Sir Dorabji Tata and the Olympics

Harish Bhat | Updated on August 26, 2020

Passion for sports (Above) Sir Dorabji Tata, former chairman, Tata Group (Below) A view of the 1920 Antwerp Olympics, where India made its debut

As we mark the centenary of the first Indian team at the Olympics, we must remember the man who got us there

When an Indian wins a medal at the Olympics, we get goosebumps, and the entire nation rises in pride. Don’t we remember PV Sindhu winning the silver medal at the 2016 Olympics in Rio, or shooter Abhinav Bindra winning gold at the Beijing Olympics in 2008? When they stand on the victory podium, the nation stands there with them too.

The story of the Indian team’s participation in the Olympics goes back to 1919, when Sir Dorabji Tata, the second chairman of the Tata Group, was Chief Guest at the Annual Sports Meet of the Deccan Gymkhana in Pune. He noticed that most of the athletes at the meet were peasants running bare-footed, but were clocking creditable timings that were close to European standards.

Sir Dorabji, apart from managing the affairs of the Tata Group, was himself a keen athlete and excellent horseman. Even as he watched these peasant athletes, he was filled with a desire to see an Indian team participate in the Olympics. How could India, a proud nation, not field its own team at the largest and most prestigious sporting event in the world?

At his urging, Sir Lloyd George, the Governor of Mumbai, took up cudgels on behalf of Indian athletics, and obtained affiliation for India with the International Olympic body.

India at Antwerp in 1920

Since an official Indian Olympics body did not exist at that time, Sir Dorabji decided to personally finance the first Indian team to the Antwerp Olympics in 1920. In fact, because there was no official body, he also helped establish a committee to select the team.

In 1920, the first-ever Indian team at the Olympics marched proudly into the Antwerp Stadium. The team comprised of four athletes and two wrestlers. PF Chaugle from Hubli and A Dattar from Satara, both ran the marathon and the 10,000-m race. K Kaikadi from Belgaum (now called Belagavi) ran the cross-country race. G Navale from Mumbai and N Shinde from Kolhapur participated in the wrestling events. And Purma Banerjee from Bengal, who ran the 400-m race, was the proud flag bearer who led the Indian team into the stadium. All these men came from peasant backgrounds, but were selected for their natural talent based on previous performances.

As Sir Dorabji later wrote, in a personal letter addressed to the President of the International Olympics Committee, Count Baillet Latour, in 1929 : “I therefore offered to arrange for the sending of three of the best runners to Antwerp to run the Olympic Marathon at the next meeting, when I hoped that with proper training and food under English trainers and coaches, they might do credit to India. This proposal fired the ambition of the nationalist element in the city, to try and send a complete Olympic team.”

This first Indian team did not win any medals at the Olympics, but the team planted the country’s flag proudly and firmly at the Games. Thereafter, India has participated in every Summer Olympics without exception.

Also, very importantly, Sir Dorabji returned from Antwerp with a conviction that the nation had to nurture a culture of sports. Using his personal resources, he sent A Noehren, physical director of the YMCA, to visit every part of the country and evangelise sports. Four years later, Sir Dorabji once again bore some of the expenses of the Indian team for the 1924 Paris Olympics. By now, the Olympic spirit had caught on, and the national team was also funded significantly by various Indian States.

India’s first gold

This pioneering sporting spirit eventually led to the formation of the Indian Olympics Association (IOA) in 1927, with Sir Dorabji as its first President. The IOA selected India’s team to the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics. This time around, the contingent also included a men’s hockey team, championed by the Indian Hockey Federation.

Nine nations competed in hockey, and India was the only non-European team. The Indian team excelled in all its preliminary games. Then, in the finals, India beat Netherlands 3-0, to claim its first ever Olympic gold medal.

Here was a historic moment for our nation. The Indian hockey team had won gold! This was the start of a string of Olympic gold medals for the Indian men’s hockey team. Sir Dorabji’s desire to see India excel at the Olympics had finally come alive. He himself was selected as a member of the International Olympic Committee, yet another proud moment for india. A few years later, in 1932, Sir Dorabji passed away. To him, India owes its first team participation in the Olympics, and the creation of the Indian Olympic movement.

Since then, Tatas’ involvement with the Olympics and sports has come a long way. Over the years, the Tata Group itself has contributed an amazing number of Olympians to the country (more than 52), including Baldev Singh, Levy Pinto, Charles Borromeo, Bahadur Singh, TC Yohannan, Deepika Kumari and Adille Sumariwalla.

Sports Yatras 2020

But for today, August 27, let us reflect on India’s first-ever Olympic team, Antwerp 1920. Today also the marks 161th birth anniversary of Sir Dorabji Tata, the man who made that breakthrough possible, exactly 100 years ago. To mark this centenary, Tata Literature Live!, the literary festival sponsored by the Tata Group, will launch a new online series called Sports Yatras. This digital series of conversations, which is free and open to all, will feature prominent sportspeople and their inspiring achievements.

The inaugural session of Tata Literature Live! Sports Yatras goes live today at 5.30 pm on Youtube. It aptly features Abhinav Bindra, India’s only individual Olympic gold medallist. He will be in conversation with Rohit Brijnath, and with Boria Majumdar, who is curating this series.

The writer is Brand Custodian of Tata Sons and author of Tata Log

Published on August 26, 2020

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