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From HT Archives: A historic high for a young nation at London Olympics

ByK Arumugham
Aug 14, 2023 12:03 PM IST

At the Wembley Stadium in front of 25,000 fans, India scripted a fairy tale 4-0 victory just days before the first anniversary of Independence

India’s 1948 London Olympics gold medal triumph in hockey, which marks its 75th Anniversary today, was achieved in appalling conditions and after overcoming severe challenges.

India had triumphed in the first three Olympics they participated in.
India had triumphed in the first three Olympics they participated in.

The birth pangs of a new nation, talent erosion in the team following Partition, unfriendly weather and playing conditions, and the challenge of facing their former colonial rulers in their den — surmounting all this adds to the glory.

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First, there was the drama, confusion and controversy in the build-up to the Games.

A player such as Leo Pinto, a certainty for the 1936 Olympics, had missed out because of injury and had to wait 12 years to get selected for the 1948 campaign. Indian hockey’s wait to prove its true status as world champions though lasted far more than the legendary goalkeeper’s.

India had triumphed in the first three Olympics they participated in — Amsterdam 1928, Los Angeles 1932 and Berlin 1936 – but London being their first as an independent nation added significance.

It also put Kishan Lal’s men on a collision course with Great Britain — England were the winners at London 1908 and Antwerp 1920 .

The big question that hung over the game was whether India were world champions by virtue of their triple gold, or had to make a point by beating England, who in 1948 took part as Great Britain to extend the scope of selection to include Scotland and Wales ?

Failure to win the top prize in London would dim the aura of Amsterdam, Los Angeles and Berlin. The nascent nation thus waited with bated breath to settle the issue once and for all.

India was aware of the gigantic task and had finalized the London team early, in 1947, with an extended East African tour. But the Partition intervened and with that everything went topsy-turvy. Delhi’s Abdul Aziz migrated to Pakistan; and AIS Dara and Sharuk from Lahore, and Yaqoob and Quayyum from North-West Frontier Province were no longer available to play for India. Indian stars such as Amir Kumar and Keshav Datt, who had been based in Lahore, were stranded. Bhopal players were undecided over their loyalties. Fresh selection, therefore, had to be carried out.

England reinforced the side by including six players from Wales and two from Scotland while India faced depleted of resources. And in a clever move, Great Britain also inducted former Punjab Hockey Association president Charles Newham as assistant manager in a bid to lay bare India’s tactics.

India also had to deal with enormous pressure being mounted by the regional units. The 16-member team that was announced by Morarji Desai after the Bombay nationals was honoured with changes each day! For instance, this team did not have,RS Gentle and Balbir Singh Sr., who would go on to become triple Olympians!

India set out for London, but players were still getting added to the squad! Grahanandan ‘Nandy’ Singh, dropped at the last minute, was airlifted separately on Bengal’s request, and Abdul Shakoor on Bhopal’s. India’s was the largest squad with 21 members, including four centre-forwards!

Reginald Rodrigues, a forward, would later write: “No former Olympic team left its native shores for the defence of a world crown with more criticism and less public confidence than our 1948 team.”

Now, India did not have enough funds for such a big squad and could barely muster the Rs. 2.5 lakh needed, whereas the Pakistan government sanctioned Rs.5 lakh for its hockey campaign.

Unlike now only those who played at least one match would get a medal. Thus, selection of the eleven became an issue each day. A committee was formed to deal with it, but it led to more controversies than consensus. Ultimately, only four players featured in all matches for India. Legend Ranganathan Francis’ score was just one, Balbir Singh Sr’s two!

Still, India overwhelmed every team, including the hosts in the finals, because, when given a chance, everyone outperformed .

Like Pinto, who was 34. The pint-sized goalie — he barely weighed 150 pounds (approx. 68 kg) and was just five feet tall — turned out to be India’s saviour in the semi-final. Netherlands posed an unexpected challenge in weather conditions that suited them — a soft and sodden ground with long grass. Indian shoes gave way and most players played barefoot. After pulling back a goal at 1-2, Netherlands played their best in a bid to equalise and force a replay — as they would later with Pakistan and walk away with the bronze medal. But Pinto even weathered a penalty bully to take his team into the final.

Balbir Singh Sr. was fielded in only two games – Argentina (league) and Great Britain (final) – but his magical touch melted his rivals. His feats are part of hockey folklore and need no repetition.

With the smart selection of the playing eleven, all 21 players became eligible for the gold medal.

At the Wembley Stadium in front of 25,000 fans, India scripted a fairy tale 4-0 victory just days before the first anniversary of Independence. The icing on the cake was a victory over not just former colonial power Great Britain, but one that laid claim to the tag of “world champions”.

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