Games of self-respect: A colony at the Olympics

Games of self-respect: A colony at the Olympics

The Indian delegation parades at the opening ceremony of the 1948 London games
Photo: IOC

At the turn of the 19th century, when a Swiss aristocrat named Baron de Coubertin first dreamt up the idea of the modern Olympic Games, it was a Eurocentric enterprise. Only later did it develop a life of its own, and spread to other parts of the globe. India was the first colonised Asian country to take part in the Olympic Games. But its embrace of the Olympic movement, at a time when it was still a British colony, was no mere coincidence. Rather, this move was closely linked to forces of nationalism, the politics of self-respect and indeed the inculcation of the British 'games ethic' among Indian elites. Colonial India's early Olympic encounter was born out of a complex interplay of all three factors, and it forms a crucial missing link in the story of Indian nationhood.

It took until 1920 for India to participate in the Olympic Games, and no formal institutional mechanism for supporting Olympic sport was established in the Subcontinent till early in that decade. But by the mid-1920s, however, driven by nationalist enterprise and princely patronage, India's Olympic structure was well in place. The Indian Olympic Association (IOA) as we know it today was formed in 1927 – the second-oldest national Olympic association in Asia, after Japan's. At a time when nationalist sentiment in India was gaining pace, the Olympics were the only international arena where 'Indian-ness' could be projected on the sporting field. As such, India's participation in the Olympics was an important watershed for the politics of colonialism. Indians participated in the Olympics, on equal terms with the British, at a time when the colony was not even invited to the first British Empire Games, in 1930, for what would later become the Commonwealth Games.

Interestingly, India's embrace of 'Olympism' – defined by the Olympic Charter as, in part, "a philosophy of life, exalting and combining in a balanced whole the qualities of body, will and mind" – during the 1920s was simultaneously accompanied by a powerful push of the Olympic ideal into Latin America and Southeast Asia. In all three cases, the same strategy was followed: the use of the global network of the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA), and the cooption of local elites with enough private resources and European contacts to liaise with the Olympic movement's centre. In a Europe divided by war, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) pushed this expansion as a strategy for survival; in India, the ideal was appropriated by elite nationalists as a new avenue for self-respect, modernity and identity politics in the sporting arena.

From the Gymkhana
To Dorab Tata goes the credit of initiating systematic Olympic activities on Indian soil, in 1920. The son of the pioneering nationalist steel baron Jamsetji Tata, Sir Dorabji (as he came to be known), prior to taking an interest in Olympism, had already played a key role in the establishment of school and college cricket in Bombay during the 1880s.

Dorab Tata's tryst with Olympic sport began when he became president of the Deccan Gymkhana, in Pune. At the first athletic meet the Gymkhana organised, Tata found that the competitors were "all boys of the peasant class working in the fields and living off poor fare", and thus had no idea about European rules or modern training of any kind. On attending a Gymkhana meeting, Tata found that the officials were proposing to run 100-yard heats around a bend without line demarcations. To the peasants, running was running; in order to bring Indian talent in line with Olympic rules, however, it now had to be undertaken under standardised and controlled conditions.

Other popular events at the Gymkhana included a long-distance race of about 25 miles, designated as the marathon. The peasants who participated were used to running without shoes on hard, macadamised or dirt roads. But despite the basic conditions and the athletes' lack of training, the first several men that Tata watched ran the distance in fair time. Indeed, their times "would compare well with the times done in Europe or elsewhere", he noted. In 1919, some of these times were close to those clocked at the Olympics. Impressed, Tata decided to send three of the runners, at his own expense, to the Antwerp Games of 1920. He described his motives in a personal letter to IOC President Count Baillet Latour, in 1929: "I offered to arrange for the sending of three of the best runners to Antwerp to run the Olympic Marathon at the next meeting."

The peasant athletes had little idea of either what was required to participate in the Olympics, or of the standard of performance essential to qualify for any event. Despite their naïveté on the rules of modern sport, Deccan Gymkhana members were certainly fired up by a strong nationalist imagination, and immediately began attempting to raise funds, both to finance a team and to set up an Indian Olympic Association. But their enthusiasm notwithstanding, money from the public at this early stage was not forthcoming. This meant that India's first tryst with international sport came to be financed largely by a combination of money from Tata, sundry princes, some public collections (which increased substantially in later years) and, interestingly, the Indian government.

India's quickly assembled Olympic contingent, however, hardly created an impression at Antwerp – or, by extension, in India. A good barometer of this is the fact that the Olympic Games barely merited a mention in Indian newspapers. When it did, it was only in the nature of one-line news briefs. Moreover, as Dorab Tata recounts, there was plenty of discord among the team members, leading to a series of unpleasant incidents. Tata himself, who was not in good health, only visited Antwerp briefly, to meet with his colleagues at the IOC, though this would prove to be a very important meeting itself. All in all, India's initial foray into Olympic sport had gotten off to a rocky start.

Globalising games
Not overly concerned with the failure at Antwerp, India once again entered a team at the Paris Games of 1924, and this time the nine-member contingent was better organised. If the team for the Antwerp Games was more the result of a locally driven initiative, by this time a truly national effort had developed. For Paris, the Indian team was selected after rigorous screening of athletes at what was called an 'Olympic Games' in Delhi. This was the first 'national' congregation of Indian athletes in any organised form. In the words of A G Noehren, head of the Madras YMCA and secretary of the newly established Indian Olympic Association, the Delhi 'Olympic Games' were a "unique contribution made to the country … and it is fair to state that these have been far more successful, have created a wider interest throughout the country and produced more permanent results than any of us dared to hope for."

Paris was a success. A detailed breakdown of public funding for the Games shows the marked progress that the Olympic idea had made in the public mind by 1924. That Olympic sports were gaining popularity in India is evident from the manifold increase in press coverage between 1920 and 1924. Newspapers across the country carried news of multiple regional 'Olympic Trials' in addition to the 'Olympic Games' in Delhi. This led to a spike in provincial fervour, in addition to the nationalistic sentiments that were on the rise. For instance, the fact that Bengali athletes made the finals in nine events was reported at length in the province; much was also made of the fact that Bengal had beaten Madras, which had six final qualifications, and Punjab, which had made it to the finals in five events.

For the IOC's part, it did everything possible to encourage British India to join the Olympic family. The YMCA's presence did much to boost IOC's confidence. And despite the fact that there was no permanent Indian Olympic institution in either 1920 or 1924, the IOC allowed the Indian delegation to participate in the Games as part of its vision to globalise the movement.

Symbolic force
In those early years, the YMCA provided a vital crutch to the Olympic movement in India. All the while, however, no one knew better than Dorab Tata that the movement itself was still in its infancy in the Subcontinent. Central to the challenge was the problem of creating a national consciousness, in a land divided along the multiple axes of religion, caste and language.

There were two other major problems: lack of stadiums, and the relatively small size of a 'leisured class' that could patronise sport. Local stadiums were particularly important due to the vast nature of the country, which made it difficult if not impossible for the poor and the athletes themselves to travel to meets. As for the second point, Tata stressed that the leisured class in India was much smaller than in Europe; indeed, the majority of Indians still had little leisure time to devote to sport at all. Finally, each province had its own indigenous pastimes, and people were hesitant to take much interest in other events. Dorab Tata was not alone in pressing for the building of stadiums in India. In Bengal too, the Raja of Santosh, Sir Manmatha Nath Roy Chowdhury, emphasised a similar need for a permanent venue for sport in the 1920s.

Despite these shortcomings, in 1927 the Tata-Noehren combination successfully created the Indian Olympic Association, the formation of which was crucial to India's participation at the Amsterdam Games the following year. It was in Amsterdam that India started its two-decade-long uninterrupted reign over the world of hockey, winning its first Olympic gold medal in the process.

~ Boria Majumdar is currently with La Trobe University in Victoria, Australia, and is editor of several sports journals.
~ Nalin Mehta is the author of the recently published India on Television: How satellite news channels have changed the way we think and act (Harper Collins, 2008). He works for UNAIDS in Delhi.

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