It was a wonder that India managed to field a team for the 1948 Olympics which were held on the conclusion of the World War II and a year after the traumatic partition that threw the sub-continent into a massive turmoil. But a record fourth gold medal brought back smiles on the faces of the people, who were struggling to rebuild their lives in the aftermath of the partition.
The story of the triumph in 1948 has to start from the tragedies of 1947. No one felt it more keenly than Keshav Datt. A Lahore boy, Datt was playing the final of the Inter-provincial Hockey Championship in Bombay for Punjab when the Partition was declared. “My mother sent me word not to return to Lahore. Riots had broken out and they had all fled. But our Muslim teammates assured me that it would be safe,” says Datt.
The Indian Hockey Federation (IHF) with Naval Tata as its president, worked overtime to put together a team that represented a new generation of players, all of whom were set to make their Olympic debut, and some destined for greatness. A suggestion to field a joint India-Pakistan team had no takers and the two countries decided to form separate squads.
The Games Begin
It was the first time India was marching under its own flag at the Olympic Games and for Claudius, the high point of the tour remains the opening ceremony. “As defending champions, we led the Indian squad into the Wembley stadium. With a standing ovation from the crowd of 20,000, I felt as if I was transported to heaven.” This was the first time he sported a turban, in accordance with the dress code. “Our centre-forward Balbir Singh helped me tie it.”
But the soccer turf of Wembley was not suited for hockey. “It had long, thin Australian grass which when rolled became like carpet. It slowed down the game as the ball became heavy,” says Rajput.
Even then, India sailed through the league matches. In the semi-finals, they faced the Netherlands. “Before the match, (Reginald) Rodriques took off Balbir’s shirt and gave it to another centre-forward (Gerald) Glacken. The rule was only those who had taken the field would be eligible for medals and Glacken had not got a game yet,” recalls Claudius. The team spirit was such that there were no hard feelings.
Against a superior opposition, the Indians felt the shortcomings of their style on the rough ground. “They played better than us. We were lucky to win (2-1),” Claudius concedes.
In the other semi-final, Pakistan, with a similar style of play, succumbed to Great Britain. “The unsuitable turf denied the hockey world of what would have been one of the finest finals ever,” rues Datt.
The British knew that the conditions favoured them. The royal box was full in anticipation of another upset. But the change in strategy worked so well that the British were confined to their half. India won 4-0. “We could have scored more if the ground wasn’t so heavy,” Rajput says, smugly.
Hundreds of Britons crowded outside the dressing room to get their autographs. The British captain Norman Borrett told the press: “…I did not think they were going to have such a victory on ground so unsuited to their play. But tonight showed how magnificent they are under any condition.”
Then the historic moment came — the anthem of Independent India played as the Tricolour went up. “Our flag on their soil — what more could we want?” beams Rajput. Datt loved it even more that the medals were handed over (the garlanding had not started. The solid gold pieces had no ribbons) by his Lahore college principal, who was a member of the International Hockey Federation.
Heroes: here and now
Other than the three men and their memories, one solitary gold medal remains in the city of that triumph. It is with Rajput.
Claudius, the most decorated hockey player in history with three golds and a silver, has lost all his golds. “It was all in that glass cabinet. Someone came to polish it and…” he points and sighs. He has heard that an Underground station would be named after him along with other Olympic heroes in London. “I am waiting to see the picture in the paper,” says the 85-year-old who still goes out for cards and drinks on Friday afternoons. His speech slurs but he remains his jovial self.
Datt gave away his medal when Nehru appealed to the nation for help during the Chinese aggression. Both he and Rajput lead solitary lives — Datt in a single-room Bypass apartment in south Calcutta, his teammate in a run-down house off Ripon Street, not far from Claudius’s rented flat. At 85, Datt’s vision has dimmed but Rajput, 83, remains sprightly. “Thanks to my vegetarian diet, I am still the fittest,” he grins.
Ask them about the prospects of the current hockey team — they met the captain Bharat Chetri recently — and they sound pragmatic. London dreams, they know, carry a single dateline: August 1948.