Within minutes of Sushil Kumar winning bronze in the 66 kg freestyle wrestling at the Beijing Olympics, our politicians were on TV with their largesse. At last count the promised amounts had passed Rs 1 crore.
It is time for the nation to celebrate. But it should also be a time for sombre reflection on how our sporting heroes of previous generations were left to suffer in silence.
Perhaps the saddest example of this wilful neglect is the case of independent India’s first individual medal winner, Khashaba Dadasaheb Jadhav who won the bronze in the bantamweight (57 kg) category at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics.
Jadhav’s journey to Helsinki was a bitter struggle and was a precursor to the rest of his life which ended in a road accident in August 1984 at the age of 58.
He was snubbed when he requested then-Bombay Chief Minister Morarji Desai for Rs 4,000 to help make the trip, which came about despite wrestling officials attempting to sabotage his entry.
It was the simple folk of Goleshwar village of Karad in southwest Maharashtra who made financial sacrifices to raise the necessary funds for the trip. But his travails continued after he returned home with that precious piece of medal.
There was minimal media attention on Jadhav’s feat, overshadowed as it was by the Indian hockey team winning gold.
A grand reception awaited him on his return to his village, with 151 bullock carts escorting the hero home to Goleshwar from Karad railway station.
The rest of his life though was spent running from pillar to post for some sort of recognition or reward in order to support his wife Kusum and son Ranjit. It was a tale of neglect and humiliation which has left his widow and son bitter to this day.
No recognition came from an ungrateful nation till the Arjuna Award was grudgingly given almost as an afterthought in 2001.
Though highly qualified (BA, LLB) it was not until that 1955 that he got a job as a police sub-inspector. For 22 years he did not receive a promotion despite numerous letters pleading his case. No wonder he would describe this shoddy treatment in one of those letters as “unparalleled.”
Six months before his retirement in 1982 he was granted the post of Assistant Commissioner of Police and that too after his colleagues pressured the higher-ups. Two years later he was dead. His last few months were spent fighting for his pension.
His family’s plight, which continues to this day, was brought to light in my 2000 book Great Indian Olympians.
Sushil deserves every rupee for his medal. But surely it is not too late to honour the memory of the man who preceded him by 56 years.
Gulu Ezekiel is the co-author of Great Indian Olympians.