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How Sir Dorabji Tata was instrumental in India's entry into the Olympics

The story of the Indian team's participation in the Olympics goes back to the year 1919, when Sir Dorabji Tata, the second chairman of the Tata Group, was chief guest at the Annual Sports Meet of the Deccan Gymkhana at Pune.

In 1920, Sir Dorabji Tata sponsored the first Indian squad for the Antwerp Olympics, even before India had an Olympic Committee (Source: Tata Group/Twitter)

In 1920, Sir Dorabji Tata sponsored the first Indian squad for the Antwerp Olympics, even before India had an Olympic Committee (Source: Tata Group/Twitter)


Harish Bhat

Updated: 26 Jun 2021 7:34 AM GMT

When an Indian wins a medal at the Olympics, we feel as if it is a personal victory; it fills us with pride. How can we forget P.V. Sindhu winning a silver medal at the 2016 Olympics at Rio, or shooter Abhinav Bindra winning gold at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, or, indeed, Mary Kom winning a boxing bronze medal at the London Olympics in 2012? When they stand on the victory podium, I think we stand there with them too.

The story of the Indian team's participation in the Olympics goes back to the year 1919, when Sir Dorabji Tata, the second chairman of the Tata Group, was chief guest at the Annual Sports Meet of the Deccan Gymkhana at Pune. He noticed that most of the athletes at the meet were peasants running barefoot, 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, and he was also known to ride from Mumbai to Kirkee in nine hours flat. Even as he watched these peasant athletes in Pune, 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 the cudgels on behalf of Indian athletics and obtained affiliation for India with the international Olympic body.

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, a committee that he had helped establish selected the team as well.

In 1920, the first-ever Indian team to the Olympics marched proudly into the Antwerp Stadium. The team comprised four athletes and two wrestlers. P.F. Chaugule from Hubli and A. Dattar from Satara both ran the marathon and the 10,000 metre race. K. Kaikadi from Belgaum 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 metre race, was the proud flagbearer who led the Indian team into the stadium. They came from very humble backgrounds, all these men, but they were selected for their natural talent based on previous performances.

As Dorabji Tata 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 it planted the country's flag proudly and firmly at the Games. Thereafter, India has participated in every summer Olympics, without a single break.

Also, very importantly, Dorabji Tata returned from Antwerp with a conviction that the nation had to nurture a culture of sports that could give rise to many Olympians in the future. Using his personal resources, he sent Dr A. Noehren, physical director of the YMCA, out to visit every part of the country and evangelize sports and athletics. Four years later, Dorabji Tata once again bore some of the expenses to send the Indian team to the 1924 Paris Olympics. By now the Olympic spirit had caught on; the national team was funded significantly by various Indian states and consisted of seven competitors.

This pioneering sporting spirit eventually led to the formation of the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) in 1927, with Dorabji Tata as its first president, and Dr Noehren as secretary. The IOA selected India's team for the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics. This time around, the twenty-one-strong 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 its preliminary games, beating Denmark, Belgium, Austria and Switzerland by wide margins. In the finals, in front of a large crowd of 23,400 people, India beat the Netherlands 3-0 to claim its first Olympic gold medal. The legendary Dhyan Chand was the top goal-scorer-he scored fourteen magical goals in that single tournament to stamp his name in gold.

Here was a dramatic and historic moment for our nation. The Indian hockey team had struck gold! This was the start of a string of Olympic gold medals for the Indian men's hockey team. Sir Dorabji Tata's dream to see India stand proud at the Olympics had finally come true. 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. India owes its first team participation in the Olympics and the creation of the Indian Olympic movement to him.

Since then, the Tata 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 fifty-two), including Baldev Singh, Levy Pinto, Charles Borromeo, Bahadur Singh, T.C. Yohannan, Deepika Kumari and Adille Sumariwalla. Each of their stories is inspiring, and they deserve separate chronicles altogether.

But I must end this story with yet another inspiring episode from the year 1947, just after India had won independence. This story is narrated in greater detail in the publication Horizons, conceptualized by Aman Nath for the Tata Group, and I have summarized it here.

Naval Tata (father of Ratan N. Tata), at that time a director of Tata Sons, was, like Sir Dorabji Tata, a sports enthusiast. He was also the president of the Indian Hockey Federation and very keen that the hockey team of newly independent India should participate in the 1948 Olympic Games in London. But it was difficult to raise funds, and time was rapidly running out. He happened to meet Lord Mountbatten in Mumbai, who suggested that Mr Tata raise this matter with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.

Naval Tata was given time at 10 p.m., late one night, to meet Nehru, who was extremely busy in the days post-Independence. The prime minister came into the meeting in a grumpy mood, feeling unhappy that he now had to talk about hockey, of all things, after a long day dealing with various pressing issues of national importance. He asked Tata: "What if we didn't send our team to the meet?"

Naval Tata agreed that sending a team was not essential, but he also added: "Would it not be an irony of fate that, at the very commencement of our national government, we do not send our team to defend our world title, won and retained for nearly twenty-five years during the colonial regime?"

Nehru's attitude transformed quickly. He instantly sanctioned Rs 1 lakh, a relatively large sum at that time, for the team's participation. He also facilitated a sports meet that could raise the rest of the funds required. The Indian hockey team was adequately funded and could go to London. And it won. In 1948, independent India won its first gold medal in hockey at the London Olympics. It went on to break all records by winning gold medals in the next two Olympics as well.

Let us reflect for a moment on India's first-ever Olympic team: Antwerp 1920, more than a century ago. It happened largely because Sir Dorabji Tata married his passion (for sports) to his life's purpose (nation-building). When we combine our passion and our purpose, even we can make magic happen.

This piece is an excerpt from the book #Tatastories: 40 Timeless Tales to Inspire You. The book holds a collection of little-known tales of individuals, events and places from the Tata Group that have shaped the India we live in today. This particular piece belongs to the 23rd chapter - Tata and the Olympics.

About the author
Harish Bhat is currently the brand custodian at Tata Sons, has held many roles in the Tata Group over the past thirty-four years, including as managing director of Tata Global Beverages, and chief operating officer of the watches and jewellery businesses of the Titan Company Ltd.

Harish is an alumnus of BITS Pilani and the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad (IIMA). He won the IIMA gold medal for scholastic excellence, and later the British Chevening Scholarship for young managers. In 2017, he received the Distinguished Alumnus Award from BITS Pilani.

An avid marketer, he has helped create many successful Tata brands. He writes extensively and is a columnist for The Hindu BusinessLine and Mint. In 2019, LinkedIn selected him as one of their top voices in India.

Harish is an incorrigible foodie and fitness freak. His wife, Veena, is a computer professional and data scientist. They have a daughter, Gayatri, who has graduated from college and embarked on her professional career. Harish can be reached at bhatharish@ hotmail.com.

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