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India was the first colonised Asian nation to take part in the Olympics, in Antwerp, 1920. As such, the story is worth telling. Sports scholars Boria Majumdar and Nalin Mehta set about the task with impeccable research, in workman-like prose.
The story starts with the early sporting clubs, their role in shaping the Olympics movement in India, and the founding of the Indian Olympic Association. Pioneers like Sir Dorab Tata get a look-in, as do princely intrigue and a conscious attempt at nationalistic identity-making.
Quite fittingly, Indian hockey gets special treatment. The Games from 1924-32 were magical; equally glorious was 1936—held in a nation where only one voice was heard, and only one arm raised—but after much angst at the team’s fallibility. The authors show how decline had set in by the early ’50s, before the blows of astro-turf and new rules.
One of the most satisfying aspects of the book is its emphasis on how sports and politics are braided. Two chapters put Indian Olympism in its post-Independence socio-political and nation-making contexts. The competitive politics of the newly independent nations of Asia unfolded through the Asian Games—itself a part of the Olympics movement. The Delhi Asiad of 1951 is seen through the prism of the Nehruvian idea of India’s centrality in a new world order. Likewise, the 1982 Asiad is mined for the transformative energy it unleashed—the creation of a new national network led to a revolution in advertising, helped create a new consumer class, and built a base for the satellite TV boom.
The statistically inclined ought to be excited by the appendix—a record of all our Olympians and their performances. It’s quite a feat of collation. The authors grapple with a huge cast—players, administrators, patrons—over nine decades. Thematically arranged and cogently argued, their central task of recreating each role is admirable.