Wrestling is among man’s most ancient sports. It has its roots in hand-to-hand combat that defined early struggles for territory, power and eventually, peace. Wrestlers are described in the Vedas, and etched on temple walls from India to Sumeria, Babylon and Egypt, going back 5,000 years. In India, its earliest traces date to 1500 BCE.
It was already a competitive sport in the ancient Olympic Games, having been introduced in 708 BCE. When the modern Olympics began in Athens in 1896, wrestling was a core element.
The sport is now India’s second-biggest contributor of Olympic medals, with the country having netted five (four bronze and one silver) in the modern Games. Sushil Kumar alone has won bronze, in Beijing in 2008, and then silver at the 2012 London Olympics.
Kumar is undoubtedly the face of modern Indian wrestling. His success revived kushti in Haryana and put Indian on the path to greater Olympic glory.
But Kumar wasn’t the first Indian wrestler to win at the Olympics. Way back in 1952, at the Helsinki Games, Khashaba Dadasaheb aka K D Jadhav from Maharashtra won bronze, becoming independent India’s first Olympic medallist in an individual sport.
When Jadhav returned to India, though, there were no parades, prizes or titles waiting for him. His singular achievement wasn’t even reported on widely, except on the sports pages of newspapers. All the attention was on the 1952 gold medal-winning Indian hockey team. Jadhav, who had fought a lonely battle to make it to Helsinki, was a hero only to his fellow villagers. They awaited his arrival with a cavalcade of 100 bullock carts in Satara, and he was at least ridden home in style.
Fight to the Finish
Jadhav was born on January 15, 1926, in Satara. His family was obsessed with wrestling. It was his father, Dadasaheb, a wrestler himself, who spotted his son’s talent and began to train the boy at the age of five.
Despite his scrawny physique, no one seemed able to get the better of K D Jadhav. Local audiences gathered to watch as he knocked down bulky wrestlers almost twice his size. While studying at Kolhapur’s Raja Ram College, Jadhav continued to compete at the state and national levels.
At first, the college sports coach was reluctant to consider him, given his slight physique. Legend has it that Jadhav approached the principal, asking that he be allowed to take part in the annual sports event. There too, he left spectators stunned as he defeated the bulkiest opponents with apparent ease.
Jadhav was trained by former wrestlers Baburao Balawde and Belapuri Guruji before he went on to represent India in the 1948 and 1952 Olympics.
At the 1948 Games in London, Jadhav lost in the final rounds because he had never wrestled on a mat before. (Most Indian wrestling schools practice on dry earth.) But he managed to impress fans, beating opponents within minutes and finishing sixth in freestyle wrestling.
After London, Jadhav was determined to win a medal for India. He began training on a mat. But the far bigger problem was finances. He didn’t have the money to make it to Helsinki for the 1952 Games.
Jadhav approached Morarji Desai, then chief minister of Bombay, for financial help. He received a cold snub, but he wasn’t willing to give up. So he wrote to the Maharaja of Patiala, Yadavindra Singh, then president of Indian Olympic Association. Yadavindra Singh arranged a wrestling bout with Niranjan Das, and when Jadhav defeated him, he was selected to participate in the 1952 Olympics.
That meant his flight would be paid for; he still needed to raise money for his stay in Helsinki. His college principal came to the rescue, mortgaging his own house to raise Rs 7,000 for Jadhav’s trip. Other professors came forward to pitch in too.
It was all worth it. Jadhav stunned his audience at the Olympics, knocking down opponent after opponent with ease in the first five rounds of the bantamweight freestyle wrestling category.
In the sixth round, he lost to the Japanese wrestler Shohachi Ishii. Here, Jadhav should have got a half-hour break before his next bout, against Russia’s Rashid Mammadbeyov. Jadhav was not given the break because there was no Indian official present to speak up on his behalf. Exhausted, he lost to Mammadbeyov and came away with bronze. He was 26.
Life after the Win
An injury kept Jadhav from competing in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. He was now 30 years old. The previous year, he had joined the Bombay police as a sub-inspector. He would remain on the force for nearly 30 years, retiring in 1983 as an assistant commissioner of police in Maharashtra. He died a year later, in a road accident. He was 58.
Through his life, he received no endorsements, no prizes. He sold his wife’s jewellery so they could build a post-retirement home, in the same Satara town where he was born.
In 2010, finally waking up to Jadhav’s struggle and the dedication it took to get the country its first individual Olympic medal, the Centre decided to honour him by renaming the wrestling stadium in the Indira Gandhi Sports Complex in New Delhi. It is now the K D Jadhav Stadium, as a testament to that first bronze.
The only medal the wrestler ever won from the government of India was an Arjuna Award, also granted posthumously, in 2001.
– 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.