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How KD Jadhav overcame odds to win India's first individual Olympic medal

A string of adversities meant that the wrester almost missed the 1952 Helsinki Olympics.

How KD Jadhav overcame odds to win Indias first individual Olympic medal

KD Jadhav won a bronze medal at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics. (File photo)


Sudipta Biswas

Published: 24 Jun 2024 8:56 AM GMT

When the first Olympic Games were held in 1896, the most successful athlete was Carl Schuhmann, a German wrestler who incidentally won four events across wrestling and gymnastics.

First introduced in 776 BCE by the ancient Greeks as a form of combat sport, few sporting disciplines have withstood the test of time in the way that wrestling has.

In India, the earliest lineage of the sport can be traced back to 1500 BCE in the sub-continent. With a mention in the Vedas and Indian mythology, wresting has firm roots in the country.

Today, the sport is amongst the most recognizable of sports in the Olympic umbrella. With India winning seven (five bronze and two silver) in the modern Games, wrestling is the country's second biggest contributor of medals at the quadrennial event.

That said, it took a certain Sushil Kumar, who won bronze at the 2008 Beijing Olympics game, to capture the imagination of the country. And by the time he did one better with a silver at the 2012 London Olymypics, the sport had been given a much needed fillip in the country.

While Sushil did pave the way for the rise of wrestling in Haryana and put the sport on top of the pecking order in the country, he was not the pioneer of Indian wrestling.

A village hero

In 1952, at the Helsinki Games in Finland, Khashaba Dadasaheb, better known as K D Jadhav from Maharashtra, won a bronze medal, becoming independent India's first Olympic medallist in an individual sport.

However, unlike today, when Jadhav returned home, there was no fanfare, no media glare, no celebration and no pay-cheque from the government. All the attention was grabbed by the gold medal-winning Indian hockey team, the passion of the nation at the time.

Jadhav, however, was a hero to his fellow villagers. They awaited his arrival with a cavalcade of 100 bullock carts in Satara, where he was born, and he was taken home amid loud cheers and beats of dhols.

Following in his father's footsteps

Born on January 15, 1926, in Satara, Jadhav followed the footsteps of his father Dadasaheb, a wrestler himself.

It was Dadasaheb who spotted his son's talent and started training him from the age of five.

Despite being short in stature and a lithe figure boy, Jadhav managed to get on top of his opponents with his polished skills.

When he competed, local fans gathered in huge numbers to watch him knock down bulky wrestlers almost twice his size.

A student of Kolhapur’s Raja Ram College, Jadhav would soon make a name for himself in the college circuit before making the giant leap at the state and national level competitions.

However, his rise was not a cakewalk. At first, his college game teacher refused to consider him for wrestling, given his short stature.

But Jadhav was a determined bloke, he rushed to the principal and conveyed his grievance. When he was allowed to compete, Jadhav enthralled the crowd as he defeated opponents with ease.

History at Helsinki

Jadhav, trained by former wrestlers Baburao Balawde and Belapuri Guruji, represented India at the 1948 and 1952 Olympics respectively.

At the London Olympics in 1948, Jadhav's campaign ended in the final round because of his unfamiliarity with wrestling on the mat.

Jadhav had prepared for the Olympics wrestling on a mud pit. Despite trading in an uncharted field, Jadhav managed to impress, finishing sixth in freestyle wrestling.

After the setback in London, Jadhav resumed practicing on the mat after returning home and acclimatized to mat wrestling.

But before the 1952 Olympics, Jadhav's biggest obstacle was sourcing money to sponsor his journey to Helsinki.

Driven by the desire to represent India at the Olympics, then 26-year-old Jadhav approached Morarji Desai, then chief minister of Bombay, for monetary aid. However, in a newly independent nation where the sport was considered a luxuary, Jadhav's request met with a cold snub.

Jadhav, however, did not give up. He wrote to the Maharaja of Patiala, Yadavindra Singh, then president of the Indian Olympic Association.

Jadhav's request did not fall on deaf ears. Yadavindra Singh, on being made away of the matter, arranged a wrestling bout with Niranjan Das, who Jadhav duly defeated and secured qualification to the 1952 Olympics.

But his effort to arrange money for the Helsinki trip was still a task at hand. The principal of Raja Ram College was to come to his rescue, mortgaging his own house to raise Rs 7,000 for Jadhav’s trip. Other professors came forward as well.

Once at Helsinki, Jadhav defeated his rivals with ease in the first five rounds of the bantamweight freestyle wrestling category.

In the sixth round, he lost to the Japanese wrestler Shohachi Ishii. Ideally, Jadhav should have got a break half-hour before his next bout against Russia’s Rashid Mammadbeyov.

But Jadhav was not given a break. There were no Indian officials present to protest. Exhausted, he lost to Mammadbeyov and came home with bronze.

Posthumous recognition

Jadhav's quest to compete at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics did not materialise due to an injury.

The medal that he won at the Helsinki Olympics earned him a job with the Bombay Police. He was posted as a sub-inspector and went on to serve the police for nearly 30 years, retiring in 1983 as an assistant commissioner of police in Maharashtra.

But post-retirement, he had to sell off his wife’s jewellery to build a house.

He passed away a year later in a road accident at the age of 58.

While recognition eluded him through his lifetime, a statue still stands in Kolhapur in his honour.

In 2001, independent India's first individual Olympic medalist was conferred with an Arjuna Award posthumously.

In 2010, the central government renamed the wrestling stadium in Indira Gandhi Sports Complex in New Delhi after him. It is now the K D Jadhav Stadium - a testament to that first individual bronze medal.

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