How India gave Asia its Games
By Boria Majumdar, TNN
As the biggest Asiad in history kicks off today in Guangzhou, its evident that the Games are now one of the worlds premier multi-sport spectacles. While the event has come a long way since the first Asiad in Delhi in 1951, its important to recall the central role India played in giving birth to the Games.
Its a legacy integrally linked with Indias independence, the ideas of Nehru and the effort put in by institutions like the Cricket Club of India and the National Sports Club of India, bodies that provided funds for the first Asiad. The contribution of these institutions, besides that of the Indian Army, went a long way in launching the movement. TOI puts together the story of Delhi 1951, the Games that started it all.
As early as 1913, the first miniature 'Olympics' was organized in Asia, the earliest prototype of what later became the Asian Games. It was named the Far-Eastern Championship Games, an exercise limited to Japan, China and the Philippines. Though the idea was mooted by The Philippines, the championships came to be known for the great rivalry sporting between Japan and China.
The games were held more or less regularly till 1934. The next championships were to take place at Osaka, Japan in 1938, but were cancelled following Japan's invasion of China. Japan's subsequent military conquests during the course of World War II killed the games.
The second effort was the more short-lived Western Asiatic Games, largely an exercise by India in concert with its immediate neighbours. Only one championship was held, at the Irwin Amphitheatre, later known as National Stadium in Delhi in 1934. The next event was scheduled to take place four years later in Tel Aviv. However, the clouds of war ensured an early burial to the idea.
While these two championships, especially the Far Eastern Games, can be considered to be the precursors to the Asian Games, the idea of a pan-Asia event really took shape with the process of decolonization. India is central to this story. The Olympic movement had so caught the imagination of sports administrators in India that they played a pioneering role in building the Asian Games movement. It was also intrinsically linked to the larger Indian self-image of being a major Asian power and the Nehruvian idea of India's centrality in a new global order.
The idea of a resurgent India and Nehrus notion of a new world order, decolonized states, led by India, marching forward to take their rightful place, played a crucial role in the birth of the Asiad. At the heart of the story of the Delhi Games was a desire for newly independent India to be noticed, the moment of arrival signified by an international event of Olympian proportions. The symbolism of Delhi being at the centre of a new Asian federation was in tune with the internationalist ideals of Nehruvian India.
Sport was to be a binding force in this new alignment of emerging nations. Writing in 1959, Anthony de Mello, the main organizer of the 1951 Asiad, recounted the opening ceremony in these words, What was the greatest moment in Indian sport? There was never an occasion to beat that of March 4, 1951. On that historic day for the sport of India, indeed for the sport of Asia, even the world, the first Asian Games were opened It was Asia marching ever nearer to the great Olympic ideal of Citius, Altius, Fortius, faster, higher, stronger.
The Games were not put together by Nehrus government. They were created by a loose coalition of sports administrators, the elite and government officials, all contributing what they could, in the service of a common ideal. Sample this note that de Mello wrote to Nehru on the successful conclusion of the Games, The magic is yours (of our supreme captain) and I did my humble bit to make that magic work and be seen by Asia. You have certainly made New Delhi the capital of Asia. The young athletes of Asia have now all returned to their homes and countries. They were magnetized by your interest in them in their village.
The birth of the Asian Games is a fascinating interplay of the progress of Indian nationalism and the countrys ambitions of leadership in the post-colonial world. The idea of the Games itself was born at the Asian Relations Conference held in Delhi on the eve of Indian independence in 1947.
Attended by 21 countries and officially organized by the Indian Council of World Affairs, this conclave of Asian countries had been put together by the personal efforts of prime minister-designate Jawaharlal Nehru as he tried to forge an Asian coalition. Nehru had personally raised funds for this conference. In February 1947, for instance, he wrote to the King of Nepal for assistance; King Tribhuvana responded immediately with a donation of Rs 10,000. It was at this conclave that G D Sondhi, who had organized the Western Asiatic Games, conceived the idea of an Asian Games Federation. He immediately wrote to the Maharaja of Patiala, Yadavindra Singh, who was a sports administrator of repute as well, that they could take advantage of the presence of high-profile international delegates at the conference to build contacts and to push the idea of a pan-Asiatic games.
Singh agreed and Sondhi then circulated a note at the conference explaining the objectives of the proposed federation to many of the delegates. Nehru himself was supportive of the move. Sondhi took the prime minister-designate into confidence while planning his moves and it was Nehrus suggestion to change the name from the Asiatic Games, as originally proposed, to the Asian Games.
With the idea of the Asian Games approved, the gap between idealism and reality hit home. Invitations to other Asian countries went out in July 1948. But soon the organizers understood that the gap between the rhetoric of Asian solidarity and the practical difficulties in achieving such an ideal was huge. In July 1948, most of the countries that had been approached were busy preparing for the London Olympics, also to be held that year.
It was one thing to talk of Asian solidarity at the Asian Relations Conference, quite another to give up the Olympics for it. As an IOA note later explained, the response to the invitations was, to say the least, rather disappointing. But a persistent Sondhi flew to London for the Olympics and used the gathering of international sports officials to try his luck again.
On August 8, 1948, Sondhi managed to convene a meeting of most of the Asian representatives at the Mount Royal Hotel. He invited all the Asian teams in London, and senior officials representing the undivided Korea, China, Philippines, Burma and Ceylon made it to the meeting . Singapore, Lebanon, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Syria stayed away. It was a clear reflection of the political divides within Asia. The managers agreed to form the Asian Games Federation. They also agreed to award Delhi the first Asian Games, originally scheduled for 1950, as well as an invitation athletics meet in February 1949.
Finally, the Games, to be held every four years, were to be a reality. Despite the hurdles, the London meeting was seen by many in Delhi as yet another example of its growing clout in the postcolonial world. As Anthony de Mello noted 10 years later, The fact that these countries were prepared to come to us for so important a meeting was extremely gratifying; India if anyone ever doubted it, was certainly now established in the eyes of the sporting world.
But it was one thing for Nehru and the Congress to support the Games, quite another to pay for it. With India faced with a mass refugee problem, there was little money for a sports event. The government gave no aid at all. The Games was mounted purely through non-governmental money. As the organizers scrambled to arrange the funding, the Games were first postponed from February 1950, to November 1950; and then finally to March 1951. Later chroniclers would wax eloquent about how it was until then the greatest carnival of international sport held in India but few knew how close it came to being abandoned.
Invitations had already been sent out in 1949 but Delhi just wasnt equipped. There was no stadium in Delhi, no cinder track, no equipment, no funds So bad was the situation that the gallant Sondhi decided to quit in helplessness. He resigned from the directorship of the Asiad on April 13, 1950 and it seemed at that time that his decision also signified the end of the Games dream.
Asked to take charge of the Games at the eleventh, Anthony de Mello, a founder member and then president of the Board of Control for Cricket in India, faced a gargantuan task. As he recounted nine years later, It was unprecedented in Olympic and Asiad history that a major sports meet would be staged without government aid of any sort. As a comparative yardstick, the Philippines government spent £1,00,000 on the second Asiad in 1954 at Manila and the Japanese government built a new stadium in Tokyo for the third Asiad in 1956 and gave a grant-inaid of £3,00,000.
De Mello did two things as soon as he took charge. To solve the money crunch, he got his own National Sports Club of India to provide a loan of Rs 1 lakh for the Asiad. Secondly, he managed to get the Cricket Club of India on board and managed to convince the cash rich institution to provide a substantial monetary contribution to the Asian Games fund. This served as the seed money for the Games. Such are the ironies of history that the first Asiad was largely financed by money from two Bombay clubs: one focused only on cricket, which has never featured in the Games till date and will only be making its debut in Guangzhou.
De Mellos second and more interesting move was to form an organizing committee consisting of some of Indias most influential personalities. The composition of de Mellos 18-member organizing committee is revealing. Headed by the Maharaja of Patiala, this committee consisted of five senior Indian Civil Service officers, four royals, the Chief of Army Staff, a major general, industrialist Naval Tata and influential builder Sir Sobha Singh.
The first result of bringing such a group of men together came when Gen K M Cariappa, the Army chief, immediately agreed to solve the problem of building a new Asiad village by lending two Army buildings near the proposed stadium. As de Mello put it, influence, if you like to call it that, brought us the Asiad village for the 1,000 athletes, managers and officials.
The only other direct government support came in the form of exemption of duties on the sports goods of contestants, halfprice railway tickets for their travel and cars for transportation. In the event, the Games was a huge success and has since gone from strength to strength.
Krinvanto Vishwam Aryam
(Make this World Noble)