Exclusive Extracts from Olympics: The India Story by Boria Majumdar
and Nalin Mehta
‘Beating Up’ Sohrab Bhoot
Nothing epitomizes the early battles between Indian sport administrators better than the case of Indian cycling in the 1950s. Cycling was a sport at which Indians had shown much promise in the early years. The first Indian cyclist of distinction was Janki Das, who participated in the British Empire Games at Sydney (Australia) in 1938, with Swami Jagan Nath accompanying him as manager. The Cycling Federation of India was formed a year later and in 1940 it was affiliated with the Union Cyclists Internationale (UCI).
The inevitable then happened. A rival body came up when Sohrab H. Bhoot of Bombay formed the National Cyclists’ Federation of India (NCFI). Bhoot had been part of the original team of Dorab Tata that founded the Indian Olympic movement and in 1948 he managed to merge both organizations under the banner of the NCFI.37 The crisis, it seems, had been solved, and in the early years a relatively stable NCFI consistently sent Indians team to international competitions. Indian cycling teams participated in the 1948 London Olympics and the World Cycling Championships at Amsterdam in 1946 and Brussels in 1949.
It is not surprising therefore, that cycling was one of the sports included in the first Asian Games held at the National Stadium in New Delhi in 1951. Bhoot used the opportunity to formally constitute the Asian Cycling federation with himself as its founder president. It is pertinent to note, though, that a number of Indian cyclists performed with distinction at the first Asiad:
1. R.K. Mehra : Silver Medal in 4000 mtr Team Pursuit
2. Madan Mohan : Silver Medal in 4000 mtr Team Pursuit
3. Lhanguard : Silver Medal in 4000 mtr Team Pursuit
4. Gudev Singh : Silver Medal in 4000 mtr Team Pursuit
5. N.C. Bysack : Bronze Medal in 1000 mtr Time Trial
6. Sanwas Shah : 4th Position in 120 miles Road Race
The Asiad, however, did not prove to be the kick-off for Indian cycling that it could have been. Through the 1950s Indian cyclists continued to participate in various international championships and road races40 without much success. The real story of cycling unfolded off the tracks and it was a story that explained much about the failure of Indian sport. By the early 1950s, Bhoot was not only the president of NCFI, but astonishingly also its chairman, honorary secretary and honorary treasurer. No doubt he had many talents but none of them related to running a cycling federation.
‘The attraction of running a sport federation it seems lay in the chance to become the arbiter of foreign tours.’ Complaints flooded in about the ‘dubious methods’ being used by the talented Mr Bhoot in ‘collecting money from Cyclists and Cycling Associations for promised trips abroad’. In 1953, he led an Indian cycling team to Romania that failed miserably: one cyclist was scratched from the sprint event, another finished last in his heat and a third fell off his cycle while negotiating a bend.
The Times of India had no doubts whom to blame. In an acerbic analysis, its correspondent mused that the ‘enterprising and resourceful’ Mr Bhoot (who was untraceable for a few days after the disaster) must have been busy writing a textbook for his ‘proprietary organisation’. He then twisted the blade in, noting that Mr Bhoot’s musings could only be titled: ‘How to Make Cycling Pay in Six Easy Lessons’. The reports did not seem to be without substance.
In 1955, Booth took another team of cyclists to participate in the World Festival of Youth in Warsaw and the World Cycling Championship at Rome and Milan. Poland’s High Committee of Culture issued first class air tickets for the cyclists and also arranged for free board and lodging. Yet, they were ‘required’ to pay Rs 6,000 each to the enterprising Mr Booth before their departure from Bombay.
This was a huge sum in 1955 and the ten ‘chosen’ cyclists finally arrived in London on May 27. Yet, half of them were sent back the very next day ‘as they had no more money’. The others were forced to find work to fund their remaining trip. According to an IOA note to the IOC, the Indian cyclists did find work at the R. Woolfe Rubber Factory at Uxbridge in London. Alone in a foreign land, each of the team members were forced to a pay a further sum of £40 to Mr Booth. Only then could they travel on for the races. Worse was to come in Warsaw. By now, the cyclists were so angry at
Bhoot’s ‘disgraceful behaviour’ that they refused to take part in the races. An unperturbed Bhoot simply exited Warsaw, leaving the team to its own devices. The Poles had already paid for first-class air tickets, which never reached the cyclists. Now the Polish Cyclists’ Federation stepped in to bale out the stranded Indians by paying for new tickets to Vienna and back home.
The Warsaw incident was not an isolated case. In the same year, the chairman of the Warsaw–Berlin–Prague Road Race informed the IOA that all competitors taking part in the race had been given valuable gifts from the organisers. In the case of Indian cyclists, however, the gifts had been ‘appropriated’ by Mr. Bhoot and all protests ‘had been of no avail’.
The IOA’s Bhalindra Singh was unambiguous in his judgment: ‘Mr Bhoot conducted himself in a similar manner regarding the small sums of money given to the competitors in the Road Race as pocket money.’ Not surprisingly, Indian cyclists were so angry that Sohrab Bhoot was actually ‘beaten up’ during the Second Youth Sports Games of 1955. The aggrieved cyclists might have got their own back in that sordid incident but the cause of Indian cycling had been hurt immeasurably by now. As Raja Bhalindra Singh noted, the team, selected not on the basis of ‘cycling ability, but of their financial position’, was an extremely weak one and brought no credit to itself in the Peace Race, did not even enter for the Second Youth Sports Games.
While on this trip, the Indian team also traveled to Italy and once again a
‘regular fight’ broke out between the cyclists and Sohrab Bhoot at a Milan
hotel. Things got so bad that the police had to be called in and the headlines
in the Italian press said it all. Sample some of these: ‘Strange story of
Indian cycling team’; ‘Milan hotel proprietor calls in police’; ‘Indian
cyclists stranded’; ‘Manager vanishes with money’; ‘Disgraceful scene in
Milan’. It couldn’t have got worse for India. No wonder the cyclists had
failed to realise the promise they had shown in the first Asiad.