adopted this concept a decade later.
The foregoing confirms the invaluable contribution Little made to University sport. His vision and organizing ability was largely responsible for the excellent facilities provided for every sport. In addition, he raised the profile of sport at the University and made it an integral part of University life. There will be a general consensus that University sport made unprecedented and giant strides forward due to his endeavors.
The following observations by a fellow professional (though of later vintage) constitute the most appropriate summing up of Little. He designed a 50 year ahead of its time. A most genial person and a very good motivator. He was an organizer “par excellence.”
-Walter May was the Captain of Athletics of the University of Ceylon in 1971-72.