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The class of '48
A first appearance in Olympic football, a nascent Indo-Pak hockey rivalry, tension associated with colonial rule . . . the last London Games were high on drama for sportsmen from a newly independent India.
The year was 1948. Not only were the Olympics being held after a gap of 12 years in a world reeling from the aftershock of World War II, there were a clutch of newly-independent nations taking part in the Games for the first time. Though India had been sending a team to the Olympics from 1924, the Indian contingent for the first time marched as a free nation holding aloft the tricolour in the opening ceremony in 1948 in Wembley Stadium.
The tensions associated with years of colonial rule were, however, very much present. Reporting on the inaugural ceremony, a London eveninger said that during the march-past the Indian flagbearer did not dip his flag in salute to the king. This was hotly disputed by Indian officials who, as reported by The Times of India, said that the flagbearer had to be changed at the last minute and hence forgot to lower his flag. A greater irritant in the eyes of the Indians was the shift in accommodation from the Richmond Park camp, throbbing with hundreds of athletes from different countries, to a forlorn school in the suburbs of London. Though the Indians were unhappy, they maintained a diplomatic silence. However, the controversy burst into the open when the manager of the Indian swimming squad complained later that his team had been "badly upset" by cramped accommodation and training difficulties.
While there was little expectation from the 80-strong Indian contingent, the Indian hockey team, which had won the Olympic gold three times in a row before WWII, was widely tipped to win gold. The team was completely different from the one that had won in the 1936 Berlin Olympics with all the greats from the pre-war era, including Dhyan Chand, having retired. It was captained by Kishen Lal with the brilliant K D Singh "Babu" as vice-captain. For the last time, too, the Anglo-Indians comprised nearly half of the 20-man squad. One of the few surviving members of the 1948 team, four-time Olympian Leslie Claudius, still recalls the excitement of being selected for the London Games. "Though I was selected I was a little doubtful about going to the Games. When we finally left for London I told Pat Jensen (a fellow player from Bengal), 'We are on our way pal. Nobody can stop us now, '" Kolkata-based Claudius says. Later there was some doubt about whether all the players in the squad, irrespective of whether they played a game, would get a medal if India won. Eventually, everybody got a chance to turn out for India and Claudius, who did not play the final, got the first of his four Olympic medals.
Balbir Singh (senior), another surviving member of the team, has written a memoir which vividly narrates the significance of an independent India playing the Olympics as well the nascent rivalry with Pakistan. This was particularly evident for someone like Balbir who used to play for the undivided Punjab team where many of the Pakistani players played earlier. "The Indian and Pakistani teams were billeted at different places. We first met at Wembley Stadium during the ceremonial opening of the games but I was surprised to see that our old friends were deliberately keeping a distance from us. The openness of old was gone, " he recalls.
Though there were predictions of an India-Pakistan final, that was not to be. Britain beat Pakistan in the semi-final to set up a final with India. The stage was now set for India to meet its former imperial master. Oddly enough, though Britain had won the Olympic hockey titles in 1908 and 1920, it did not enter a team ever since India started playing hockey in 1928. Unlike in earlier Olympics, a hockey gold for India wasn't a certainty. The Europeans had improved their game and the Indians weren't accustomed to playing on wet and heavy turf. TOI's Alex Valentine predicted, "The Indians want hot sunshine for the next two days;the British want rain, or at least no heat. "
When the final was held at Wembley Stadium on August 12 before some 10, 000 spectators, neither the persistent wet weather nor a muddy ground could stop the Indian team. As the TOI correspondent reported, despite "the heavy, muddy turf and the light rain" the Indians "outclassed the British team with their superb ball control, accurate passing and intelligent positional play. " Balbir, who scored twice in the final, recounts that Kishan Lal and Babu both played barefoot to tackle the slippery surface with the Indians winning 4-0. In the crowd was the staunch anti-imperialist and close ally of Nehru, V K Krishna Menon, independent India's first high commissioner to Britain, to whom the Indian victory must have seemed especially sweet. He was among those who ran onto the ground to congratulate the Indian team;later he hosted an official reception for the team at India House.
The 1948 Olympics was also the first time that India played football in the Olympics, their first real test on the world football stage. Despite playing barefoot, the Indian team impressed in the only match they played, losing 1-2 to France. The scoreline could have been different if India had not missed two penalties. There was a heavy concentration of players from Bengal in the team including the legendary Sailen Manna, who died earlier this year. The captain of the 1948 team was Talimeran Ao, a Naga footballer who later qualified as a medical doctor. Ahmed Khan, a member of the 1948 football team, recalls that the players cried like children after the loss to France.
While Indians had been playing barefoot for decades, this was the first time that the Indian football team was playing with naked feet in an international tournament. "Without boots we could control the ball much better, " says Khan, who now lives in Bangalore. However, for the rest of the word it was most unusual. And this was evident from the reaction in London and the legends that grew up around the Indian team. Apparently, at a reception in Buckingham Palace, King George VI made Manna roll up his trousers to check if his legs were made of steel. Obviously, India's barefoot footballers had made quite an impression despite getting knocked out in the first round.
The rest of the Olympic contingent, which included athletes, boxers, wrestlers, weightlifters, cyclists and swimmers, had a largely forgettable outing. The notable exception was Henry Rebello, a 19-year-old from Bangalore, who was considered one of the favourites to win a medal in the triple jump. Though Rebello qualified easily for the final of the Olympics, he had to pull out with a torn hamstring having failed to warm up adequately on a drizzly London afternoon.
When the Olympics return to London on July 27 after 64 years, Indian hopes will no longer ride on hockey, athletics or football, where India last qualified for the Olympics in 1960. Instead, the boxers, wrestlers, shooters and archers will bear the burden of the nation's expectations. And when they march out for the opening ceremony, it won't be at Wembley but the brand-new Olympic Park stadium.
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