In only a few months, India will be participating in the world’s grandest sporting event – the Olympic Games. And while the Indian contingent carries the hopes of a nation to Tokyo, we must remember that sports is always so much more than a battle of skill and wits.
When India tossed her hat into the Olympic ring at the Antwerp Olympics of 1920, it was an assertion of her identity as a nation and a reflection of the politics of the time. The country had been held back as a British colony for around 260 years, so participating in the Games was an expression of the spirit of nationalism and the politics of self-respect on the international stage.
Viewed from this perspective, India’s journey to the Games forms a crucial missing link in the story of Indian nationhood. But have you ever imagined who the driving force was behind India’s Olympic movement? There is one man to thank for this – Sir Dorabji Tata, son of pioneering steel baron Jamsetji Tata.
Dorabji Tata: Guts & Glory
Being a founder of one of India’s largest industrial enterprises, Dorabji also carried forward the family tradition of philanthropy and made valuable contributions to sport, culture and education. His keen interest in sports led him to play a pivotal role in founding school and college cricket in Mumbai in the 1880s.
– The Harris Shield, the oldest surviving inter-school cricket tournament in India, is his legacy to cricket.
But this was not enough for him. Tata wanted to replicate the success of cricket, then the prerogative of the Indian elite, in Olympic sports. He was educated largely in England and while studying there, he had watched closely how sports was central to the English culture. The Tata scion, hence, wanted India to embrace sports to build itself as a modern nation.
Tata realised that adopting a game went beyond just playing the actual sport; it also meant adopting the modernity that went with it. For Indians, it meant adopting European clothes, European rules and the European notion of ‘fair play’. Sports thus became a playing field, where tradition and modernity met, clashed and blended.
Tata took his first bold step towards India’s Olympic dream during a speech he was making at the Deccan Gymkhana in Poona (now Pune), at a sports meet in 1919. Tata was president of the gymkhana and, at the meet, he convinced the Governor of Bombay, Llyod George, to use his good offices with the British Olympic Committee to secure affiliation for India at the Games.
The affiliation came in February 1920, leaving Tata with only 6 months to identify and train athletes and make the necessary arrangements to send the country’s first-ever contingent to the Olympic Games. It was a mountainous task but Tata was up to the challenge.
But where would the athletes come from? Tata led a five-member committee comprising fellows from the Deccan Gymkhana, and a trial meet was held in Poona in April 1920. Tata in his letter to the International Olympic Council (IOC) noted that the participants were “all boys of the peasant class working in the fields and living off poor fare”. And they had no idea of European rules or modern training of any kind.
Despite running in primitive conditions and that too without any proper training, the first three men ran the distance in a fair time. “Their time would compare well with the times done in Europe or elsewhere,” Tata had observed in his regular despatch to the IOC. In fact, some of their times were close to the time clocked in previous Olympics. Suitably impressed, Tata decided to send the top three sprinters to the Antwerp Olympic Games of 1920 at his own cost. This was India’s first Olympic encounter, and the nationalist sentiment was at its very core.
But these peasant-athletes had no idea what it took to participate or qualify for a tournament of this level. Let alone the athletes, when a key member of the Deccan Gymkhana was asked about the standard time for a 100-yard race, he said it could be anything “from half a minute to a minute”. He was surprised when he was told that it was not a matter of minutes, rather, a tenth of seconds.
So, to turn Indian sprinters into Olympic-level athletes ahead of the Antwerp Games, Tata organised the first modern meet of Indian athletes in Pune. A committee headed by HG Weber selected six track and field amateur athletes, India’s first Olympic contingent. They sailed for Belgium on a steamer named the SS Mantua under the supervision of Dr AH Fayzee, India’s national tennis champion.
The cost of this adventure was estimated at Rs 35,000, of which only Rs 18,000 was available. At this early stage, public money was not too forthcoming. So, the Government of India contributed Rs 6,000, with Tata contributing the rest. However, colonial India’s maiden Olympic voyage failed to capture the imagination of people back home as no medals were won. The Indian athletes’ performance barely merited a mention in the newspapers when the country’s struggle for independence was at its peak.
From the sporting point of view, the Antwerp foray was more like an exposure tour rather than one that carried any real hope of winning medals. But the very fact that the athletes reached there was itself an achievement. At least the journey had begun, in Tata’s own words it had ‘fired the ambition of nationalist element in Poona’.
Paris 1924: A Real Olympic Dream
The Indian elite, who were behind any kind of sports played in India at the time, were not disheartened by the failure at Antwerp and they set their sights on the Paris Olympic Games of 1924. This time, a much better-organised, a nine-member track and field contingent was to be sent. If the Antwerp Games was more of an initiative by aristocrats and upper-class of Bombay and Poona, spearheaded by Tata and his experience at the Deccan Gymkhana, by this time a truly national effort had developed.
The team for Antwerp had been selected largely by Tata after watching local runners in Poona. But for Paris, the nine-member team was selected after rigorous screening of athletes at what was called an ‘Olympic Games’ in Delhi.
This was also the first unofficial ‘national’ meet of Indian athletes in an organised manner.
In 1920, the funds had largely come from Tata, the Indian Government and Indian Princes. But by 1924, funding poured in from all parts of the country. A subscription drive undertaken to finance the Indian contingent’s trip to Paris was a success. While the Punjab Olympic Committee contributed Rs 1,114, the state’s overall contribution was Rs 2,500 after 47 schools stepped up to raise funds.
Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Orissa and Madras chipped in with Rs 2,000 each while the Central Provinces contributed Rs 1,500. Calcutta donated a huge sum of Rs 4,000 towards the fund. The Indian Princes were also approached and the Maharaja of Patiala, Bhupinder Singh, the country’s leading sports patron, contributed enough to fund the participation of Patiala long-jumper Dalip Singh. The Army too sponsored its representatives, while the government contributed a sum of Rs 5,000.
HC Buck of the YMCA College of Physical Education in Madras, an American who excelled in athletics coaching in India, escorted the Indian contingent to Paris. Though Indian athletes returned home empty-handed, their performance was way better than of Antwerp.
The Indian Olympic Association Takes Shape
Following the Paris trip, a permanent All-India Olympic Association was formed. Keeping in mind Dorabji Tata’s invaluable contribution to India’s Olympic movement, the new body invited him to assume the presidency. But the association lasted only three years and, in 1927, it was replaced by the Indian Olympic Association (IOA), which continues to administer Olympic sports in the country to date. Once again, Tata was elected president unopposed and Dr AG Noehren of the YMCA (Young Men’s Christian Association) its secretary.
Under the new IOA, India participated in the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics. And the country tasted its first-ever Olympics success – a Gold in men’s hockey. This was the Olympics that witnessed the rise of hockey maestro Dhyan Chand.
YMCA’s Pivotal Role
At the time, the country did not have any sports infrastructure to speak of. The only organisation that had a proven history of promoting physical exercise and sporting activity across the continents was the YMCA. After attending an IOC-YMCA meeting in August 1920 in Antwerp, Tata got a clear idea about the operations of the latter. So he didn’t think twice before seeking the help of the YMCA India chapter, a move that proved a boon for sporting development in India.
Tata also enlisted the support of YMCA’s Noehren to kindle an Indian Olympic movement. Though YMCA lost its gleam in India with the resignation of Noehren in 1927, it continued its bulk of work in states to promote Olympic sports and was instrumental in maintaining the fabric of the provincial sports organisations. However, within months of the establishment of IOA-YMCA bonhomie, India’s Olympic movement found itself in murky water with both leaders resigning on personal grounds.
Following Noehren’s permanent departure from India Tata also gave up the IOA presidency citing ill-health. Upset with the development IOC accepted Dorabji Tata’s resignation with much reluctance.
Patiala and the Rest
The post-Dorabji Tata era in Indian Olympics has been full of politics and leadership positions were dominated by princes at the early stage and later it has become a safer haven for political and business class.
Since the Olympic Games had finally caught the imagination of Indians, the IOA presidency had become a prestigious position, which led to a battle among Princes for the post. The IOC President initially recommended the name of the Prince of Kapurthala, considering he was a frequent visitor to Europe. Tata backed the idea as he thought the Prince of Kapurthala could represent the Indian cause at IOC meetings.
But sidelining all the Maharaja of Patiala, Bhupinder Singh, who was known for his affluence and influence, emerged as the most eligible person for the presidency. He also had the backing of Jam Sahib of Nawanagar, the great cricketer Ranjitsinhji, after whom the Ranji Trophy is named. Soon after assuming charge, Patiala took the perfect diplomatic step in appointing Dorabji Tata as honorary life president of the IOA in recognition of his efforts to promote Olympism in India.
Patiala’s rise as the foremost patron of Indian Olympic sports created serious resentment, not only among the Princes but also among IOA and IOC officials. The one body that was most upset was the YMCA because Bhupinder Singh had completely ignored its operations in India.
Worried at the development, IOC President Count Baillet Latour asked Tata to reconsider his resignation from the IOC. But septuagenarian Tata steadfastly refused to come back, citing his ill-health and inability to travel to Europe.
Tata’s refusal meant that Patiala’s dominance over the Indian Olympic administration grew even stronger. His dominance at the IOA continued even after independence.
With the advent of the political culture in the post-independence era India, IOA has become a great place to hold control of the Olympic sports. Princes are long gone, so business and political class with affluence and influence have taken control of Olympic matters in modern India.
Dorabji’s 100-Year-Old Dream
However, the Indian Olympic movement started by Dorabji Tata 100 years ago is yet to get its fullest expression as the nation yet to taste major success in Olympics. While Japan, contemporary to India’s Olympic movement, has made tremendous progress, and China too has taken giant strides in the Games, India’s biggest Olympic haul was a mere six medals at the 2012 London Olympics. Four years later, at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games, a 117-member team returned with just two medals – a silver in badminton and a bronze in wrestling.
The monopoly of Indian hockey over the Olympic Games is long gone, and a few individual medals have been won over the years by the likes of Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore (shooting), Abhinav Bindra (shooting), Vijender Singh (boxing), Mary Kom (boxing), Sushil Kumar (wrestling) and PV Sindhu (badminton) all India claimed till date.
– ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sudipta Biswas is a sports journalist and author of Mission Gold: India's Quest for Olympic Glory (2020). Biswas started his career covering grassroots sports in Kolkata and is currently researching and reporting on the Olympic movement in India.