Indian Olympians

on Monday, August 4, 2008

As Beijing beckons, a nation of a billion-plus desperately seeks Olympic glory. Sunday Times turns the pages of our sporting history to find a few pioneers who did India proud

Ronojoy Sen | TNN

Besides a string of gold medals in hockey, India’s record in the Olympics has been, to put it mildly, pedestrian. There are a few names that invariably pop up when discussing India at the Olympics — hockey wizard Dhyan Chand, the so-near-yet-so-far experiences of Milkha Singh and P T Usha and the more recent medal winners such as Rajyavardhan Rathore and Leander Paes. But if you rum
mage through India’s dismal history at the Games, there are some remarkable stories that stand out. Of players who excelled on the playing field — and sometimes off it — and are now largely forgotten.
Perhaps the most remarkable of these Olympians is Jaipal Singh, captain of the hockey team that won India its first Olympic gold medal — several years before Independence — in the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics. Born in a remote village in what is now Jharkhand, Jaipal was taken to England by the English principal of his school in Ranchi.
After two terms at a college in Canterbury, Jaipal joined St John’s College, Oxford, where he made a name for himself as an ace defender in the university’s hockey team. When he was chosen to play for India, Jaipal was a probationer in the Indian Civil Service. The decision to captain India, however, meant taking leave from the India Office in London. “I did not get leave! I decided to defy the ruling and take the consequences,” he writes in his autobiography.
The Indian team, which included Dhyan Chand, would go on to win the Olympic gold medal convincingly. But by a twist of fate Jaipal did not play in the final. Dhyan Chand later said, “It is still a mystery to me why Jaipal Singh, after ably captaining us in England, and in two of the three matches in the Olympic Games, suddenly left us. I have
heard many stories, but so far I have not had the truth.” Jaipal himself did not throw any light on his sudden withdrawal. He merely says in his autobiography that on his return to London from the Olympics, Lord Irwin, Viceroy of India, congratulated him personally.
Jaipal’s story does not end there. After the Games, he was told he would have to stay one more year in England because he had taken unauthorised leave. He immediately quit the ICS. After various jobs that took him from Calcutta to Ghana to Bikaner, Jaipal returned to Ranchi. There
he took a decision that changed the trajectory of his life. In 1939, along with a few others he formed the Adivasi Mahasabha which sowed the seeds for a separate Jharkhand. A Constituent Assembly member and a fourtime MP, Jaipal remained till his death in 1970 an eloquent defender of Adivasi rights.
If Jaipal was part of India’s first tryst with hockey glory, there was another athlete — Norman Pritchard — who had already won two medals in the 1900 Paris Games. Born in 1875 in Calcutta to an English couple, he studied in St Xavier’s School. Pritchard
was a name to reckon with in the Calcutta maidan, winning the 100-yard dash for seven consecutive years.
Pritchard’s participation in the Olympics happened almost by chance. During a visit to London in 1900 he took part in and won the London Athletic Club’s Challenge Cup for the 440-yard hurdles. Within a week he was competing against international athletes at the AAA Championship. Pritchard came second in the 120-yard hurdles and was chosen for the Paris Olympics. Pritchard competed in five events and won silver medals in the 200m sprint and 200m hurdles.
There is, however, a dispute over whether Pritchard represented India in Paris. Though the International Olympic Committee credited his medals to India, the athletics statistics book of the 2004 Olympics said he repre
sented Britain. This was after an article had appeared in the Journal of Olympic History arguing that Pritchard had represented Great Britain. As for Pritchard, he returned to Calcutta after the Olympics and served as secretary of the Indian Football Association for two years. Later, he left for America and made a career in Hollywood, starring in silent films under the name of Norman Trevor alongside stars such as Cary Grant, Clara Bow and Ronald Colman. Legend has it that he died penniless in 1929.
There are two sportsmen worth recalling in the years immediately following Independence. In the 1948 London Olympics, a teenage triple jumper from Bangalore, Henry Rebello, was considered a sure medal prospect. With the best jump worldwide in 1948 — 50 feet 2 inches at a national meet in Lucknow — he was the favourite for the event. Rebello followed it with a 52 feet one-and-half-inch
es jump, a few inches short of the world record, a fortnight before the Games. But on D-day, he faltered.
As Rebello has recounted in an interview to sports journalist Gulu Ezekiel, he committed two fateful mistakes that drizzly and cold afternoon in London. One, he did not warm up before his jump; two, he went flat out in his first jump itself. The result was a torn hamstring as Rebello launched into his jump. He landed in a heap in the pit, his medal dreams in tatters. His misfortune was partially rectified by K D Jadhav, who won independent India’s first individual medal in 1952 — a bronze in bantamweight wrestling.
These pioneer Olympians are now mere names in the record books. But for a nation starved of Olympic glory, they serve as reminders of athletic achievement in the face of formidable odds.

Team leader: Jaipal Singh

WIZARDS OF YORE: India’s 1936 Olympic hockey team (Dhyan Chand sitting second from right) poses with well-wishers