India’s Olympic journey
Himmat Singh Gill

Olympics: The India Story
by Boria Majumdar and Nalin Mehta. HarperCollins. Pages 379. Rs 695.

Olympics: The India StoryTHE Indian connection with the Olympics started way back in 1920 at the Antwerp Games, when Sir Dorabji Tata, president of Deccan Gymkhana, sent three runners to the Games at his own expense. This in a way heralded the birth of the Indian adventure with the world Games, which in the years to come saw the Maharajas and other wealthy patrons chip in to make possible the country’s entry to the sporting arena of the comity of world nations which had started to assemble at regular intervals at different locations to test their physical and mental prowess on the sports field.

Working on an IOC scholarship, Majumdar and Mehta have compiled together the story of the Indian involvement in a "global peace movement, often unknowingly passed off as a simple sports competition". Put together to appear along with the Beijing Olympics, there is plenty of hockey, cricket, Asian Games and page after page of database on all those athletes who have represented India in the Olympics. However, somewhere relegated in background is ‘the India story’ which could have been better linked up with all the research in the archives that the authors had laboured on while on their paid assignment.

Essentially, India’s better-known tryst with the Olympics revolves around our once acknowledged mastery in hockey, where the likes of Dhyan Chand, who had joined the Indian Army in the Punjab Regiment, dazzled the world with the hockey stick. The role of the Army in the nurturing and uplift of sport is summed up in Dhyan Chand’s own words, "I do not remember whether I played any hockey worth mentioning before I joined the Army".

In fact, ever since its inception in the early years, the Army Sports Control Board dominated the sports scene and encouraged and assisted in every way the spread of football in the country under the banner of the IFA. The same was true of bringing up cricket where new evidence suggests that the "first Indians who took it up were sepoys of the East India Company", outrunning even the Parsis who have been attributed with the organising of this game during the middle of the 19th century. Milkha Singh, the sprinter who joined the Indian Army later on, and another soldier Makhan Singh and Risaldar Major and Hony Captain the late Parduman Singh who belonged to a famous cavalry regiment and had led the Indian contingent for many a decade, proved that they were all men of steel and determination.

Today, the government, Indian Olympic Association (IOA) and independent sponsors need to come forward in order to compete in the world arena of sporting excellence. As is known, the Olympic Charter governs the working of all Olympic sporting bodies around the world. In our case, it is the IOA which overseas Indian sport and all the federations. The government can only watch from a distance and possibly offer some advice or suggestion, as appeared during the recent removal of a hockey chief, courtesy the IOA.

However, a deeper malaise seems to have set in many sports bodies where only a policy to ensure strict monitoring by government in picking and training the best in us, will have to be strictly enforced. The authors have aptly summed up a few of the ills that trouble our Olympians; "As we have seen, India’s Olympic encounter has been a battleground where an emerging nation’s internal dissensions were given full play: issues of national representation, colonial and post-colonial resistance, women’s empowerment, the north-south divide, sports diffusion, (and) the fight for control of sporting organizations". As the Commonwealth Games draw near our sports bodies and federations which have plenty of autonomy and are often run on auto-pilot, will need to rein in personal ambitions and empire building for the overall good of Indian sport. There is also a need to enhance liberally the nation’s sports budget so that the necessary infrastructure is well in position in time before we can confidently host the international sporting fraternity, as China clearly has shown in the ongoing Olympics.

This is a book about India’s rather poor performance in the Olympics so far and more so in the field of athletics. Errant officials greedy for free official trips, heads of federations mostly from the Police or the IAS often out on an ego trip and team selection politics based on regional bias, have become the bane of Indian sport. Can we rise to the occasion by the time of the next Olympics is the million dollar question, that we will all be faced with soon enough. A readable account which should wake up every Indian with some interest in sports.