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Book Review: Repeated heartbreak (8/10/2008)
Repeated heartbreak By Gulu Ezekiel

Olympics: The India Story By Boria Majumdar and Nalin Mehta, Publisher: HarperCollins Pages: 505, Price: Rs 695

A book on the Olympic movement in the Indian context is long overdue and with the Beijing Games round the corner, the timing of this tome could not have been better.

Boria Majumdar, a sports historian and lecturer of international repute, has written extensively on Indian cricket and football. Here he has teamed up with former TV journalist Nalin Mehta to bring together an in-depth study of the origins and progress (or lack thereof) of Olympism in India.

Around the world one sport alone epitomises India and the Olympics, and that is hockey. No wonder, since it is the only discipline that has brought gold for India at the Olympics, a total of eight from 1928 to 1980, plus one silver and two bronze.

That the Indian hockey team has failed to qualify for the Olympics for the first time in 80 years is an indicator of its sharp decline and fall, though many still consider it the national sport.

Naturally, a major portion of the narrative tracks the golden years of Indian hockey. One can only look back with misty-eyed longing at those glory days when the feats of Dhyan Chand (‘The Wizard’), Balbir Singh (sr), Leslie Claudius and others brought great fame and acclaim to India at the Olympics both before and after Independence. It was also a vehicle for nationalism long before the tsunami called cricket swamped all else in its wake.

Much of the hockey narrative is drawn from the autobiographies of Dhyan Chand (Goal) and Balbir (My Golden Hat-trick), both out of print for many years, as is sports pioneer Anthony S de Mello’s book Portrait of Indian Sport, which is quoted from extensively to paint a picture of the inaugural Asian Games held in Delhi in 1951. The story behind the 1982 Asian Games gains in significance, with the Commonwealth Games two years away.

Apart from hockey — and we have failed to reach even the semifinals since 1984 — India’s Olympic history is one of repeated heart-break. Many such hard-luck stories are recounted here, including the two best-known, that of Milkha Singh (400 m, Rome 1960) and P T Usha (400 m hurdles, Los Angeles 1984) with both missing the bronze by a hairsbreadth.

The claim recounted in this book that the top four in Milkha’s race broke the world record is, however, a myth probably perpetuated by the athlete himself. In fact, the first four broke the existing Olympic record, with the winner and runner-up also eclipsing the world record.

The highlight of the book is undoubtedly the story of the birth of the Indian Olympic Association in the 1920s, thanks to the selfless efforts of Sir Dorab J Tata. His treasure trove of correspondence with the International Olympic Committee was unearthed by Majumdar during his research at the IOC Museum in Lausanne, Switzerland, and this discovery has unlocked a past which has been thrillingly brought to life in these pages.

There is also documentary evidence that reveals the bane of Indian sport — officials squabbling for and clinging onto power, their corruption, greed and parochialism which has drained the lifeblood out of our sporting body and which continues unabated till today.

The one jarring note for me personally is the casual manner in which Norman G Pritchard has been dismissed in a few lines. No longer should there be any lingering doubts or misconceptions — Pritchard was born in Calcutta in 1875 of English parents. He lived, studied, worked, trained and competed there till his trip to Paris for the 1900 Olympics in which he won two silver medals in athletics, after which he gained fame in Hollywood.

Despite the recent efforts of British Olympic historians, around the world (and within the IOC too), Pritchard’s medals have long been considered to belong to India and this is where they should stay. That apart, this book is a triumph of Olympic proportions for both the authors and the publisher and is worthy of a gold medal of its own.

Gulu is co-author (with K Arumugam) of Great Indian Olympians. e-mail: Courtesy: New Indian Express

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