17 medals, 1 billion people
Getting adequate funding to send Indian teams to the Olympics used to be a tough business. When Charles Newham, who was involved in mobilising funds for the 1932 Indian Olympics hockey team to Los Angeles, approached Mahatma Gandhi, then in talks with Lord Irvin in Shimla, the Mahatma’s’ response was blunt: “What is hockey?”
Clearly, the disconnect between politics and sports in India goes back a long time. But as authors Boria Majumdar and Nalin Mehta argue in this pioneering and long awaited book, sports did, at one point of time, stand for nationalistic sentiments, especially in the pre-Independence era. Referring to the 1951 and 1962 Asian Games, the authors show how Jawaharlal Nehru and Indonesian President Sukarno vied for the title of ‘Emerging Asian Country’ that used sports as a tool.
Another startling fact is revealed. At the opening ceremony of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, the Dhyan Chand-led Indian Olympics contingent did not offer the Nazi salute — the Americans being the only other exception. There are many such revelations and anecdotes that should keep any Indian sports and sports history enthusiast enthralled.
Olympics: The India Story is a bag of facts, much of them sourced from the International Olympic Committee’s archives at their museum in Lausanne, Switzerland. The first 150-odd pages, in particular, are replete with little known, lively and telling details presented in an enchanting manner as the authors map the early years of India’s Olympic Movement. Indian hockey, the Asian Games, the profiles of India’s Olympians and the impact of television make up the bulk of this gripping narrative.
Sir Dorabji Tata, founder President of the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) in 1927, funded India’s contingents both for the 1920 and 1924 Olympics. But soon, he decided to step down and stuck to his guns despite repeated entreaties from the International Olympic Committee (IOC). The reason? He was 70 years old and felt it was time for someone else to take over. A fine example, surely, for our present-day sports parasites who cling on to power for decades.
Not surprisingly, since the sport fetched 11 medals at the Olympics for India, hockey dominates the Indian Olympic story. However, there is more information on the origin and growth of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) and the All India Football Federation (AIFF) than on the Indian Hockey Federation (IHF).
For the IHF story, one has to rely on IHF Vice-President C.E. Newham’s personal account. One feels that the 1926 Indian tour of New Zealand merited more emphasis, for it was this tour that was the motivation for the 1928 Amsterdam beginnings of our Golden Age of Olympic gold medals. Why India excelled in hockey during those glory years is still a mystery. As much is the mystery of why Jaipal Singh, the first Indian Olympic hockey captain, walked away before the semifinals.
But the book firmly asserts in line with my own earlier finding about Hitler not ever having met Dhyan Chand at Berlin. The story of the Führer offering the Indian hocket wizard a post in the German army is a complete cock and bull story.
Unlike the parts of the book dealing with Olympic movement, the chapters dealing with hockey revolve around known sources, mainly books by players and officials. The manner in which all the material has been brought together in a lucid manner is where the book scores.
As much as the authors emphasise that the introduction of synthetic playing surfaces is the sole reason behind Indian hockey’s decline, there are equally valid arguments against this theory. In particular, clueless coaches and antipathy towards the import of knowledge — as exemplified by the recent Ric Charlesworth hulaballoo — have resulted in the fall from grace of Indian hockey. As far as the larger picture goes, regional bickerings have effectively killed Olympic sports in India. The painstaking reconstruction of a seven-year feud between the IOA and Indian Swimming Federation officials is an eye-opener. However, hockey’s case is different. The succession war between ‘North’ and ‘South’ following Ashwini Kumar’s exit in the 1970s is just an aberration.
Olympics: The India Story, by virtue of its depth, dimension and erudition opens up numerous debates and fresh areas of research — besides being a delightful read.
K. Arumugam is co-author of Great Indian Olympians