[A diffident sort of review I did recently - it wasn't exactly by choice, and I'm not particularly well-read on the subject; think that comes across here]
Anyone who recalls – or has even read about – Indian hockey’s glory years at the Olympics will know what a significant fall from grace it was when the national team failed to qualify for the 2008 Games. The loss to Britain at the qualifiers last year was the latest in a painful series of debacles since the great achievements of 1928-1956 – an era that included an almost unreal period of dominance when Indian sports journalists could complain that a 9-0 margin of victory (against Japan, Berlin 1936) wasn’t emphatic enough, and American newspapers could exult because their team had managed to score a solitary goal against Dhyanchand’s magicians (in a 24-1 defeat at the Los Angeles Games, 1932).
There is, of course, much more to India’s Olympic encounter than hockey, but Boria Majumdar and Nalin Mehta have used the national sport “as the prism/metaphor to analyse the working of sports administrators in India”, and consequently to provide an understanding of why the country’s Olympic history has more troughs than crests. The genesis for Olympics: The India Story was Majumdar’s discovery of the International Olympic Committee’s public archive in Lausanne and, more specifically, thousands of letters and documents exchanged between the IOC and Indian sports administrator over 75 years. These made it possible to stitch together a coherent tale.
As the authors point out, India was the first colonized Asian nation to take part in the Olympics, and from the earliest years this participation was linked to the formation of the country’s nationalist identity: “at a time when nationalist sentiment in India was gaining pace, the Olympics were the only international arena where Indian-ness could be projected on the sporting field”. However, despite the initiative taken by people like Sir Dorab Tata, there were hurdles right from the start. The first few athletes sent to the Games had little idea of the standards expected in professional sport (a member of the Deccan Gymkhana thought that a 100-yard race could take “anything from half a minute to a minute”) or of the controlled conditions under which such an event was conducted. The creation of the Indian Olympic Association in 1927 was an important development, but it was followed by the inevitable politicizing that is so familiar to anyone who knows about the (more high-profile) ills that plagued Indian cricket in the 1920s and 1930s. Regional discord and other factors combined to sully sporting prospects, leading to farcical incidents like the one involving a national cycling squad that found itself stranded in Poland in 1955 due to an administrative mess-up. What successes there were – by the hockey team and by individuals like K D Jadhav – were achieved despite the system. Inevitably, Olympics: The India Story focuses on the behind-the-scenes politics that have left so many sportspersons frustrated over the decades, right to the present day.
The section on the 1982 Asiad Games and their effect on Indian television (not to mention the alarming mushrooming of flyovers in New Delhi) is a minor diversion from the book’s central theme, but it lays the ground for what is to follow: an examination of how the rise of TV as a medium coincided with the growing popularity of cricket in India and the simultaneous waning of the Olympic sports. The case made here is that the people who managed cricket made optimum use of the possibilities of the new medium, whereas “hockey and soccer were left behind because their administrators refused to change and by the time they did, they had missed the bus”. But an implicit question also raised here is: what if, in a media-savvy age, India had lost the 1983 cricket World Cup but won the hockey final against Pakistan in 1982, followed by an Olympic medal in 1984? How different might the modern history of Indian sport have been then?
Though Olympics: The India Story provides no answers to these difficult questions, it efficiently sets out all the facts. Much like Majumdar’s cricket opus Twenty-Two Yards to Freedom, this book is driven by research and has the feel of a lengthy thesis. The chapters are clearly defined, with objectives spelt out at the beginning and summarizing conclusions at the end, and there are plenty of endnotes as well as quotes from news articles and letters culled from the IOC archives. This doesn’t add up to thrilling reading – it’s dry and functional – but it makes for a well-produced, comprehensive reference work. In his Prologue, Majumdar also expresses the hope that this book will be a starting point for further research, and that the new material available will encourage more literature on a sadly neglected subject.