Games of Self-Respect: A Colony at the Olympics
India was the first colonized Asian nation to take part in the Olympic Games. Its embrace of the Olympic movement, while still a British colony, was no mere coincidence. It was intricately linked to the forces of nationalism, the politics of self-respect and indeed the inculcation of what has been called the British ‘Games Ethic’ among Indian elites. Colonial India’s early Olympic encounter was born out of a complex interplay of all three factors and it forms a crucial missing link in the story of Indian nationhood. Historians now widely recognize the important role played by sport in the creation of identities and social imaginaries. Indeed it is now widely recognized that Japan, the only Asian country with a longer Olympic history than India’s, embraced Olympism partly because of a deeprooted desire to showcase Japanese modernity after the Meiji Restoration and to take on the ‘West’ on equal terms. Olympism became so important for modern Japanese identity that when Tokyo bid for the 1940 Games, it went so far as to tie its candidature to the celebrations of the ‘2,600th anniversary of the Japanese empire’, pulling out all stops in an aggressive diplomatic campaign that split European nations down the middle.2 Tokyo’s emotional gambit, combined with some smart cultural hardsell, succeeded when Mussolini withdrew Rome’s bid. Though the 1940 Games never took place, the politics of the 1940 Games provide a fascinating study of just how central sport can become for nationalistic identity-making.3 In this context, in India, a number of historians have finely documented how the imperial game of cricket became an arena for colonial Indians to fight for political recognition.4 Yet, despite its great importance, cricket never gave ‘India’—the nation-any significant international triumph until well after independence. It was in Indian hockey, and in the Olympic Games, that the nationalist aspirations of colonial India found full expression. This chapter draws out the pre-history of how this came to be so, of why colonial India embraced the Olympics, and why the still nascent and obscure Games started by a French aristocrat in 1896 became so important for the creation of a nascent Indian identity
The history of Indian sport can only be understood in light of the fact that sport was always inculcated as a crucial binding factor in the British empire. Forged in the 19th century by traders, military officers, missionaries and proponents of ‘muscular Christianity’, the sporting bond was not only maintained and extended by governing circles, but carefully
cultivated among a selective section of the population through informal forms of exchange rather than authoritative imposition. Sport became a source of considerable cultural power, conveying through its different forms a moral and behavioural code-the Games Ethic-to connect and unite the far-flung British territories in Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, North America, Oceania, and of course, the British Isles. The introduction of all organized Western sport in India, from hockey to cricket to soccer, can all be traced to this idea. It took until 1920 for India to participate in the Olympic Games and no formal institutional mechanism for supporting Olympic sport was established in the subcontinent until the early 1920s. But by the mid-1920s, driven by nationalist enterprise and princely patronage, India’s Olympic structure was well in place.