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India’s first Olympic swimmer who lived all his life in poverty

India’s first Olympic swimmer who lived all his life in poverty

Abhijit Nair

Updated: 25 Feb 2023 9:08 AM GMT

Born in a small village in Andhra Pradesh, Shamsher Khan was an Indian swimming legend. Despite being the first ever swimmer to represent India at the Olympics, Khan lived most of his live in poverty. The sadder part is that in spite of his tremendous achievements, he never got the deserved recognition – neither from the country nor from the fans.

Khan was recruited in the Indian army as a teenager in the year 1946 and was inducted into Bangalore’s Madras Engineers Group. Though he had learnt swimming earlier with his father at the village pond, it was in the Indian Army that his extraordinary talent was noticed. Khan received formal swimming training in the army and made people sit up and notice him during a swimming tournament in Mysore in 1949.

The period between 1954 to 1956 was the golden time for Khan as he first set a national record for 200m butterfly in 1954. He cameback the following year and swept all the records during the national swimming meet in Bangalore. This performance earned him a place at the Melbourne Olympics in 1956.

Shamsher Khan Shamsher Khan

Such was the government’s ignorance back then that Khan was only provided with the travelling costs and was left to fend on his own for food and other costs. Khan, who at that point earned INR 56 a month, took a loan of INR 300 from the army to meet his costs. This amount was later deducted from his salary, which means that the swimmer paid from his own pocket to represent his country at the Olympics.

This did not deter his performance in the pool any bit, as he went on to finish 5th in the heat of 200m breaststroke and 6th in the heat of 200m butterfly events. This still remains the best show by an Indian swimmer at the Olympics.

Khan couldn’t travel to the next Olympics due to severe financial issues and did not represent the country again. He though was out in the battlefield for India in the wars against China in 1962 and against Pakistan in 1973. He retired from the army in 1973 and went to settle back in his village.

Shamsher with family Shamsher Khan with family

Such was his financial condition and the ignorance of the government towards the country’s brightest star in swimming that, Khan had to run to different government offices for assistance when his home was destroyed in a cyclone in 1990 without any help. What followed was even more terrible as Khan found out that his name was completely missing from the Swimming Federation of India’s (SFI) hall of fame list.

Khan suffered a stroke in 2010 but refused to go to hospital in order to save money for his family. Though he somehow managed to escape without any major issues from the stroke, he suffered yet another stroke in 2017. There was no such escape this time, as Khan passed away in poverty and without any acknowledgment.

While the likes of Milkha Singh and others who played during the same time got their due recognition from the government, Shamsher Khan was blatantly ignored. While Milkha Singh is widely popular amongst fans, Shamsher Khan remains largely unknown. If India are to emerge as a global sporting force, this disparity is what needs to end.

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