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Team India makes its Debut at the Olympics

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Photo courtesy - British Library

Sports acted as a glue during the reign of British empire. Wherever there was the sign of monarchy, the culture of modern sports followed. In pre-independent India, it was no different. The Indian-born British man, Norman Pritchard represented ‘British India’ at the 1900 Olympics and won two medals. In retrospect, those two silver medals are counted under India by the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

It took some time for the indigenous Indians to take up this ‘British’ pastime, when the seeds of the nationalist movement had begun to take effect. What was about sports that fascinated a large group of people, though it came from the colonial masters?

Sports in the late 19th century India was exclusive. Only a selected group of invitees took part in these recreational games, and with time it spread across the country – cricket, football, hockey being the big three sports. Codes were drawn, rules were re-written and many get-togethers had ‘organised sport’ in some form or the other.

With the exception of Norman Pritchard, it took 24 years for India to get to terms with the global sport movement called ‘Olympics’. India, the land of princely states, had been under the British rule for long. Perhaps, sports was seen as an outlet where ‘Indian-ness’ could be showcased, and Olympics provided that platform. But, there was a problem. India, to compete in the 1920 Olympics did not have any supporting mechanism. Who would oversee end-to-end requirements that were needed to select athletes, fund, train, and sponsor for the quadrennial event?

ENTER DORABJI TATA

Dorabji Tata, son of Jamestji Tata, founder of the TATA empire, continued his family tradition of not just being an industrialist, also donned the role of a philanthropist. After playing a crucial part in establishing the cricket scene in India, his Western upbringing was pivotal in understanding the essence of Olympics, and importantly making it understand in India. Games in general had a cultural power, never mind it was linked closely with Western education system.

Under his patronage, the Olympic Council of India took birth in 1919, with a sole purpose of sending a team of Indians to compete in the Olympics. Dorabji supervised the selection proceedings and financed six athletes to take part in the Olympics – four runners and two wrestlers.

DAWN OF OLYMPIC MOVEMENT IN INDIA

The very fact that these six Indians made it to Antwerp was a success story. These men had no idea about the European rules or access to modern training methods. Dorabji Tata arranged English trainers who also guided them with food habits alongside training, so as to give them the best preparation needed to compete at the Games.

The expenditure cost was estimated around INR 35,000 and public funding was not an option at that time. The Government of India at that time contributed INR 6000 while rest of the costs were met courtesy of the donations made by the Maharajas and Dorabji Tata himself.

Many of the backers hoped these athletes would bring back some glory. The athletes completed their pre-Olympic training in England before they left for Antwerp. Strangely enough, the accommodation for the Indian athletes was in the British military rest camp at Antwerp, sanctioned by the then Secretary of State of War, Winston Churchill, a request sent in by the then Secretary of State for India, Edwin Samuel Montagu.

Out of the six men who took part, P. D. Chaugule entered in 10,000m race and the marathon. While, Chaugule could not finish the 10 km race, he came 19th overall in the marathon. His time of 2h:50m:45s earned him a diploma of merit for being a top 30 finisher.

Purna. C. Banerjee, was the sole representative from India at the short distances. He was knocked out in the heats both in 100 metres and 400 metres. He was also the flag bearer for India at the opening ceremony.

Sadashiv.V. Datar, who was selected for the long distance marathon was unable to finish; while H.D. Kaikadi never took part in any of the events.

The wrestler Kumar.T. Navale bowed out in the Round of 16 to America’s Charles Johnson in the middleweight category and Randhir. D. Shinde came close to winning a medal in the featherweight category as he lost to Philip Bernard in the bronze medal match.

ON AN END NOTE

Indians didn’t create any ripples on the Olympic scene, however they took the hardest of all tasks, which is to take the first step. The Indian Olympic movement began its journey and it was viewed as a platform to establish its identity in the world, thereby indirectly contributed towards the nationalist sentiment. Olympics was once such occasion where countries around the world met, and India became part of it in 1920 and the association has grown stronger since that time.

Source: British Library & Olympics: The India Story